Spencer Hupp reviews Robert Lowell’s “Memoirs”

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Spencer Hupp


By Robert Lowell

387 pages. FSG, 2022.

Robert Lowell was among the last public poets of the old school – think Frost, Sandburg, or Conrad Aiken– drifting into and out of significance not as Poets Laureate but as Poet-Consultants to the Librarian of Congress, less “unacknowledged legislator” than “diplomat-without-portfolio,” not a fine distinction, but a recent one.. The professionalization of creative writing, its relegation to colleges and universities, to the tenure track and the byline, really begins with Lowell’s generation at the start of the “tranquilized fifties”; Lowell himself ran an early course of the fellowship circuit, landing at Kenyon, Cincinnati, Iowa, before retreating to BU and Harvard. “Imaginative writing,” such as it was, hadn’t quite succumbed to bifurcation: Elizabeth Bishop’s story “In the Village” bore heavily on Lowell’s move into autobiography, Weldon Kees’ stories are equal to his poems, and Randall Jarrell wrote open, elegant, and sad children’s books (his first nomination for a National Book Award came for his campus novel, Pictures from an Institution in 1953). Things were scarcely different over the fence: novelist Ford Madox Ford had published poems in Des Imagistes under his German surname Hueffer, and the academic critic William Empson produced Audenesque academic poems. Robert Penn Warren still served as a living model for having it both ways.

These people were writers in a stricter sense than they were poets, novelists, or critics; poets thought, writers wrote, so most poets chose to be writers. Robert Lowell’s Memoirs, then, are perhaps best seen as an attempt to remedy a deficit of words in Lowell’s life; his total output to 1954, when he started on his “autobiographical monster,” included a scant 132 pages of poems and some book reviews. And, moreover, prose suited him. In a generous and self-interested piece called “After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me,” Lowell wrote: “I haven’t said what I wished to write in poems, the discordant things I’ve tried. It isn’t possible, is it?” This quivering between epiphany and sadness – an inarticulate sadness, a sadness at being inarticulate – inflects many of his poems, not least “Skunk Hour,” for which Lowell remembered: “Suddenly, in August [1957], I was struck by the sadness of writing nothing and having nothing to write, of having, at least, no language.” Some of these sentiments – and some of their words – remain in “After Enjoying . . .” Lowell writes, “When I was working on Life Studies, I found I had no language [italics mine] or meter that would allow me to approximate what I saw or remembered. Yet in prose I had already found what I wanted, the conventional style of autobiography and reminiscence. So I wrote my autobiographical poetry in a style I thought I had discovered in Flaubert, one that used images or ironic or amusing particulars.” Lowell always wrote in sentences, and basically forbade the fragment in his poems, had little interest in economy, and would run almost inexorably, but rarely gleefully, into a stylized clutter. The prose is no different, thick, fizzing with forward motion, often ending in a description like a sign off or a mutter. Here’s a gauzy moment from “I Take Thee, Bob” describing one of Lowell’s London aunts: “She only wore ugly earth-brown dresses ornamented with dim sand-brown spots.” Of thirteen words in that sentence, two are common nouns overcome with description, each claims three modifiers; “spots” don’t quite complete “dim sand-brown.” Triplicate descriptions, which are everywhere in Lowell, make for uncooked, heavy, unfinished particulars, and this sentence works as a sly reproach levied at a particularly Lowell-like relation: “She had a tongue in her head, and she believed that noblesse oblige ‘obliged’ her to use it on Boston.” It’s also a deeply unsettled piece of deeply particular language, like the better part of Lowell’s writing.

These were attempts both at legibility and at putting a tongue in his head, using it on Boston, of making himself understood not just in writing but as writing. Which is only part of this book’s apparent mission; editors Stephen Gould Axelrod and Gzegorz Korsc have compiled a footweight of notes, marginalia, timelines, and genealogies which are helpful, but acquisitive; Lowell’s genius wasn’t in getting things right, as much as he tried, but a mixture of recall and embellishment, impossibilities hitched onto otherwise reasonable English and real-world circumstances.

The appearance herein of Lowell’s first exercise in what we now call, somewhat derisively, “creative writing” – real childhood writings, pre-juvenilia – makes for a strong evidence of an early, complicated intuition for language and lying. This little piece, written in “ugly legible letters” by an 8 year old Lowell for a penmanship class – Lowell maintained famously bad handwriting through adulthood – has, eerily, everything of the mature poet as autobiographer: “Arms of the Law was a horrid spoof most of the time, but an alright guy on the 29th of February. He was also a Bostonian, an Irish policeman, and a bear . . The blood that Arm’s heart beat up was the tobacco-colored juice of a squashed grasshopper in a lawn mower.” Here is a kind of tottering toward inspiration, the knowledge that consciousness, the new awareness into which little Bobby had entered, requires living in two spaces as two people – the mind and the world, the world in the mind – warrants something of John Bunyan’s mock-prophet “Mr Smooth-man, Mr Facing-bothways, Mr Any-thing; and the parson of our parish, Mr Two-tongues.” If anything, one might read this as an earnest satire, like the Southwestern humor perennially popular with boys from the 1840s to the Vietnam War – Huck Finn, the Black Bear of Arkansas, Davy Crockett – the jumble and lark of childhood, with inspiration everywhere.

This first lesson in legibility infected Lowell’s later and brief tenure as Ford Madox Ford’s secretary: “Then in the afternoon—I could hardly type—I would painfully type out what I took down in longhand which had many gaps, and with my terrible sense of prose rhythm had to improvise phrases here or there which I think still remain in The March of Literature—little blemishes that have been undetected.” I read small pride and some vengeful teasing in these “little blemishes,” especially given Lowell’s basic achievement, the adaptation of the prose medium into poetry. Lowell’s “break” from received forms – the hammered pentameters of his first few collections – didn’t yield, as is said, a casual style, but as Tom Paulin made of Hazlitt’s prose, a grittier and more complicated linguistic medium compelled by nonlinguistic things, the necessity of dates, figures, and – yes – feelings giving way to divots and clots, those hypoxias in a line – “otters slide and dive and slick back their hair” – expressing a faith in a coordinating conjunction that may only come from fiction. Also certain completely individual, seemingly unmanufactured sound-inventions, like in the poem “Reading Myself”:

            Can I suppose I am finished with wax flowers
            and have earned my grass on the minor
            slopes of Parnassus …

Wax flowers, grass, Parnassus – irregular, hissing sibilance threatening snakes and insects, a fertile immediate bordering on fecundity – and a weird vantage: which is the minor side of the mountain? The effect is stronger than an earlier poem, “After the Surprising Conversions,” which ends where a “bough / Cracks with the unpicked apples, and at dawn / The small-mouth bass breaks water, gorged with spawn.” Bough, cracks, apples, dawn, small, mouth, bass, gorged, spawn – too many long vowels drawn up to die in the throat. Prose gave Lowell the grace of, and ear for, sequence. More than anything in Lowell, at least after 1954, is a kind of strangeness his modernists forebearers evaded, uncontained by simple elegance or rote musicality, never wading into prose poetry, or worse, poetic prose; “nets so grandly knotted could only catch logs.”

The first of these pieces, “Antebellum Boston,” starts, log-rollingly, with a hard nod to Henry Adams’ Education: “Nothing from now on was to go quite as expected—even downhill.” This works as an all-too-elegant thesis statement, as when Lowell describes an early-childhood sickness:

            For three long breathless nights I lay awake, blowing on the flame of my croup kettle to keep it burning. I breathed the deadening,             aromatic benzene and felt it was the myrrh of the Magi. Traditionally, they came at first with lambs and camels, but later my delirious             visitors brought me bizarre, comforting, unorthodox creatures: flying squirrels, jumping mice, a duck-billed platypus. My animal             sights danced about the benzene flame all night long in a command performance, and it pleased me to believe that they had chosen             me to visit rather than President Coolidge, whose son had just died.

Lowell proves a sometimes-difficult writer not that he evades explication – his difficulties are largely sensory, a meaningful blip in radar-function, those amusing particulars charting the death-by-exhaustion of individual speech. One problem lies with Lowell’s subject, the American family, which Randall Jarrell describes as an “entity—half subjective, half objective having its own ways and laws and language.” Or, as HL Mencken put it, the American writer “has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians . . . He exercises an incomparable capacity for projecting hidden and often fantastic relationships into his speech.” One “fantastic relationship” Lowell promoted is among the most basic ones, the fading of human into animal, as in that cartoon zoo dancing around his bedroom light or the “sons of the old Republican Boston families . . . waiting on their doorsteps like spent Airedales or poodles.” A young Lowell dramatically swallows an ivory elephant at the end of “Philadelphia,” in some gastric prologue to his headstrong adult politics. Lowell also saw in his teacher and sometime friend Ford Madox Ford something of the “Republican elephant” – the thing in the room worth talking about, the creature who can’t forget. And Lowell himself, maybe the “sweet-toothed bear” in “Reading Myself,” or the “heavy bear” that went with his friend Delmore Schwartz:

            The hungry beating brutish one
            In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
            Crazy factotum, dishevelling all

Spencer Hupp is a poet and critic from Little Rock, Arkansas. His poems, essays, and reviews appear with the Sewanee Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Harvard Review, Literary Matters, and the Times Literary Supplement, among others. He currently serves as a research fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he took his MFA in 2022.