This year’s poetry read is Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, which I now realize is just too broad a collection. It’s an astonishing just under 1000 pages worth of poetry, and then a couple of hundred pages of introduction, afterward, notes, and index. There is no way I’m going to cover this, so I’ll just try to find his most well known poems and then randomly peruse some others.
Robert Lowell might just be the most important post WWII American poet in the canon. He is arguably the first poet to write in what is called “Confessional Poetry.” As you can read in the Wikipedia entry, confessional poetry was a movement from the post war through the 1960s where the subject matter were elements of a the author’s life. Now of course poetry had used biographical details before, but what I think made confessional poetry different is the minutia of detail that poet dwells upon. It’s not just a mjaor event that frames a lyric, but a developed composition around an obscure detail that many times the poet doesn’t let the reader in on. It presents a challenge to the reader. There’s a dislocation; you can’t fully grasp what the poet is referring to, and yet the poem is aesthetically whole.
In addition, the lines in confessional poetry are usually matter-of-fact casual, in free verse, and use very little poetical sound effects. It tries to capture a conversational tone, as if a friend is speaking to another, all with the lingo and slang and inside knowledge that is particular to them. When confessional poetry succeeds, it really seems to capture a moment in time like no other poetic form. However, I will say that in my opinion it fails more often than not, mainly because one ultimately says, so what, and given the lack of poetic device, it becomes a “so what” that lacks craft. I will also say that I regard Lowell as the best of the confessional poets. I’ll have more on confessional poetry in subsequent posts, but let’s take a look at a Lowell poem.
But before we do so, I do need to post some biographical information, otherwise one will be completely lost. Let me say up front, I am hardly an expert on Lowell’s biography. I am tempted to pick up a bio on his life (Paul Mariani’s Lost Puritan: Life of Robert Lowell seems like a good one) to help me with his work but I don’t know if I’ll really read it. Here are some of the pertinent facts of his life that infiltrate his poems. He came from a Massachusetts family that traced their roots to the Mayflower on his father’s side and a signer of the Declaration of Independence on his mother’s. He had quite a few distinguished family members (as listed in his Wikipedia entry) in American history. This historical link to his past would be an important element to his poetry, as would the rebellion he would exhibit to his family and to his family’s religion. He came from a Puritanical Calvinism of which he rejected and for a good eight years was a Roman Catholic convert. It’s not clear to me why he left the Catholic Church but it could be related to his several divorces. Still he took his Christianity seriously but he never did accept his parent’s Calvinism. During World War II he was a conscientious objector and was imprisoned, even though his father was naval Commander. He also was a prominent protestor of the Vietnam War. The other important element to his life was that he suffered from mental illness and was frequently institutionalized. So if I were to sum up the elements of his biography that frequent his work, it would be the historicism of his family, his rebellion toward it, American history, his Christianity, especially as an outsider, his objection to war, and his mental health issues.
So let’s look at this poem, “Waking in the Blue” which has its own Wikipedia entry. It’s about waking up on a particular morning while staying at a mental health hospital.
Waking in the Blue
By Robert Lowell
The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the "mentally ill.")
What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale--
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig--
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.
These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.
In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)
After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.
Let’s look at that first stanza. Notice the conversational tone. “B. U.” stands for Boston University, and the night attendant fell asleep on a book titled The Meaning of Meaning, a complicated philosophic book of epistemology, which I think in the context of a “house for the ‘mentally ill’” is meant to be ironic. I’m not exactly sure if the window is actually tinted blue and creates a blue hue from the outside light or Lowell is suggesting the morning light entering the room has a blue hue, but the blueness is critical to the poem. It creates a tone suggesting a Picasso painting from his “blue” period.
The poem has the feel of a Picasso painting in that everyone—everyone except perhaps the young night attendant who is the only one in the poem not mentally ill—is askew, a delineation of fragmented faces. There are three specific mentally ill characters in the poem: Stanley, the “once all-American fullback” taking a bath, Bobbie who is swashbuckling naked, and the narrator, who is clearly Lowell. There are also the “Roman Catholic attendants”—it must be a Catholic hospital and the “pinched, indigenous faces” of the other patients. Both Stanley and Bobbie are much older, and poem’s climax is when Lowell standing in front of the mirror shaving sees his “shaky future grow familiar” in the lives of the other mentally ill. The theme of the poem can be seen in the isolated line, “These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.” Age plays an important role in this poem. The poem starts with a young man, who is rather nimble (he “catwalks” down the hall), then transitions to two “ossified” old men and concludes with a middle age man who looks into his future. Weight and eating play an important role as well. Stanley is obsessed with his once perfect physique, Bobbie is “roly-poly” fat, and Lowell is getting fat. Sharp objects are also a motif; the metaphoric harpoon that was threatening Lowell’s heart in the first stanza, the imaginary sword of the swashbuckling Bobbie, and the shaving razor on which the poem concludes.
That last sentence is rather pregnant with meaning: “We are all old-timers,/each of us holds a locked razor.” Is Lowell referring to a sort of dueling razor fight with that last sentence? If so, that would seem to come out of nowhere. Or is he suggesting a sort of suicidal cutting of the wrists? Or something else? I don’t really know, but it does provide the poem with a sort of closing coda. I consider this is a really fine poem that stretches the emotional range from melancholy to humor (“There are no Mayflower/screwballs in the Catholic Church” – a dig at his parents) to contemplative despondency.