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The razor's edge

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MICHAEL KLIMES

One of Lowell's achievements was that he fused personal and public history into one cohesive format.

Collected Poems, Robert Lowell, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, Faber and Faber, price not stated. The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now...
Robert Lowell,
'For the Union Dead'
THIS has to be one of the most innovative and exceptional beginnings to any piece of verse in the entire 20th Century canon. Playing sand against snow is stunningly beautiful yet bizarre. The aquarium is being destroyed and we soon realise Lowell had a connection to it when his 'nose crawled like a snail on the glass'. We get an impression from this line that his personal history is being intruded upon and the poem is in many ways about how important history is disregarded by the uninterested masses. Many citizens who grow up in historical places are blind to the currents and ghosts that make up their intimate surroundings but Lowell was not like that. One of his crowning achievements was that he fused personal and public history into one cohesive format. His range was astonishing, the style sophisticated and groundbreaking, generating raw emotional power. Lowell is credited with establishing what is called 'confessional poetry', poetry having a highly autobiographical subject matter, a fairly robust 'free' form and technique and written with an almost painful honesty. Lowell's universally regarded masterpiece, Life Studies (1959) inaugurated this new form of poetry. He had already won the Pulitzer Prize at only 30 for his debut, Lord Weary's Castle (1946) and drew on his rich family history as he came from one of the longest standing families in the United States. Two of his relatives had been poets themselves.

Influential volume

Life Studies had an immediate impact; Sylvia Plath was heavily influenced (she was taught by Lowell) and her classic poetry collection, Ariel (1965) is a testimony to her former mentor's influence. Sadly, Plath, like Lowell, had a panache for the volatile. He was a heavy drinker, married three times and suffered from severe manic depression (he was hospitalised countless times). His life was a constant rebounding between the 'sane' and 'insane' periods. One of the best poems in Life Studies is 'Waking in the Blue', where Lowell gives a heart-wrenching account of his mental illness with the concluding lines, 'We are all old-timers/ each of us holds a locked razor.' When the 1960s began, he seemed to be entering his finest period as poet. In 1964 he released For The Union Dead that measured up to his previous collection, maybe even surpassing it. Lowell was also active in politics and had a definite sense, at least in his mind, about how the potentially tricky relationship between artist and society should be conducted. He once remarked, 'Every serious artist knows that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making public comments.' His actions reflected a commitment to his comments as he publicly opposed the Vietnam War by writing a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson, refusing to attend the White House Festival of Arts in 1965. Similarly, he joined with another highly significant man of letters, Norman Mailer, in the marches of 1967 in Washington in protest over the same issue. Mailer mentions Lowell in his Pulitzer Prize winner, Armies of the Night (1968), hailing him as America's greatest living poet.The last of his truly great poems for a long time, 'Waking Early Sunday Morning', from Near The Ocean (1967), dealt with his personal demons but also the fallout of the Vietnam War. However, this collection was definitely weaker compared to Life Studies and For The Union Dead.

Slide to mediocrity

For all the ups in life, there are downs as well. Artists who enter their primes like sportsmen can be rapidly forgotten as soon as their form starts to wilt. Unfortunately, as good as Lowell was, he veered towards the precipice of mediocrity as his next three collections adopted a highly personalised version of the sonnet form. History, For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin consisted of sonnets entirely. History was particularly voluminous and it is hard to see what Lowell was trying to achieve. His earlier works use references and allusions to religion fused with his rich family history. The confessional stage is an autobiographical catharsis but the third is difficult to define; Lowell's subject matter is vast with sonnets on other literary contemporaries, Greek myth, Roman history, himself, family and just about anything. Some of them are awful and Lowell seemed to be trying too hard. This is a crucial point in understanding the man.Lowell lived to write and his output was prolific to say the least. He was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer for his final collection, Day By Day that left the sonnet form and adopted the freer style again. His last poem, 'Epilogue' captures the reason for his tragic death from a heart attack in a New York taxi-cab in 1977: 'Those blessed structures, plot and rhyme-/ why are they no help to me now.'

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