by Tom Sleigh
When I first read Robert Lowell, I had never heard of Robert Lowell. I mean the public figure, the Lowell of Mailer’s Armies of the Night, the Lowell of controversy who went to jail as a C.O., the Lowell that some reviewers and academic critics love to hate, the Lowell that eludes many younger poets because all they know about him is that he’s the anti-Ashbery, the anti-O’Hara, the anti-identity-politics poet who lived on a trust fund. All of these images are both right and wrong, they are both in focus and out, they elide issues that shouldn’t be elided, though it’s no crime if they are—issues of aesthetics, of audience, of what the writer owes himself and what he owes to his readers (not much! these days). But these issues are elided because it takes too much time spent reading to form a judgment, as opposed to an opinion. As Lowell’s friend and sometimes amanuensis, Frank Bidart, once said, “We live in a hell of opinions.” A recent example would be the dustup between Helen Vendler and Rita Dove about Dove’s anthology—a moment of uncertainty, of anxiety, of outrage and accusation, of justified outrage, of self-justifying accusations both on and off the mark, of a charge of racism and elitism against a charge of slackness, of permission versus rigor, of not knowing what to think and feel, or knowing fiercely what to think and feel, in a world of art where Warhol’s dictum morphed from “everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” to Momus’s “everyone will be famous for fifteen people” to my not-quite synthesis, everyone will have fifteen fans for fifteen minutes.
And for about fifteen minutes, the controversy felt like what I imagine the pre-Warhol days must have felt like, but undoubtedly didn’t . . . everything sliding this way and that, but the frame still in place—the frame of cultural significance, literary significance, whatever the publisher’s notion about selling textbooks. But do we need a canon to enshrine Lowell, or any poet? Do we need commentators arguing about the canon? Is a canon anything but a mirage rearing up from a desert of argument? Or is it simply a convenience, a faster and easier way to have an opinion? And by the same token, there’s Lowell, lying on his work bed or staring at something on the floor, his eyes narrowed, looking a little lost or confused, though perhaps meditating “on the true and insignificant”—does this Lowell need to be Lowell-ized? Does he need to be Ashbery-ized or O’Hara-ized or Gwendolyn Brooks-ized to make him palatable to readers who like to think that the structures of consciousness and the structures of art are one and the same? Because Lowell is already O’Hara-like: if you look at the intimate history that both Lowell and O’Hara lived out in their poems, if you look at the odd Ashbery-like displacements of language that Lowell came to in his sonnet period and in Day by Day, his last great book, the camp mentality evaporates, and Lowell and the New York School, as it’s still called (why?—because they happened to live in New York?—for that matter, so did Lowell), lose their antagonistic appeal. And if you read Near the Ocean, he and Brooks have linked arms, regardless of what either one’s detractors say, or what they themselves might have said.
So—if you start from this place of differential differences, not absolute ones, and if you grew up for a while in a tiny town in Texarkana, where for part of the year you lived in a trailer caravan knocking around the Southwest so that your dad could string signal wire for the Southern Pacific Railroad; and if you then moved to Utah, not knowing you weren’t working class because everyone in town was working class, that is, until your late teens when your parents worked their way into the middle class; if you start from places like that, what some would call cultural backwaters, but what I’ve come to think of, with Wordsworth, as a “Fair seed-time” for “my soul”; you would, like me, know nothing about Lowell, other than he’d written a book called The Dolphin.
As I turned the pages, I gathered that it was about a couple, a divorce, a remarriage, the birth of a child, the remarriage maybe coming apart and the old marriage maybe coming back together: something like that, though the intentions weren’t entirely clear. In fact, nothing was certain beyond the fact that there were two main voices—sort of . . . at first I thought the wife’s voice was really a recondite part of the poet’s psyche speaking back to him . . . but no, that wasn’t quite right, though it wasn’t entirely wrong . . . At any rate, what I was reading was a book of poems, and whoever the characters were, were for me just that: characters. It wasn’t until I read Bishop’s famous letter to Lowell about the spiritual damage he would do to himself and his family by mixing fact and fiction, by being less than “a gentleman”—Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ideal of how a person should act, regardless of what they call themselves or how they think the world sees them—that I realized how controversial The Dolphin was: in a certain world, at least. In a world of literary gossip. In a world my class background would never have exposed me to. In a world that, frankly, when you read Lowell’s letters, seems as remote as the Jurassic age: or even more remote—velociraptors chasing down prey in Jurassic Parkhold more iconic charge than the photos of writers linking arms at various writing conferences . . . though velociraptors and writers no doubt share, way down the evolutionary line, some of the same genetic traits: cunning, teeth, the desire to turn politics into a matter of schools, of enforcing some aesthetic party line that is about as subtle as listening to two old, hard-line Stalinists argue about ideological purity.
But who cares for purity? Even Stalinists get divorced. For me, the words on the page partook of human flaws and passions, even as, inside my head, they were also something else: I never thought of it as autobiography because I didn’t know, and could have cared less, about the Lowells of Boston—though if there had been Lowells in Brigham City, Utah, or Mt. Pleasant, Texas, then I might have pricked up my ears. As it was—and still is—I thought of the page as the place where Lowell’s genius for language was being sieved through autobiography . . . a quasi-fictionalized autobiography, I’d later learn: You can say anything in a poem, provided you can place it right . . . I want to give the reader the sense that they’re getting the “real” Robert Lowell. As the sequence unfolded, I thought of it as a world of sad compromises and class prejudices brilliantly laid out, of alibis and double binds, and a kind of generative hopelessness—if you haven’t been divorced, you may not know what I mean, but think of it as the law of unintended consequences: in despair you act to try to get out of despair and that only worsens the despair . . . at least for a time . . . if you’re lucky. Or lucky enough to die in the back of a taxicab, while a portrait of your third wife whom you’ve just separated from, so that you can try reconciling with your second, rests on the seat beside you . . .
And yes, how easily I fall into the trap I seem to be shying away from, mixing up the life with the work. But that’s why Lowell is so powerful in my imagination: he kept the boundaries between life and art messy. It’s a mess that as I get older I value inordinately, a mess that piles up and up until you’re buried in it up to your neck: They say I’m this and I’m this but why don’t they say what I want them to say—that I’m heartbreaking?
Tom Sleigh is the author of eight books of poetry, including Army Cats and Space Walk, which won the Kingsley Tufts Award. (updated 4/2012)