Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Poem: Robert Lowell

Another poet we'll be looking at next week is Robert Lowell (1917-1977). When I was in junior high and high school in the 1980s, Lowell was still considered one of the most important poets of the era, though I'm not so sure that's the case these days; his presence and influence, as a versifier, as a teacher and mentor, and as a public poet and figure, were all still fresh, and his linguistic and lyric fluency, his personal and public aesthetic transformations, his larger-than-life personae and voice were all invoked by my teachers as models of what an American poet might be.

We read "For the Union Dead," of course, one of his greatest poems, and "Skunk Hour," and a a number of his other poems, and we talked about "confessional poetry," which was then somehow still controversial, rather than normative and passé--does anyone even blink an eye these days when poets put all their business on the page or screen, and thus in the (virtual) street?--though Lowell had been angling at confessionalism from the very beginning, with his family, one of the most prominent in New England and 19th century America, as his starting point. By the 1990s, though, Lowell's multiple marriages and lifelong nuttiness were the story, rather than the poetry. I sometimes wonder if he's taught or discussed as he once was. (When I suggested adding him to my syllabus, one friend, a scholar, seemed a bit chary.) One of my senior colleagues did tell me that in a graduate course on 19th and 20th century American poetry she recently taught, Lowell (like Gwendolyn Brooks and Elizabeth Bishop) was one of the post-WW II poets she looked at (the others were Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery); is this the case elsewhere?

One of the poems we'll be looking at is one of my favorites by Lowell, from Life Studies, which captures his voice public stance and voice so perfectly, "Memories of West Street and Lepke." The poem recounts his reflection, from the vantage point of the 1950s in Boston, of the year he spent as a conscientious objector in a New York jail. Every beat and every image in the poem carries the charge of irony, of the deflation of middle age and unsettled retrospection that would blossom some years later in the even more candid lyrics of The Dolphin and similar books. (Of course there were certain things he would never confess, such as the fact that one of his most outrageous episodes of madness, at Yaddo, might have been provoked in part by his sleeping with a notable Black Chicago painter, Charles Sebree.)

I also think of Lowell's letters to Elizabeth Bishop (tomorrow!), which I taught several years ago in another class, and how dismissive and horrified he was of the "passionate" young poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, who paid a visit to his Boston home--they were, in their teeming filthiness and enthusiasm a bit much, a connection that could not fully occur, for the always-to-the-end haut bourgeois Brahmin. Now, the poem:

Memories of West Street and Lepke

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear.

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections....

Copyright © Robert Lowell, 1959. All rights reserved.

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