Saturday, August 8, 2009

TC: Poetic Encounters



When Robert Lowell's Life Studies came out in 1959 it became for me not so much the occasion of a life study (I was too young for that)
as a growth-stunting life-changer. I bent myself out of shape ransacking every nook and cranny of my limited personal experiential materium for sources of jagged discomfort to inflate along Lowellian lines, and ambled slowly past the house where old man Hemingway (Ernie's dad) had committed suicide, reciting to myself in my tender unformed mind Lowell's poem about his dad's deathbed bathos. "I don't feel so good," was not that the classic anticlimax of all time?

Hung with him as a faithful follower through Imitations. Baudelaire, Montale, Rimbaud, Pasternak Heine, who didn't sound exactly like Lowell in Lowell's brilliant waspish hands? Fell away sometime around For the Union Dead...


Happened at the height of my Lowell devotion to encounter Robert Frost, who told of a recent meeting with Cal. Keep in mind to RF Lowell appeared a part of a Yankee lineage that involved a burden and a responsibility. RF did not believe that In dreams begin responsibilities, he saw it 'tother way round. If that.

The snowy haired elder spoke with great disgust. "I saw Cal last week. Awfully drunk, hmm. He was lying on his back on the floor weeping, talking about his stigmata. Balderdash! I told him to get up and he did. And he grabbed my necktie and pinned me against the wall and said, 'Who's a better poet, Dick Wilbur or me?!'"

RF asked me what poet interested me. I said Pound. He said, "I'll bet you can't tell me one line he ever wrote!"

I said The apparition of these faces in the crowd, petals on a wet black bough. (Two for the price of one.)

The crusty old coot exploded, "Haarumph!"

File:Ezra Pound 1945 May 26 mug shot.jpg

He then said, "When I went to London Ezra Pound was sitting in his bathtub. All the Americans who had just got off the boat from home, they were all sitting in a circle around the bathtub. Ezra would dictate their poems to them. Hah! That's what they called Imagism!"

Robert Frost
: U.S. stamp, issued 26 March 1974
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV: photo from Harvard Square Library
Ezra Pound
: mug shot taken by U.S. armed forces in Italy, 26 May, 1945


Delia Psyche said...

I wonder if Pound asked Frost to stop blocking the sun.

I'd heard that fascinating story about Lowell's fear of the Wilbur force, Tom. Did I read it in a prose piece by you? Or was it in Ian Hamilton's biography? Or maybe Hamilton drew on your experience...

Elmo St. Rose said...

the Frost had the common sense
which is not so common

saw Lowell read at Goucher College
then afterwards talked with Eve
who understood his waspish burdens

her family having had oppressed Hawaians
over pineapples

Anonymous said...

I do not know much about Frost but my American Literature teacher at university was kind of in love with Ezra. Undoubtedly, he was an outstanding figure and he had something to say about all the writers of his time. said...

The Annals #307

“You never talk about anything anymore but Robert Lowell!” -- FO’H to BB, circa 1964

Scene: Marlborough-Gerson Gallery opening of Sidney Nolan paintings, New York, 1967
Dramatis Personae: Robert Lowell, John Ashbery, BB

RL to JA & BB [glumly]: “We don’t see one another here [meaning, presumably NYC]. Who do you two see?

JA & BB [in unison, each pointing bemusedly at the other]: Him!

RL: Oh, I see............

Exeunt omnes

TC said...

Bill's little play reminds us that when not manic Cal was a bit of a sad sack; still, one also recalls his conscientious objection, and with some sympathy imagines his poor paranoid soul wandering among the shades, seeing the the shadow that has passed over his fame, as though that weren't always the way of things.

David, Wilbur was plainly a far suaver character but my experience has been that whether suave or manic, factors of rivalry and envy and jealousy have pretty much always been rife among poets;
in the incident with Frost Lowell was just acting out the lunatic competitivness others would suppress--or perhaps repress. All a matter of poets having too high opinions of themselves and too much much idle time on their hands, in my humble view.

Elmo, I think it was the common sense of a shrewd and crafty man who had little warmth. But to give credit where due, I several times heard him read his poems--or rather, say, or sing them, since he literally knew them all by heart, so with the shorter ones didn't bother with a text at all. I remember his half-chanting "Never again would birdsong be the same/And to do that to birds was why she came". The neat musical reductiveness of that did appeal to me at the time, in fact I know the poem by heart even now, though I don't know where I put my glasses down five minutes ago.

Lucy, Pound's poetry is worth the blind love some people have for it. I myself was swept away at an early age and never quite got over it. I sought him out once, toiling up a winding path to in a castle atop a mountain in the Tyrol, to tell him
how much his poems meant to me.

He wasn't home, but for a startled moment I mistook the leonine features of his daughter, who stuck her head out of a casement to say her father was off in Venice, for his--her strong face much as his had looked in photos from the 1920s.

Anonymous said...

What an exciting experience! I can only imagine your heart pounding at the very moment you came to his house.

Curtis Faville said...

I remember reading Lord Weary's Castle in high school and being swept up in its overpowering rhetoric and violence. I couldn't imagine writing like that, or having anything sufficiently compelling to justify such heavy-handedness.

Later, Lowell's "thaw." Life Studies and For the Union Dead. Both classic books in my opinion.

It always seemed as if Lowell were held personally responsible for all of his imitators. Under ordinary circumstances, that would be regarded as a literary strength; but in his case, it was accorded a fault. I've never understood it.

He was seriously ill. Why should we expect so much of a man with so many personal problems?

Anonymous said...

re: "in my humble view." Amen to that.

abigail lange said...

When I talked to Frost once, around 1962, with the Russain sputnik on the horizon, he said, 'What do they want to go to Venus For? All they'll find is venereal disease." Then all the students sitting at his feet, looked up in awe, suddenly reluctant to read their precious little ditties, often about young love.

Stephen Rodefer

TC said...


It's stories like this that make one feel proud to be a small cog in the groaning historical wheel of the Great Tradition of American Poetry.

Delia Psyche said...

These defenses of Lowell--whom I've always liked--remind me of one of Lowell's pupils, Richard Tillinghast. Richard expressed dislike of Hamilton's bio; he found it "snide." And I remember him complaining that the melancholy oboe music soundtracking the Voices and Visions documentary about Lowell misrepresented his mentor. According to Richard, Lowell had a nutty sense of humor. Where did I hear the story about Lowell picking up Allen Tate, carrying him up a few flights of stairs while singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" or something in falsetto, and dangling him out a window? I never met a character like that in an MFA workshop--someone mad, bad (and good), and dangerous to know. Not to mention brilliant.

TC said...

In RL's time there were no MFA workshops. Ah, golden days!

But his famously intense poetry classes--perhaps a certain equivalence to the hothouse gardens of MFA Country? The stories abound, or once did. Plath and Sexton at the Ritz Carlton, decompressing post-class. The imagination reels, counting the number of very dry martinis that must have required.

My own early loyalty (or Lowellty?) began as Curtis's stated above, with Lord Weary's Castle and the Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket in high school.Sublimated violence pure and simple, the stabbing and slashing rhymes. Built to do injury to oneself, who in their right mind could have wished to simulate that?

Lowell and I have the same birthday, all Pisces are slippery fish I've been told.

I like that he got his nickname from being called Caliban in high school, that dim cruel place.

I appreciate the fact that he ate health food on Nantucket.

I love the fact that he carried a suitcase of poetry to live in a Sears Roebuck tent on Allen Tate's front lawn.

His refusal of military service is to be honoured.

He wrote to Ted Roethke that their generation of poets had "a flaw in the motor".

At least there was a motor...

poetowen said...

When poets were kings--

Lowell’s sort of monolithic— painful insanity as grand opera—who can match that? And his poetic chops—too good—intimidating. Can’t say that I “like” him since he depresses the hell out of me.

Could somebody spare a Milltown?

And, yes, at least they had motors. When (and why) did American poets get smaller?

Delia Psyche said...


Happy poetry depresses me. Give me film noir bleakness! "I myself am Hell; nobody's here": that cheers me immensely.

And why would Lowell's chops--his Milltownic enjambments and so on--intimidate you? I'm a lousy guitar-player, but that doesn't make me avoid Django Reinhardt recordings.

And I've got a motor--I just can't figure out what it runs on! Tomorrow I'll pour pomegranate juice in the tank and see what happens...

poetowen said...


I think Lowell's poetry is depressing because it's supposed to be. It's kind of what he was selling. And it works--I "feel his pain". Ouch.

Don't often run into the great chops/intimidation feeling. Shakespeare doesn't do that to me, so why Lowell? Lots of little conflicts come into play--. Class conflicts, definitely (read Eileen Myles great punk poem "On the Death of Robert Lowell")--you know,Why does the rich waspy guy get to be so good? I work just as hard and my slant rhymes are clunky.

My family's mostly Boston working class--guys like Lowell were the enemy. And the poets I identify with--O'Hara and co.--didn't like him much. But he was so damned good!

Conflicted feelings...