The Unproportioned Ego

Yvor Winters, Bidart & Gewanter, Harold Bloom, Emerson Through Stevens to Ammons and Ashbery, Predictable Backlash, White Heterosexual Aristocratic Poets, Elizabeth Bishop, Highways & Freeways, The Confessional Impulse, Mania, Despair, Myth, Caligula, Sonnets, Randall Jarrell, Unkindness, Adrienne Rich, Power

The Unproportioned Ego

Nick Laird
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As Lowell points out in his 1961 review of Yvor Winters’s slim Collected Poems,

Walter Bagehot begins a review of Lord Macaulay’s History of England with this sentence, “This is a marvellous book.”

I want to scrap all my impressions, pro and con, of Yvor Winters’s critical theories, insights, and prejudices, and say that his Collected Poems is a “marvellous book.”

Sometimes a book demands that its review begin like this. Sometimes nothing else will do. Lowell’s own Collected Poems, then, is a marvelous book.

It is daunting to review a book that contains 1,200 pages and nearly the entire creative output of one of the most respected writers of the last century. This book is heavy and hard as a brick—as two bricks, even—and contains poems as densely packed. This, then, amounts to a disclaimer of sorts. It is not possible to do justice to the fairness and scholarship exhibited here by the editors, Frank Bidart, one of Lowell’s former pupils and closest friends, and David Gewanter.

The Collected Poems contains all but one of Lowell’s books: Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), Life Studies (1959), Imitations (1961), For the Union Dead (1964), Near the Ocean (1967), History (1973), For Lizzie and Harriet (1973), The Dolphin (1973), Day by Day (1977), and three poems amassed under the title Last Poems (1977). The missing collection, Notebook, was published in a first edition in May 1969, in a second version in July of that year, and again in a revised third version (featuring more than ninety new poems) in January 1970. Lowell, in a note to the third edition, stated, “I am sorry to ask anyone to buy this poem twice. I couldn’t stop writing, and have handled my published book as if it were a manuscript.” He then went on to carve both History and For Lizzie and Harriet out of Notebook, and Frank Bidart, in choosing to include the two later books at the expense of the earlier, concludes that “Notebook is less ‘well-written,’ perhaps—but, in its free-wheeling catch-as-catch-can improvisations, compelling in an entirely different way from History. Lowell in the end didn’t think of either book as replacing the other, and hoped both would remain in print. When, in his Selected Poems the year before his death, he had to choose which to excerpt, he chose History.”

This book also contains seven appendices which together comprise Land of Unlikeness (1944), Lowell’s first volume of poetry (reworked, this became the Pulitzer-winning Lord Weary’s Castle); translations of Akhmatova and Mandelstam; alternate magazine versions of poems; two sequences from Notebook; uncollected poems; poems in manuscript; and “After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me” (Robert Lowell’s Final Essay on His Work). There is an afterword, On “Confessional Poetry,” by Bidart, then 153 pages of small-print notes, a glossary, a chronology of Lowell’s life, a selected bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index of titles. This is an exhaustive, painstaking record of Lowell’s productivity.

Acres of print already exist about Lowell’s life and work. Readers interested in his life could start with Ian Hamilton’s colossal Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982) or Paul Mariani’s briefer Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994), but those interested in the actual poetry have had to make do with individual volumes (usually hard to come by, aside from Life Studies) and the Selected Poems. With Lowell, of course, the poems themselves are part biography, refracting the changing details of his personal circumstances. The fact that the Collected Poems has appeared—and particularly in this lovingly meticulous edition—more than twenty-five years after Lowell’s death shows the remarkable esteem in which he is held, at least by his publishers and editors.

Lowell’s wider reputation has, since his death in 1977, been subjected to steady erosion. Harold Bloom, though he has edited and introduced a book of critical essays on Lowell and included his poetry in the prescribed reading section of The Western Canon, refers to Lowell as an essentially minor talent. He argues that Lowell “is anything but a permanent poet, that he has been mostly a maker of period-pieces.” The fact that Lowell’s poetry has always demonstrated a clear allegiance to reality—to giving, as he puts it in “Epilogue,” the last poem of his last book, “each figure in the photograph / his living name”—means that Lowell stands outside Bloom’s chosen lineage of philosophically concerned poets descended from Emerson through Stevens to Ammons and Ashbery. Bloom posits the critic as the main player in relation to a text: he believes in strong readers, not writers. Lowell, with his public persona, his public poems, and his public statements, is not in keeping with Bloom’s belief in the eradication of the presence of the writer in a text or in his belief in the necessity of the critic.

Lowell also suffered from having been too successful during his lifetime, and the predictable backlash (every aspiring academic needs someone new to build up and someone old to knock down) wasn’t helped by the fact that the attitudes expressed through his work and his way of life have aged poorly. Lowell has perhaps come to be seen as representative of an old America that was entitled, exclusive, and now dead: he was the white heterosexual aristocratic poet. It has not helped that Lowell’s life contained distasteful and difficult incidents that appear to substantiate the view of his writing as overtly masculine, aggressive, and at odds with modern America. He broke his first wife Jean Stafford’s nose by punching her. He could be brusque, childish, demanding. In a letter to his then-ex-second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, he admitted “Sometimes I think I am the enemy of womankind.” In contrast, a poet like Elizabeth Bishop has come to be viewed as the modest, mild-mannered, undersung lesbian with a slim output but a surer gift (it is true that Lowell wrote so much, too much, that his best work can suffer the fate of being drowned out). Bishop, perhaps, fits better with the image liberal America currently has of itself. The truth, of course, is not this pure or simple. Lowell’s critical evaluation of Bishop often seemed tinged with condescension and shows that he himself underrated her. Though in his review of North & South he stated, “[S]he is one of the best craftsmen alive,” he went on to say that “a few of the shorter poems seem to me quite trivial. On rereading them, one is struck by something a little pert, banal, and overpointed—it is as though they had been simplified for a child” and announced that “[a]bout ten of its thirty poems are failures. Another ten are either unsatisfactory as wholes, or very slight.” He cataloged the remaining poems “in roughly descending order.” Lowell was constantly cataloging art in roughly descending order and obsessively rating other writers. Writing on John Crowe Ransom, he stated, “Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, and John Crowe Ransom were all born between 1875 and 1888. Never before or since have there been so many good poets in America; nor in England—unless we go back more than two hundred and fifty years. Who outranks whom will be

The seesaw of artistic reputation has levelled out for Lowell, and he is now regarded as an essential writer. In great part this is because of his willingness to completely overhaul his style, a chameleon-like, attention-getting quality that ensured his relevance whilst he lived, but which has been viewed by some as modishness, more a concern with being heard and being new than with poetry. This is false. Lowell’s concern, above all else, was poetry.


Lowell was born in 1917 in Boston, the only child of Robert Traill Spence Lowell III, USN, and Charlotte Winslow Lowell. On his father’s side his ancestors included the author Robert Traill Spence Lowell, the poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell, the astronomer Percival Lowell, and Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell. His mother’s ancestors included Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow, Plymouth colony governor Josiah Winslow, and Revolutionary War general John Stark. Lowell attended St. Mark’s School, where he studied under the poet Richard Eberhardt, before moving on to Harvard. In 1937, after falling out with his family over Anne Dick, a girl he wanted to marry (but never did), he left Harvard to study at Kenyon College under John Crowe Ransom. In 1940 he married the writer Jean Stafford and converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1943 he refused military induction (after initially trying to enlist) and served five months in West Street Detention Center in New York and a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. After divorcing Stafford, Lowell married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick in 1949. He was also hospitalized that year for the first time due to mental disturbance—initiating a pattern that would recur throughout his life. Throughout the fifties he taught at various colleges including the University of Iowa (his students included W. D. Snodgrass and Philip Levine) before settling at Boston University, where he remained from 1955 to 1960. His famed poetry class included Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and George Starbuck. Between 1960 and 1970 he kept an apartment in New York and between 1963 and 1977 taught at Harvard. After leaving his third and final wife, Caroline Blackwood, he died in 1977 in a taxi cab in New York, on his way to Hardwick’s apartment. He was clutching a portrait of Blackwood painted by her first husband, Lucian Freud.

Lowell himself was at the top of the literary pile for almost all his career. His first “true” collection, Lord Weary’s Castle, won the 1946 Pulitzer Prize. Assorted fellowships and prizes followed, including the Bollingen Prize for translation (Imitations), the National Book Award (Life Studies), a second Pulitzer (The Dolphin), and the National Book Critics Circle Award (Day by Day). He was the pre-eminent voice, the necessary read, for the fifties and sixties. No poet since Lowell has spoken with such authority for and to America. This has a great deal to do with the fact that the highway Lowell frequented has since split into several freeways whose directions are set by, say, theory or gender or ethnicity, and on which, say, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, and Rita Dove are each traveling.

Lowell famously broke and remade his style not once, but twice. The first collections are taut, rhetorical and underwritten with a highly individual take on Catholicism. Stafford wrote to a friend in February 1941 that Lowell “is becoming a Catholic. A real one with all the trimmings, all the fish on Friday and the observance of fasts and confessions and grace before meals and prayers before bed.” Mariani, in his astute biography, Lost Puritan, points out that Jean was appalled “to hear him talk piously and to see in him none of the common Christian virtues [such] as pity and kindness but only… fire-breathing righteousness.” The poems in Lord Weary’s Castle are baroque, patterned, visionary—impressive, but ultimately chilling.

After the tightly bound rhyme and rhythm of Lord Weary’s Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs, Lowell produced the seemingly looser, seminal Life Studies. He described the process of remaking his style, for the first time, in a symposium on his poem “Skunk Hour”:

I was in San Francisco, the era and setting of Allen Ginsberg and all about, very modest poets were waking up prophets. I became sorely aware of how few poems I had written, and that these few had been finished at the latest three or four years earlier. Their style seemed distant, symbol-ridden, and wilfully difficult. I began to paraphrase my Latin quotations, and to add extra syllables to a line to make it clearer and more colloquial. I felt my old poems hid what they were really about, and many times offered a stiff, humourless and even impenetrable surface… My own poems seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down into the bog and death by their ponderous armour. I was reciting what I no longer felt.

The new unarmored poems became Life Studies, and, along with Snodgrass’s Heart’s Needle (1959), Ginsberg’s Kaddish (1960), and Plath’s Ariel (1965), launched “confessional” poetry. The fact that Bidart feels impelled to write a corrective afterword on confessional poetry, describing how “Lowell’s candor is an illusion created by art,” reveals the banal influence that the confessional impulse, if not rooted in technique and talent, has had on modern poetry. Lowell’s confessionalism launched a thousand bad poems about unhappy childhoods, penned by writers who took poetry to be a form of therapy and who eschewed poetic skill in favor of shocking honesty. A contemporary poet such as Sharon Olds, with her admittedly powerful but, for me, formally and tonally dull poems, is one of the more talented successors to the first generation of confessional poets. With Lowell, however, while it can be argued that his writing sometimes appears to take the form of exorcism, the impulse to write was not, for him, primarily therapeutic. He wrote because he loved literature, and because he couldn’t not, and his subject matter was what concerned him at the time. In a letter to Peter Taylor in 1976 he asked, “Have you ever tried to stop writing? It’s harder than alcohol….” Balanced against his attempt to come to terms with his own situation was his attempt to write well, to find symbols and images adequate to that situation.

After the confessionalism of Life Studies, Lowell produced a book of translations, Imitations, in which he, by his own description, was “reckless with literal meaning, and labored hard to get the tone.” The book was a continuation of Lowell’s “after” poems. Lord Weary’s Castle, for example, contains “War (after Rimbaud),” “The Ghost (after Sextus Propertius),” “The Shako (after Rilke),” and “The Fens (after Cobbett).” A note at the start of that book states, “When I use the word after below the title of a poem, what follows is not a translation but an imitation which should be read as though it were an original English poem.”

His next collection, For the Union Dead, charted a sense of public decline linked to personal anguish and collapse. All through Lowell’s work his own manias and despairs are set within an historical or mythical framework, which lends them the sense that they themselves are history or myth. In his poem “Caligula,” he puns on his own lifelong nickname Cal (which he got at St. Mark’s School and variously ascribed to his resemblance to Caligula or Caliban). Caligula’s face “sneers” at Lowell from a “rusty Roman medal where I see / my lowest depths of possibility.” Simone Weil gnomically wrote of “Obedience to gravity: the greatest sin,” and Lowell would have recognized himself in this description, unable to resist the gravity that left him capable of monstrous deeds, the “lowest depths of possibility.” Discussing his themes, he called himself “a worshipper of myth and monster.” He suffered from bipolar disorder, and most winters would grow agitated before succumbing to a manic episode which would conclude in admission to a hospital. In “Florence” he writes, “Pity the monsters!… My heart bleeds black blood for the monster.” Without indulging a reductionist Freudian reading of his work, it is apparent that his poems create and hold a great deal of oppositional tension. The poem “For the Union Dead” begins

The old South Boston
Aquarium stands

In a Sahara of snow now.

The suggestion of water is undercut by the “Sahara” connotations of dryness and heat. This is swiftly followed by the U-turn of “snow.” It is a visual metaphor—the blankness of the Sahara evoked by the erasing snow—but it is also thematic. The poem insists on its vision of modern America as being, in cultural and political terms, a desert, a dead and sterile union. The movement of connotation is from water to dryness, heat to cold. He does not so much qualify his statements as reverse them, knocking our sense—and our sensory perceptions—back and forth. Lowell is not interested (as, for example, Seamus Heaney is) in the harmony of words in a poem, but rather in the strength of discordance, of forcing re-readings and second thoughts. He took for granted the connection between private and public significance, and his best poems speak so authoritatively because they insist on ordering and reconciling different perspectives. His own two most celebrated public acts were actually refusals to lend his voice: his conscientious objection to the Second World War, and his refusal to attend Lyndon Johnson’s White House Festival of Arts. He had three registers: his own individual voice, the political or social voice, and the voice of myth or history. Lowell’s strength lay in reconciling and layering these contexts, often within a single poem. “For the Union Dead” does just this. Even its title simultaneously contains a political diagnosis of the nation’s condition and an elegy for Colonel Shaw and his black soldiers.

Near the Ocean, published in 1967, was evidence of Lowell’s continued determination to push the conventions and possibilities of the dramatic monologue (Lowell held Eliot’s belief that poetry should be dramatic). Although the book finished with four difficult sonnets, “The Ruins of Time,” neither their form nor their complexity could have prepared the reader for Notebook. Critic Louis Martz circumspectly praised Notebook: “In many ways, this is perhaps Lowell’s richest, as it certainly is his longest volume of poetry, consisting of almost three hundred sonnets!” Disguised in the lazy leap of equating richest to longest, the false excitement of “it certainly is,” and that over-jolly exclamation mark, is a reviewer’s nervous exhaustion. (As mentioned above, the editors have decided to include History—of which Bidart is a co-dedicatee—and For Lizzie and Harriet, instead of Notebook.)

These clotted sonnets, pile-driven by meter but shunning rhyme, were the product of Lowell’s second remaking of his style. Reading through History, one is arrested by occasional snippets of description (a hunter’s moon is “white-faced, predatory”), reported, domestic speech (“You voice your mother’s anxious maternal warnings, / but it’s no use humouring anyone who says / we’ll sleep better under a red counterpane than a green”), and that modernist trope of reworking cliché (“the leopard enters the Ark and keeps his spots,” “Rome, if built at all, must be built in a day,” “the price of slavery is ceaseless vigilance”). The last lines, which Lowell uses as an ordering device, a way of stitching the poem closed with sound, have the rhythmic authority of epigram but tend to foreclose explication. They resound like the famous Lowell lines—“The Lord survives the rainbow of His will”—but resist easy paraphrasing. Sometimes these payoffs don’t push hard enough (“and there is a wisdom that is madness”) and the poems have little to bind them, bar rhythm. There is also a pompous, too-pat ending to a lot of the fourteen-line poems. Lowell’s insistence and obsession with this form doesn’t mean that the poems consist of filler to flesh out the stanza. Rather, the poems read as if bashed and strangled into shape. In their twisted syntax and quick turns they remind one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, where the stanza is a table on which the thought is strapped down. Reading all three books together—History, For Lizzie and Harriet, The Dolphin—there is a sense that the form comes to smother the voice and make it harder for the voice to differentiate its registers.

The stanzas are often too closed to enter, like little locked doors, and ultimately, though a complex attempt at an epic form, History fails because the only thing tying the separate narratives and poems together is the self-characterization of the speaker. And this is not enough to hold our interest. Lowell’s own review of Berryman’s Dream Songs is instructive here: “How often one chafes at the relentless indulgence, and cannot tell the what or why of a passage. And yet one must give in. All is risk and variety here.” Ian Hamilton argues that

The death of Randall Jarrell had removed the one critical voice that Lowell was in fear of—What will Randall think of this? had always been one of his first worries. It is possible that Jarrell might have found most of these new fourteen-liners slack, near-journalistic, or too much like casual diary jottings; they might have seemed to him mumblingly unrhetorical, too self-indulgent.

I suspect Hamilton is right. Reviewing Wallace Stevens’s Transport to Summer in 1947, Lowell wrote, “Underneath their intellectual obscurity and whimsy, their loose structures, their rhetorical and imagistic mannerisms, and their tenuous subject matter, there seems to be something in the poet that protects itself by asserting that it is not making too much of an effort.” The obverse charge could be levelled at History. The poems’ inaccessible obscurity, their ravelled structures and obsessive form all conspire to suggest something in the poet that protects itself by asserting that it is making an enormous, Herculean effort. Lowell’s endless revisions, his Sisyphean toilings, seem to spring from the sense that appearance of struggle was linked to achievement. As he said in the apologetic preface to the third revised version of Notebook, “I couldn’t stop writing.” In History, it is as if the obvious exertion is intended to persuade us of its greatness. Yeats’s prescriptive warning in “Adam’s Curse” is relevant: “A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” History aspires to epic but doesn’t sufficiently humanize or characterize its participants to succeed.

For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin suffer some of the same faults as History, and have others all their own. Lowell was heavily criticised for quoting, verbatim, some of Hardwick’s personal letters to him in the poems. Lowell had left Elizabeth, and his daughter Harriet, for Caroline Blackwood, the muse of The Dolphin (and his final wife). Bishop and Auden, among others, tried to persuade Lowell not to publish poems containing lines from Hardwick’s personal phone calls and letters. Bidart warned Lowell that “the only thing posterity will not forgive you is a bad book,” though Lowell was not, of course, betraying posterity but his wife, family, and friends:

“You left two houses and two
thousand books,

a workbarn by the ocean, and
two slaves

to kneel and wait upon you
hand and foot—

tell us why in the name of
Jesus.” Why

am I clinging here so foolishly

This is immoral, unkind (in the word’s full sense), and by turns self-aggrandizing and self-pitying. It could be argued that Lowell exculpates himself by writing in the book’s last poem, “Dolphin,”

I have sat and listened to too

words of the collaborating muse,

and plotted perhaps too freely
with my life,

not avoiding injury to others,

not avoiding injury to myself—

to ask compassion… this book,
half fiction,

an eelnet made by man for the
eel fighting—


my eyes have seen what my
hand did.

Adrienne Rich’s response is compelling:

I have to say that I think this is bullshit eloquence, a poor excuse for a cruel and shallow book, that it is presumptuous to balance injury done to others with injury done to myself—and that the question remains, after all—to what purpose? The inclusion of the letter poems stands as one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry, one for which I can think of no precedent; and the same unproportioned ego that was capable of this act is damagingly at work in all three of Lowell’s books.

In “The Dolphin” Lowell writes “I soak, / examining and then examining / what I really have against myself.” The problem remains that, for Lowell, poetry was the only forum for all of his ruminations and conclusions. This leads in turn to the opacity and lidded nature of certain private sonnets, and the immorality of others. An inability to draw the line for where life begins and poetry ends is not, of course, unrelated to the reasons that Lowell is a great and frustrating poet. Rich’s mention of the “unproportioned ego” highlights the fact that Lowell’s ambition was matched by his success, and ultimately his ego allowed him to produce books that left the reader out of the equation. It was his ego that allowed him to link public and private so seamlessly. He assumed the importance of local events in a manner that made them important. After reading Life Studies, Bishop famously wrote to Lowell that

I feel I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say—but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of his time fishing… and was as ignorant as sin. It is sad; slightly more interesting than having an uncle practising law in Schenectady maybe, but that’s all. Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And… that it seems significant, illustrative, American, etc., gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation.

What Bishop took to be self-assurance, Rich nailed as self-centredness.

Lowell’s last book, Day by Day, saw the end of his trance-like preoccupation with the fourteen-line stanzas. The poems are pensive, skeletal, and addressed to figures from Lowell’s past like Stafford and Berryman. It is a wonderful collection and signals that Lowell was free of the formal netting that dragged so many of the “sonnet” poems under. In the appendices to the Collected Poems are previously uncollected poems. “Pentecost, 1942” displays a recurring problem with Lowell’s work: the propriety of allusion. Lowell scatters allusions through his work and we gather them up, but occasionally the allusions are either inappropriate or, it seems, inadvertent. “Pentecost 1942” is set among “flying fortresses,” “the fuselage of Mess­erschmitt and Fokker,” and published as one of three “War Sonnets” in 1945, along with “The Soldier” and “Monte Cassino.” The poem states:

The pilot, falling from on high,

Suddenly full of burning,
screams; “A hit.”

Palermo, city where the Arab

The conjunction of someone screaming “a hit,” with the next immediate stress falling on “pal,” and the conjunction of “ab—bla” from “Arab blazed,” suggest Osric in Hamlet, screaming his foppish line, “A hit, a very palpable hit.” “Monte Cassino” goes on to state

“But, my dearest son,

My son,” you whisper, “there’s
no hiding place,

Though in the armor of

The conflation of a son forced to square himself with his filial duty and don the armor of obedience reinforces the backdrop of Hamlet, which serves to distract and undercut the sequence.

Lowell expects a lot of his readers and this makes us edgy. We learn to keep vigilant for his signpostings, and therefore feel misled when his allusions seem inappropriate or unenlightening. However, it is far easier to complain about than to praise a poet such as Lowell. All the praising has been done. And yet, Life Studies chang­ed
me when I read it as a boy—not understanding most of it, but feeling the absolute force and authority of some of the celebrated poems like “Waking in the Blue” andMan and Wife.” So here is a famous, faultless quotation:

Now twelve years later, you turn
your back.

Sleepless, you hold

your pillow to your hollows like
a child;

your old-fashioned tirade—

loving, rapid, merciless—

breaks like the Atlantic Ocean
on my head.

Lowell, unfashionably, wrote about “what happened” and brought his talent to bear on society, on politics, on historical figures, and, especially, on power: how it works, how it hurts. His fidelity to the concerns of society marks him out as an important contemporaneous writer and someone who appears, though wrongly, to lose relevance. Though we sometimes need to wade through the references (and therefore make use of the wonderful annotations in this edition), Lowell is worth struggling to keep up with. This book is essential precisely because it allows readers to apprehend how and why he is a central poet. It provides the necessary framing (political, personal, historical, mythical) for his poems. Lowell, in a 1961 interview in the Paris Review, stated, “All [one’s] poems are in a sense one poem.” All his poems have an unmistakable authority and the ambition of one epic undertaking, and, as he said, “the thread that strings it all together is my autobiography.”

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