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A reflection on Robert Lowell

by C. K. Williams

I no longer love Robert Lowell. I’m sorry. I look at his photos and I’m unmoved; no affection, not even much liking. How strange when this happens. I remember when I fell out of love with Rilke. It was the first time I taught him: this man who nourished his muse on the death of children; this religious imposter, this fake Russian monk, this oversensitive rose. Happily, it only took a few years to recover from my Rilke-repulsion. He came back again, again he was great, again at least in the poems he was noble, again I could untangle the undergrowth of his obsessions and failures to reveal and revel again in his genius, and the person his genius engendered.

They don’t all come back, though. I won’t mention names—that would be petty. Will Lowell? I look at him in his photo again. In bed, propped on an elbow as he writes. A voluptuary in bed, I think, with his books. I don’t quite know why it so irks me. I don’t quite know why I so don’t love him as he writes poems in his bed.

I still love the poems, not all, of course, especially not those endless Notebook sonnets that self-indulge and self-delight to a level nearly of masturbation, but the great masterpieces, and there are more than a few, remain central in my poetry cosmos. His person, though—it must be that, the way he used his person, the way he betrayed his human self, his self with others, even his self in himself. The way he despoiled, the way he made something almost vile and nearly venal of his self-person. A kind of poetry greed: I will devour myself for my poems. I will devour everyone else. . . .

Maybe you shouldn’t have written in bed. Maybe lying in bed is to live still in the nursery, with your panettone mother and bungling slide-rule father. Perhaps all that living in bed exempted you from that edge of being an adult that would have kept you from betraying in your poems those you once loved, even those you loved at the moment you wrote, from betraying even yourself for the sake of the poems. “My mind’s not right.” That poetry greed. That rapacious insatiable greed for more poems. I understand it, I know it too well, why does it so repel me?

Get up! Stand! I want to love you again. The way I love self-stroking Rilke, or vainglorious Yeats, or dark Larkin, despite all. The way I love your poems still.

Am I being ungrateful?

But you knew:

not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself . . .

Forgive me. Come back.


C. K. Williams will publish a book of poems, Writers Writing Dying, and a book of essays, In Time, in the autumn of 2012. (updated 4/2012)

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