|Robert Lowell by James Loucks|
Robert Lowell at 100: why his poetry has never been more relevant
Lowell’s confessional work of the 1960s marked a sea change in American letters – then he fell out of favour. But on the eve of his centenary, his work offers an urgent political message in a time of Trump
Wednesday 1 March 2017 11.23 GMT
was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House,” wrote the poet Robert Lowell, “and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March, 1917.” With his aristocratic background – all the inherited furniture and ancestral portraits surrounding him as a child, as he recalled in the memoir 91 Revere Street – perhaps it’s no surprise, reading Lowell 100 years after his birth, that he was often preoccupied with the passing of time. “Thirty-one / Nothing done,” he writes in 1948. A decade later: “These are the tranquillized Fifties, / and I am forty.” In the elegiac Grandparents, he stands over his late grandfather’s billiards table and contemplates his own “life-lease”.
Lowell is best known for his fourth collection, Life Studies (1959). He abandoned the tight metrical forms of his earlier work for free verse, helping him articulate his experiences and the turbulence of postwar America. Radiant and unsettling, Lowell examines his parents’ unhappy marriage, his responses to their deaths and his bouts of manic depression, in a pioneering style of confessional writing (“the C-word,” as Michael Hofmann put it). His psychological insights are as sharp as the “locked razor” of Waking in the Blue; in the magnificent Skunk Hour, his clarity pierces the night: “My mind’s not right.”
In an age when we narrate our lives online, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary Lowell’s candour seemed to his contemporaries. Not that the poems are unmediated or spontaneous: he was a rigorous rewriter, who altered facts where it suited him and whose finished poems rarely contained a line of his first drafts. But Life Studies opened up new possibilities for poetic subject matter and made Lowell, along with his friends John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, one of the most influential poets of the mid-20th century. Sylvia Plath, who was taught by Lowell at Boston University, hailed his “intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which … has been partly taboo”.
Lowell continued to make art from life. The title poem of his collection For the Union Dead (1964) combines American social change with personal loss. In 1973, he controversially deployed letters from his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, in The Dolphin. Fellow poet Bishop considered this move crass and unethical, telling him: “Art just isn’t worth that much.”
Today, Bishop’s popularity is soaring while Lowell’s has waned. Seamus Heaney once attributed this to Lowell’s background and the “orchestral crash” of his verse: “Lowell was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, a Eurocentric, egotistical sublime, writing as if he intended to be heard in a high wind.” It’s not always easy to feel sympathy for an artist with a trust fund and whose family have their own graveyard. But Lowell knew he was privileged, and the beauty and specificity with which he describes his world creates space for the reader to reflect on their own experience. His writing may even have subtle political messages for our times; the poet Claudia Rankine, who cites Life Studies as an influence on her groundbreaking 2015 work Citizen: An American Lyric, sees in Lowell’s book “a struggle with … the construction of whiteness”.
Grand, intimate, eccentric, funny, disturbing – the voice of Lowell, who died in 1977, is distinctly American. Perhaps as you’d expect of somebody who had an ancestor on the Mayflower and was a friend of Jackie Kennedy. Nevertheless, Lowell was consistently at odds with the US government, serving jail time as a conscientious objector during the second world war, rejecting an invitation to the White House in 1965 to protest Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy, speaking at the March on the Pentagon in 1967.
This January, while watching Donald Trump’s inauguration I switched off the TV and reached for Lowell’s sonnet Inauguration Day: January 1953, which distils an atmosphere of disaffection in New York as a new era of old mistakes begins in Washington under President Eisenhower: “The Republic summons Ike / the mausoleum in her heart.” In his centenary year, it seems Lowell still speaks to us – with renewed urgency.