By Ernest Hilbert
Lowell before the Notebook Poems
When Robert Lowell began writing the poems that would appear in the unusual and still controversial volume Notebook 1967-1968, he was generally celebrated as America’s most famous living poet. His patrician profile and the details of his personal life were familiar to any educated American. Time magazine hailed him as “America’s greatest poet.” What may strike some as odd in 2017, on the centenary of his birth, is the very notion of a genuinely famous poet, one who confidently dispatched letters of political protest to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and expected replies. In other words, the world that formed Robert Lowell and heaped laurels upon his brow, including two Pulitzer Prizes, has changed dramatically and irrevocably.
In fact, the literary establishment that hailed his presence has almost ceased to exist in any meaningful way. Born the scion of a lesser branch of the famous New England Lowell family—true Boston Brahmins, when that still meant something—Lowell numbered among his relatives two other famous poets (Amy, who also won a Pulitzer Prize, and James Russell, one of the Fireside Poets) and Mary Chilton, who was the first woman off the Mayflower, along with a president of Harvard, a Civil War general, industrialists, federal judges, and an astronomer who helped discover Pluto. Like T.S. Eliot, Robinson Jeffers, and Robert Frost before him, Lowell appeared on the cover of Time magazine; however, Lowell’s appearance on the cover of the June 2nd, 1967 issue, with the headline “Poetry in an Age of Prose,” would mark the last time a poet would occupy that august position. Just as Time’s circulation continues to dwindle in the Internet age, Lowell’s position in the pantheon continues to slip. Pages allotted to his work in anthologies grow ever fewer. Many younger poets know him only (if at all) as one of the names associated with the school of Confessional Poetry (despite the fact that, as Frank Bidart notes, “he scorned the term”).i But it was not always so.
For Lowell, success came early, and, in its train, the sometimes difficult condition known as fame. Lowell’s first commercially published book, Lord Weary’s Castle (preceded by Land of Unlikeness, produced in a limited edition of only 250 copies by the Cummington Press in 1944), won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 when the poet was only 30 years old. In the years that followed, he parlayed public fascination with details of his troubled and privileged life into what came to be known as the Confessional School of Poetry (Lowell taught W.D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton and was close friends with John Berryman, the principal players in the group). Throughout his life Lowell suffered from bipolar disorder: long crescendos of mania, accompanied by periods of intense creativity and frequently troubling behavior, followed by aftermaths of terrible depression and regret. In the course of fifteen years, during which time he published his most important poems, Lowell was hospitalized no fewer than twelve times, often for extended periods. When reading biographies of Lowell, one not uncommonly encounters passages describing friends, colleagues, and police officers physically struggling to restrain the poet during a violent outburst.
And yet, when Lowell’s Collected Poems appeared in 2007, it became clear to many that Lowell’s achievements are, at times, nothing less than towering, though, overall, the quality of his work remains unquestionably mixed. The best poems from Lord Weary’s Castle, Life Studies, and For the Union Dead are essential to an understanding of twentieth-century American literature. In addition to these three collections, published between 1946 and 1964, Lowell also published the less important collection, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, as well as collections of loose translations he called “imitations,” and in the years immediately following them a play, The Old Glory, further translations, and another collection of new verse, Near the Ocean.
While Lowell’s work had been previously known within literary circles through magazine publication and The Land of Unlikeness, his first major volume, Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), a lapidary and symbolic book with modernist aims, arriving in a “Goliath’s armor of brazen metric,”ii as Lowell later put it, gave the public its first taste of Lowell’s poetry. Allen Tate felt that the “symbolic language often has the effect of being willed” into being,iii and Dan Chiasson has referred to the book’s style as “mannerist modernism” of a very distinctive type, what Louise Bogan termed “a high pitch of baroque intensity.”iv In her New Yorker review, Bogan felt compelled to reach all the way back to John Donne for comparison. However, Lowell later came to regret some of the heaviness of such poems as “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” with its grand pentameter and its rhyme and archaisms, thinking of these early poems as “prehistoric monsters dragged down” by their own weight.
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
the fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
the death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
the gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
and hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags
and rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,
gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather.
Nevertheless, the force of the poems in Lord Weary’s Castle is undeniable, even if they are not terribly modern by the standards of the age (the book appeared a year after VJ day and 24 years after The Waste Land). Indeed, the poems feel somehow warlike, perhaps because some were written during the Second World War. Randall Jarrell was likely sensing this quality when he wrote that the poems “understand the world as a sort of conflict of opposites. In this struggle one opposite is that cake of custom in which all of us lie embedded like lungfish—the statis or inertia of the stubborn self, the obstinate persistence in evil that is damnation” (he goes on to add “but struggling within this like leaven, falling to it like light, is everything that is free or open, that grows or is willing to change”).v
Five years later, Lowell’s second full-length collection, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, demonstrated no great stylistic leap forward from Lord Weary’s Castle. In “Falling Asleep over the Aeneid,” perhaps the best poem in the collection, Lowell employs sturdy heroic couplets, perhaps in homage to Dryden’s translation of Virgil. In fact, the two bear comparison. Dryden writes
Now scarce the Trojan fleet, with sails and oars,
Had left behind the fair Sicilian shores,
Ent’ring with cheerful shouts the wat’ry reign,
And plowing frothy furrows in the main . . .
We hear Lowell answering Dryden’s Virgil, with a nod to Catullus:
The elephants of Carthage hold those snows,
Turms of Numidian horse unsling their bows,
The flaming turkey-feathered arrows swarm
Beyond the Alps. “Pallas,” I raise my arm
And shout, “Brother, eternal health. Farewell
Forever.” Church is over, and its bell
Frightens the yellowhammers, as I wake
And watch the whitecaps wrinkle up the lake.
However, Lowell’s great creative breakthrough came a full eight years later with Life Studies, the pivotal collection of his career and also a work that signaled a broad shift in American poetry away from modernism and toward the open, inventive, personal style in free verse, what would come to be known generally as Confessional Poetry.vi The poems in Life Studies are drawn from Lowell’s family life, particularly his childhood. They evince trace characteristics of his earlier style and retain residues of rhyme, though they are in free verse. In fact, they began as prose, when, at the suggestion of a therapist, Lowell wrote out episodes from his life, one of which makes its way into the book as a prose memoir titled “91 Revere Street.”
In “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” one finds lines stretched, rhymes present but irregular, sometimes distant.
Diamond-pointed, athirst and Norman,
its alley of poplars
paraded from Grandmother’s rose garden
to a scary stand of virgin pine,
scrub, and paths forever pioneering.
“Norman” and “garden” provide partial rhymes. “Pine” and “pioneering” form what we might call either a matched end-rhyme and head-rhyme, or a perfect rhyme with a y-glide followed by hypermetrical, or hyperlexical (given this context) extension, with the “poplars” as a rest that nonetheless resonates with “paraded.” The heavy symbols of the earlier books are gone, replaced by more modest details, used toward the creation of a realistic, autobiographical setting. The poem continues
I picked with a clean finger nail at the blue anchor
on my sailor blouse washed white as a spinnaker.
What in the world was I wishing?
. . . A sail-colored horse browsing in the bullrushes . . .
A fluff of the west wind puffing
my blouse, kiting me over our seven chimneys . . .
Again, we have the “anchor” and “spinnaker,” and a looser “wishing” and “puffing” (“puff” itself bouncing up from “fluff,” both unrounded vowels floating on aspirated consonants), interpolated with “bullrushes” almost as a dampener, or measure of silence. Like the poems in Lord Weary’s Castle, these poems feel as though they are the result of prodigious concentration and serious revision (conducted before publication, which will not be the case with the Notebook poems).vii
These experiments continued in the poems of Lowell’s 1964 collection, For the Union Dead, with its more public and politically-minded poems, otherwise written in a style not terribly different from that on display in Life Studies. Another volume of verse followed in 1967, not long before Lowell began work on the Notebook poems. Near the Ocean saw a return of sorts to Lowell’s earlier style in poems such as “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” which represents a mid-career return to the stately couplets of the earlier books, though energized by Lowell’s increasingly sophisticated historical and political sensibility:
Pity the planet, all joy gone,
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.
The Beginning of a New Style: Notebook 1967-1968 and Notebook
In 1969, Lowell shifted to a new style altogether, publishing a curious and long collection of 14-line blank-verse sonnets called Notebook 1967-1968. I refer to the poems in this book, and the following four, as the Notebook poems; these poems were written quickly and casually and usually rewritten at least once. It’s difficult to explain how the formal explorations and reversions of the preceding years led Lowell to this peculiar form, which would occupy most of his final years. Though he had written a handful of sonnets before, Lowell’s consuming interest in the form did not begin until 1967. Christopher Bakken in the Contemporary Poetry Review sees Lowell “stretching and slackening the sonnet form during each phase of his career,”viii and, in fact, some of the poems in Notebook 1967-1968 appeared in earlier volumes (including “In the Cage” from Lord Weary’s Castle, first published 23 years earlier). Lowell seems to have thought of each 14-line section as a stanza in a longer poem, as when he declares that “unrhymed loose blank-verse sonnets […] allowed me rhetoric, formal construction, and quick breaks. […] It was a stanza, as so much of my work—a unit blocked out a priori, then coaxed into form.” Thus the poems in Notebook 1967-1968 may be understood discretely, as individual poems, or as atoms of a much larger molecule, often referred to by Lowell only as the “long poem.” Some of the poems are historical in nature, some personal, many both. Lowell would go on to rewrite frantically and to re-issue most of them again a year later, only to divide them into further books a few years after that. Ultimately, then, the work, or project, came to fill five volumes of original poetry, nearly half of the eleven books of verse he published. This is as remarkable as it is unusual, and it is worth investigating.
What can be made of poems that an older Lowell felt were so important they could take up the shelf space (and open the wallets) of his readers over five books of poems which confusingly seem to represent one half of his life’s work? Lowell’s own coinage, “monotonous sublime,” can be repurposed to describe the Notebook poems. Many of the poems contain some flash of beauty or potent insight, yet these moments are scattered and must be mined through arduous reading. They attain a generally high level of quality (at least compared to most of what was published at the time) without distinguishing themselves or moving toward any sort of climax, crisis, or resolution. The author himself seems to have become the “ghost / orbiting forever lost” in his “monotonous sublime.” For example, in the eight sonnets that make up the “Charles River” sequence in Notebook 1967-1968, Lowell refers, among other subjects, to his parents, his first love, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, industrial pollution, Milton’s “Lycidas,” the Anschluss, Nero, Christ, French painter Claude Lorrain, miscellaneous Greeks, aqueducts and arches, a snow-yellow knife with eleven blades, and plowshares beaten into swords. He conflates the particular and the general, the fresh and the hackneyed, the present and the past into an amalgamation of styles that ranges in quality from outstanding to outrageous.
In late 1967, the year when Near the Ocean, with its “monotonous sublime,” appeared, Lowell began referring to an ambitious poem, “practically an Iliad” as he put it in a December 1967 letter to Mary McCarthy, a burgeoning work that would encompass not only “Napoleon, Cato” and other historical figures but also “happenings of the day, including distant things, the ponderings and vagaries of thought.”ix From the start, he believed he possessed a clear vision of what would grow to be a most unclear work. That Christmas he wrote to Ted Hughes that he found himself “buried in a long poem, a sort of notebook or journal in 14 line un-rhymed sections,” at 850 lines already 50 longer than it had been on the 16th of the month when he wrote to McCarthy. In the Hughes letter he draws a comparison not to Homer’s epic but to Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (a narrative poem in four volumes totaling 21,000 lines). It is apparent that Lowell already entertained an exceptionally ambitious concept of the poem’s length. By January 12th, 1968, less than a month later, he boasts to Elizabeth Bishop that his still mysterious poem had grown to be “over a thousand lines, and will probably go on another 500,” adding ominously but also tellingly that “someone asked me if [I] expected to die when I finished it—no, but trying to write with such openness and not holding back.” The work was growing at an impressive and almost startling rate. When Lowell writes to McCarthy again at the beginning of February, we learn that the poem is “almost 1400 lines,” though Lowell begins to believe it has a recognizable beginning, “progress and end.” This claim is entirely disputable. In fact, Frances Ferguson resists the notion altogether, insisting instead that “a coherence so postulated and so little felt” forces “each individual poem in the volume. . . to become indexical.” Ferguson goes on in this vein: “Each poem is less an entity than a reminder of the others; individual poems—and individual words—undergo devaluation in the notebooks.”x
Lowell himself, in the afterword of Notebook 1967-1968, announcing that “poems in this book are written as one poem, jagged in pattern, but not a conglomeration or sequence of related material,” seemingly goes on to undermine any concept of an organized long poem by stating “it is not a chronicle or almanac . . . this is not my diary, my confession. . . . my plot rolls with the seasons. The separate poems and sections are opportunist and inspired by impulse.”xi In a Salmagundi essay written late in life, Lowell recalled: “For six years I wrote unrhymed blank verse sonnets. . . They had the eloquence at best of iambic pentameter, and often the structure and climaxes of sonnets. . . . I had a chance such as I had never had before, or probably will again, to snatch up and verse the marvelous varieties of the moment.” Lowell’s plan, as Steven Gould Axelrod explains in Robert Lowell: Life and Art, was “to achieve the balance of freedom and order, discontinuity and continuity, that he observed in [Wallace] Stevens’s late long poems and in John Berryman’s Dream Songs, then nearing completion. He hoped that his form . . . would enable him ‘to describe the immediate instant,’ an instant in which political and personal happenings interacted with a lifetime’s accumulation of memories, dreams, and knowledge. In his ‘jagged’ yet unified poem Lowell sought to create nothing less than an epic of his own consciousness.”xii
Before this, the longest poem Lowell had published was “The Mills of the Kavanaughs,” from the collection of the same name, epic and narrative in scope, consisting of 38 16-line stanzas (though, significantly, he pared it down to a mere five stanzas for his 1976 Selected Poems, an excision perhaps achieved in the grip of one of his recurring manias). The “long poem” mentioned in his letters would eventually run to 190 pages and appear as Notebook 1967-1968 (1969, in the blue dust jacket), revised and expanded as Notebook in 1970 (issued in a red dust jacket). The longer of the two would then be revised again and divided into two further individual books published in 1973—History, containing the historical and biographical poems, and For Lizzie and Harriet, containing poems about, and in the voices of, Lowell’s second wife Elizabeth Hardwick and their child Elizabeth. A third volume, The Dolphin, about his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, whom he nicknamed the dolphin,xiii as well as about Hardwick and Elizabeth once again, contained newly published poems in the Notebook style; it also appeared in 1973. Depending on one’s standpoint, the Notebook poems represent an enormous opportunity lost or a last great flowering of a major poet’s talent before his end (the only volume of original poetry he would publish after 1973 is Day by Day, in 1977, the year he died, a book of quieter, more personal poems that feels like an epilogue to a life’s work, “slack and listless” according to William H. Pritchard, though Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff have defended it. While it is difficult to see the Notebook editions as sequences, the idea of the sequence appealed to Lowell, at least as it is understood according to the likes of Sidney, Spenser, or Drayton.xiv
Certainly, Lowell was familiar with the great sonnet sequences of the Elizabethan age and after, but when working on the Notebook poems he was likely also moved by Pound’s notion of a long poem like The Cantos, a poem “including history.” After all, as an undergraduate at Harvard Lowell was so taken with the thought of Pound’s Cantos as “the blood of Homer” that he wrote fulsomely to the older poet asking if he could “come to Italy to work under you and forge my way into reality.” However, the three 1973 books do not read as “long poems” at all, and the first two Notebook editions only dubiously read as long poems themselves, despite Lowell’s designation of them as such during the process of composition. Clive James understood Lowell’s intentions but felt that he may have failed to achieve them with his new process:
These sequences constituted rhapsodies, and it was easy to sense that the rhapsodies were intent on forming themselves into an epic. At that stage, the Lowell epic resembled John Berryman’s Dream Songs: its digressions had shape, but there was no clear line of progress initiating them—no simple story for which they could serve as complications. The story was mixed in with them. All of human history was there, and Lowell’s personal history was there too. Both kinds of history jumped about all over the place.xv
Still, the poems that would later shear off into History are enormously ambitious, described by Lowell in a 1972 letter to Christopher Ricks as running “through the ages from the reptiles to 1970. It takes me a hundred poems to get to Verdun, so the bulk of History is in my lifetime, sometimes heavily autobiographical—the Twenties are mostly seen as my adolescence.” And while we may better understand this ambition by noting Frank Bidart’s assertion, in his introduction to the Collected Poems, that Lowell’s efforts to make all of Western history come together with his own life was indivisible from “the thrill associated with madness, unreachable when sane . . . the sensation that it all ‘coheres,’”xvi David Bromwich points to a serious problem with this use of private material without explanatory context in the poems. Unlike Eliot’s literary allusions in The Waste Land those in the Notebook poems are, as Bromwich notes, “privately allusive”; in the Notebook poems, “there aren’t any notes, and only the poet knows his way around the library.”xvii What’s more, the Notebook poems were written in a time of heightened political and social tensions, a period when it must have felt as if time had sped up, so much so that Lowell made sure to include a short timeline at the end of the Notebook 1967-1968 to show how much had happened in the short span in which the poems were written: the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Six Days War, riots in Newark and other cities, the march on the Pentagon, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and much more. As Ferguson has it, “Lowell frequently and finally stakes the poetry of the notebooks on the possibility of wresting a spiritual autonomy from the flux of historical time,” but the reader is left with only “a sense of the triviality of historical time.”xviii
As James points out, Lowell was likely inspired, at least in part, by his friend John Berryman’s ongoing, post-modern, Elizabethan-style sequence of sonnet-like poems he called Dream Songs. Indeed, in Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell, Paul Mariani tells of how “in 1967, after following Berryman’s progress with the dream songs, Lowell had pressed for an art that would be less photographic and finished for one more closely linked to stream of consciousness, a poetry which could capture one’s fleeing impressions, feelings, marginal half-thoughts.”xix However, Berryman’s influence may not have been entirely salutary. Describing the 1973 volumes, Christopher Benfey wrote in The New Republic that the books seemed to be “culled” from “sequences from Notebook, separating out the more public poems from the private ones and revising . . .as he did so,” and Benfey went on to wonder if “what was lost in all this re-organization was the jarring juxtapositions of public and private, past and present, in Notebook 1967-1968, the ‘skipping’ that Bishop considered its most effective attribute.”xx
It is very possible that the division of the Notebook poems into two distinct volumes indicates the degree to which Lowell was overwhelmed by the unwieldy results of his rapid method of composition. He confessed in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop:
I really don’t know what to say at all—I am overcome by their sheer volume partly, but also by the range, the infinite fascinating detail, the richness, and everything else. I shall have to read them many more times through to get it all. I think I did say something about the earlier version to you in Boston—the kind of overall surrealism I get from them, the skipping and returning, and repeating, and the surrealism—if that is the word—being in the skips, or the ‘pattern’ rather than in the separate sonnet.
Christian Wiman talks about how Berryman, “who for a number of years was obsessed with writing one perfect poem, eventually ‘relaxed’ into what was for him the more natural, accumulative method of the first seventy-seven Dream Songs. Robert Lowell, by contrast, who described his young self as ‘burning to believe that each finished poem would be my last,’ eventually burned out in a blast of powerful but largely undirected energy he called ‘fourteen-liners.”xxi
Why write in the same 14-line form over and over again? In Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets, David R. Slavitt remarks that “the fourteen-line poem was also a convenience, a minimal formal requirement of having a fixed quantity of more or less iambic lines to be filled as gracefully as possible, an unconstraining constraint that was quietly reassuring.”xxii Slavitt’s notion of an unconstraining constraint is appealing when attempting to divine Lowell’s purposes. Lowell leaned increasingly toward the unconstrained even within the bounds of the individual poems. When his first biographer Ian Hamilton interviewed him, Lowell claimed that the Notebook poems were composed “in unrhymed, loose blank verse sonnets, a roomier stanza, less a prosodist’s darling. It can say almost anything conversation or correspondence can.” They often share more with conversation or a private letter than with the delicate artistry of the Elizabethan sonneteers. The poems’ variety and unpredictability, as exciting as they may be from poem to poem, work to prevent them from binding into an identifiable larger work. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and author of Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, admits “I’d be hard-pressed to keep them straight. I actually like the sonnets. It’s one of those things that are perhaps an acquired taste. Some people think it unformed and indulgent, and they just go on and on and on. And they certainly go on. I find it fascinating just kind of watching a mind in progress . . .”xxiii Perhaps they hold more interest to a student of the human psyche than to the student of verse. In this regard, the books could be construed as being remotely related to Shelley’s experimental Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude or the more coherent “growth of a poet’s mind” expressed by Wordsworth in The Prelude.
Even if it is hard to understand the volumes as book-length poems, the Notebook poems often form parts of smaller sequences or numbered portmanteau sonnets. Some fare well enough alone or in pairs, but, in lieu of the massive sequences, those small groups are often stranded in the pages of anthologies and other selections like fish suffocating outside of their tanks. After all, one simply cannot read page after page of 14-line poems and think of them as anything other than sonnets in a stream of some kind, be it a cycle, sequence, or some other order imagined or imposed by their creator. Christopher Ricks, in True Friendship, remarks that predecessors of Lowell’s Notebook poems include Blake’s “To the Evening Star,” Keats’ “Oh thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,” and Beddoes’ “A Crocodile,” though Ricks goes on to say that there “will always be the teasing possibility that what is before us is not an unrhymed sonnet but fourteen lines of blank verse.” Ricks continues: “In Lowell’s hands the unrhymed sonnet is not entirely so, since he deploys rhymes with truth and cunning—and he crucially deploys, too, the absence of rhyme.”xxiv Indeed, Frances Ferguson addresses the poems in which words are repeated, noting “Lowell’s conception of rime riche.” For instance in “Harriet” the word “wood” rhymes with itself repeatedly, “with a slight difference at each occurrence as the consciousness of the aging process advances itself step by step.”xxv
In the anthology The Art of the Sonnet, editors Stephen Burt and David Mikics explain that modern sonnet sequences, including what they deem “Lowell’s blank-verse quatorzains,” give the poet the “extended opportunities to create our expectations: the first and tenth sonnet change what we seek in the sixteenth” (they include Lowell’s “Searching,” with a note dating it 1968, Notebook 1967-1968, though that book appeared in 1969, and the poem later appeared in a revised form in 1973 in History). Thus, Lowell’s Notebook poems are something of a paradox, like Schrödinger’s cat, which is both dead and alive until the box is opened. The Notebook poems can exist in the mind of the reader as a long poem in two versions, three separate sequences (partly due to editorial decisions to issue them as such, perhaps for largely commercial reasons), or individual sonnets nested together for practical purposes, simply because they were written in the same period and, in the absence of poems in other forms, had to appear together. Lowell explains in a note at the end of Notebook 1967-1968 that “the separate poems and sections are opportunist and inspired by impulse. Accident threw up subjects” which, while rational, are sometimes “devoted to surrealism.”xxvi In God and the Imagination: On Poets, Poetry, and the Ineffable, Paul Mariani writes that
Lowell was in Castine, Maine, furiously writing the blank-verse sonnets that would make up Notebook 1967-1968, followed by Notebook, followed in turn by History and For Lizzie and Harriet, each book rising from the dismembered remains of the earlier. Like Berryman’s The Dreams Songs, the notebooks are extended, open-ended sequences whose distant precursors are the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, but—as with The Dream Songs—modified and made contemporary. Like Pound’s Cantos and Williams’s Paterson, each has a fluid protagonist and incorporates both autobiography and the history of the tribe from its beginnings to the present.xxvii
So what do these poems look like? We know that unlike most poems written earlier by Lowell, they are almost entirely shorn of rhyme, written in something approximating blank verse. Lowell explained in the afterword to the first edition:
My meter, fourteen line unrhymed blank verse sections, is fairly strict at first and elsewhere, but often corrupts in single lines to the freedom of prose. Even with this license, I fear I have failed to avoid the themes and gigantism of the sonnet.xxviii
The use of blank verse was not at all new to Lowell. In fact, it was integral to his compositional technique. Lowell told Frederick Seidel, in a Paris Review interview in 1961:
Usually when I was writing my old poems I’d write them out in blank verse and then put in the rhymes. And of course I’d change the rhymes a lot. The most I could hope for at first was that the rhymed version wouldn’t be much inferior to the blank verse.xxix
The style of the Notebook poems is somewhat more imposing and even majestic than that of poems in Life Studies and For the Union Dead. This was an intentional return to an earlier method. Lowell wrote in 1974 to poet and critic Alan Williamson, that “for long I felt I was fleeing from [Lord Weary’s Castle] style with my life, and couldn’t be fair. Notebook was deliberately an attempt to get back to its present instant, moment of struggle, and occasional grand style.”
Though Lowell himself refers to blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, the presence or pretense of meter is not always acutely felt. At their loosest, they could be construed as roughly decasyllabic lines. At their most organized, they could be understood as being composed in iambic pentameter with occasional substitutions. In a letter to Ricks, Lowell refers to the “metrics” of the Notebook poems, though it’s hard to know what that means, precisely. Helen Vendler described what for her was a nearly exasperating experience in this way.
His most recent manner throws up nearly indigestible fragments of experience, unprefaced by explanation, unexplained by cause or result; sudden soliloquies of figures ranging from Biblical times to contemporary history; translations; diary jottings; stately imitations of known forms; the whole litter and debris and detritus of a mind absorptive for fifty years. His free association, irritating at first, hovering always dangerously toward the point where unpleasure replaces pleasure, nonetheless becomes bearable, and then even deeply satisfying, on repeated rereading.xxx
Burt and Mikics point out that Lowell’s “gruesome dilemmas . . . would not have looked much like a sonnet to Anna Seward,” the “Swan of Lichfield,” who praised “strict energetic measures” and “duteous bards.”xxxi They go on to say that Lowell’s poems do in fact read much like traditional sonnets, at least in terms of their subjects, containing the “apparently uncontainable, incomprehensible carnage that marks human history within the electrified fence of pentameter form.” George Thaddeus Wright, in Hearing the Measures, writes that he believes that in the Notebook poems Lowell “found what seems to me his mature and most perfectly expressive style,” noting that the “lines show every degree of irregularity imaginable in a blank verse meter,” assuring us that despite Lowell’s mention of “prose” that prose lines “cannot appear without being measured by and inducted into the metrical patterns around them.” If this is true, the Notebook poems frequently accommodate tetrameter and hexameter lines. Wright concludes that the lines work in a “kind of five-stress accentual meter, a meter toward which much of the best blank verse written in our time often tends—[Wallace] Stevens’s for example.”xxxii
Some of the Notebook poems exhibit the regularity of iambic pentameter lines, such as “It’s not the crowds, but crowding kills the soul” from “The Well.” Some are almost unscannable as anything with regular accents, though always behaving in a certain way, for instance hewing closely to a tetrameter line, though sometimes billowing out or pulling in, as in the second part of “Charles River”:
The circuit of those snow-topped rural roads, eight miles
To ten, might easily have been the world’s
Top, round the pole, when I trailed on spreading skis
My guide, his unerring legs ten inches thick in wool,
And pinched my earlobes lest they turn to snowdrops . . .
What kind of freedom does a short, unrhymed poem allow Lowell? For one, he can write very quickly and consistently. Bipolar episodes aside, the speed with which he dispatched these poems, like entries in a journal or notebook, left much room for later revision, though it should be kept in mind that Lowell at least once attempted to revise and improve a John Milton poem during a stay at McLean Psychiatric Hospital. The Notebook poems are numerous and uneven, though always filled with unpredictable moments of brilliance.
I lie here, heavily breathing, the soul of New York (“Two Walls”)
The soprano’s bosoms point to the joy of God (“Across the Yard: La Ignota”)
……………………………………….. This too dust . . .
dust out of time, two clocks set back to the Toltec Eden (“Mexico 4”)
………………………………. I burn the bottle’s universal sun,
the spineless vermin slink stinking from the woodwork (“Alcohol 1”)
In sickness, the mind and body make a marriage (“In Sickness,” part 2 from “Autumn in the Abstract”)
……………… seasick with marital unhappiness—
she has become the eye of heaven, she hates
her husband swimming like vagueness, like a porpoise,
on the imperial scarlet of the rug (“The House in Argos,” part 3 of “Five Dreams”)
Of course such examples are subject to personal taste and cited here almost by whim. Still, they reflect a mature style—A. Alvarez believed the Notebook poems were “molded precisely to a powerful and mature talent”xxxiii—but in their sheer magnitude begin to resemble nothing so much as a massive efflorescence of a mind equally bored and inspired.
Notebook 1967-1968 and Notebook Side by Side
Lowell dedicated Notebook 1967-1968 to his daughter Harriet—“even before you could speak, / without knowing, I loved you”—and to “Lizzie,” novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, Harriet’s mother and Lowell’s second wife. The volume is divided into titled sections that serve as thematic chapters, some of which contain only one poem by that name. The longer sections contain as many as sixteen or seventeen poems. In “Names,” for instance, readers find Napoleon, Louis IX, Sir Thomas More. As one might expect, “Writers” contains T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, two Allen Tate poems, and more. Particular settings figure in the placement of poems such as “Canterbury,” “Mexico,” and “Charles River”; the calendar with “Midwinter,” “February and March,” “October and November.” One of the longest, “May,” holds topical epochal poems about “The Pacification of Columbia,” “Violence,” and “The Leader of the Left.”
The first poems in the book are four numbered ones for Harriet. Here’s number 3:
An unaccustomed ripeness in the wood;
move but an inch and moldy splinters fall
in sawdust from the aluminum-paint wall,
once loud and fresh, now aged to weathered wood.
Squalls of the seagulls’ exaggerated outcry,
dimmed out by fog . . . Peace, peace. All day the words
hid rusty fish-hooks. Now, heart’s-ease and wormwood,
we rest from all discussion, drinking, smoking,
pills for high blood, three pairs of glasses—soaking
in the sweat of our hard-earned supremacy,
offering a child our leathery love. We’re fifty,
and free! Young, tottering on the dizzying brink
of discretion once, we wanted nothing,
But to be old, do nothing, type, and think.
This almost impressionistic approach is evident throughout the book, a mingling of images, memories, powerful sounds (“Squalls of the seagulls’ exaggerated outcry”), more or less freely organized.
Notebook, which followed a year later, differs in a maddening number of small ways from Notebook 1967-1968. The first of the two has a chapter titled “Power” with odes to “Allah,” “Attila,” and “Tamerlane, Old.” The second has a chapter called “The Powerful,” which adds “Lincoln,” “Marlowe,” and “Lady Anne Boleyn” to those titans already present, raising the number of portraits from thirteen to twenty-two. Lowell is quoted in the publisher’s statement that appears on the front flap of the first edition of Notebook,
About a hundred of the old poems have been changed, some noticeably. More than ninety new poems have been added. They were scattered where they caught, intended to fullflesh my poem, not sprawl into chronicle . . . I couldn’t stop writing, and have handled my published book as if it were a manuscript.xxxiv
Here again he refers to the book as a single “poem.” The edition notes in smaller lettering under the poet’s name and the book’s title “revised and expanded edition,” a curious statement, or selling point, for a collection of poetry, but not particularly odd for a later appearance of a unified work (today trade paperback editions of fiction and non-fiction alike are issued with new material that came to light or was thought a necessary addition to the first published book, though the case is different here as Lowell admits he handled his “published book as if it were a manuscript,” an almost unforgiveable sin from the perspective of an editor).
Some of the changes are so minor as to feel entirely unnecessary. When one reads side by side the two versions of “Randall Jarrell 2” from the “School” chapter (one of three total poems to his friend that appear in both volumes), one detects only a very small change: “I slept the years now, and I woke again” in the first becoming “I slept the years and I woke again” in the second version. The poem describes a startling meeting with the dead friend in a dream, its strangeness coupled with the sensation of having fallen asleep while holding a lit cigarette, panic combined with the knowledge that one could have been annihilated while unconscious. In the two numbered poems of “Randall Jarrell: 1914-1965,” Lowell offers a more conventional type of elegy, imagining Jarrell living to be “Sixty, seventy, eighty,” with the “same hair, snow-shocked, and wrist for tennis.”
Sixty, seventy, eighty: I see you mellow,
Unchanging cricket, whistling down the grass-fires;
The same hair, snow-shocked, and wrist for tennis; now doubles,
Not singles . . . Who dares bridge that deadfall, sit
With you, watch the ivy turn, a wash of blood
On the infirmary wall, a fifth-act autumn,
See the years wrinkling up the reservoir?
Students waiting for Europe and spring term to end,
We saw below us, golden, small, stockstill,
Cornfields and polo field, the feudal campus airdrome,
Its Georgian Trust; behind, above us, castle,
Towers, dorms, fieldhouse, bishop’s house and chapel—
Randall, the same fall splinters on the windshield,
The same apples wizen on the whiplash bough.
In the second version, we find a small change from “sit / with you” to “sit / by you,” which is hard to find too significant except that the second feels slightly less intimate, perhaps an admission that his friend is truly gone. In the following line, however, “fifth-act autumn” is altered to “sixth age autumn.” Lowell likely had Shakespeare in mind for this revision. Shakespeare is known for five-act plays, and this reading would place an older, “mellow” Jarrell in the last act of a natural sequence. The second version summons Shakespeare in a more specific way, referring to Jaques’ soliloquy from Act II, Scene VII of As You Like It (a five-act play), familiar to most readers for its opening “All the world’s a stage,” giving the seven ages of man, beginning with the first, “the infant, / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” and ending in “second childishness and mere oblivion.” The penultimate age, in which Lowell sees a still-living Jarrell, would be “with spectacles on nose and pouch on side” and “his big manly voice, / Turning again toward childish treble.” Shakespeare meant much to both of them, and by imagining Jarrell in Shakespeare’s arc he draws them more closely together.
In his November 25, 1965 prose elegy for Jarrell in the New York Review of Books, Lowell took pains to emphasize how much Shakespeare meant to Jarrell, remembering that in 1937 Jarrell “spent the preceding summer studying Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” and that “Jarrell believed that no one, not even William Empson, had done justice to the rich, significant ambiguity of Shakespeare’s intelligence and images.” He remembers John Crowe Ransom and Jarrell, “seated on one sofa, as though on one love-seat, the sacred texts open on their laps . . .” Other changes in the poem are small but important. In the final line, the “same apples wizen on the whiplash bough”—their rotting before being picked a symbol of lost potential—becomes “the same apples ripen on the whiplash bough,” which may be even more poignant a way of describing the unpicked fruit. Here, the changes are more obvious and more meaningful, though it is hard to say they improve the poem.
History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin
After the publication of the first two Notebooks, Lowell continued his frantic revision. In a letter to Frank Bidart from December 23, 1971, he relates that he’s “been through the whole of Notebook now making changes, some very good, I think, though many botches—I can’t read an old changed poem without putting back some of the original text—making more changes.” Bidart assisted Lowell—“I was both amanuensis and sounding board”—with his efforts to divide the Notebook poems into two new books, History and For Lizzie and Harriet, and also with Lowell’s organizing a new book, The Dolphin, in the style which would go on to win Lowell his second Pulitzer Prize. Bidart recalls:
I watched Lowell carve History out of Notebook, first as a long sequence called “Heroes,” then the book it became. For two years he had carried around a copy of Notebook with dozens of penciled corrections on every page; he seemed incapable of resting with anything as provisional in feeling and texture as Notebook.xxxv
In February of 1972, Lowell wrote to Bishop that “I think Frank and I revised 405 poems in a month. That’s no way to write, but it was made more sensible by Frank’s amazing Filing code and total memory for my lines.” He goes on to make a surprising claim: namely, that “The three books are my magnum opus,” though he equivocated by asking if they “are the best or rather they[ll] do. Are they much?” Even Lowell was unsure of the books’ importance. He envisioned History, which he refers to as “Notebook, version 3,” to be “a school text—an entirely old-fashioned history only considering Wars, Heroes, women, and myself,” in a March 20, 1972 letter to Peter Taylor. He wrote to Christopher Ricks the next day that he was engaged in the “re-arrangement and rewriting” of Notebook.” He felt some sadness at the work’s conclusion, writing to I.A. Richards on April 6, 1973, that “I feel almost the hollowness of having finished a life’s work,” or perhaps he had “just moved to nothing new.” In a grim mood, Lowell signed this letter “Caligula,” the only time he is known to have done so. Later in the year, he was buffeted by “more often bad” reviews of the three books, which gave him “a blue time” as he termed it in an October 4 letter to Seamus Heaney.
The first poem in History is itself entitled “History” and is one of the more frequently anthologized Notebook poems. It serves as something of an ars poetica, aiming high with a tone to match. It concludes with one of the finest self-portraits in American poetry.
History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had—
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
his baby crying all night like a new machine.
As in our Bibles, white-faced, predatory,
the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter’s moon ascends—
a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes,
my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull’s no-nose—
O there’s a terrifying innocence in my face
Drenched with the silver salvage of the mornfrost.
Personified, history is seen here as frantic and ungainly. The opening makes no sense grammatically and must be construed as an expression of stream-of-consciousness. Is history the accumulation of all that has gone before, to be preserved as knowledge or artifact? If so, Lowell seems to acknowledge just how difficult such a proposition is, very nearly impossible. Like us, History must live with “what was here.” History is made up not only of all the wars and civilizations gone by but also of the private histories of the individual. Nothing new can proceed except out of this tyrannical past. In other words, the historical must be personal. We know Lowell spent many days choked with remorse and begging forgiveness of his friends for actions undertaken or things said while in a manic phase. His suggestion that “unlike writing, life never finishes” is perplexing and possibly ironic. Each poem may be finished in its time, but life goes on, yes, and yet certainly Lowell could never resist returning to a poem and changing it, even publishing it again, and yet again.
The poet expresses his own sense of mortality and fragility in these lines. From Abel, who was, according to the Bible, the first man murdered, or “finished,” we have the unsettling image of the “baby crying all night like a new machine,” which is preceded by the alarming “cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,” the first of two uses of the word “skull” in the poem, the cows penned for use and later slaughter. Moreover, the moon is a terrifying one, loaded down with no fewer than four modifiers, two of them hyphenated compound words for a total of six: “white-faced, predatory, / the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter’s moon” is distant, symbolic, mythic, its empty white disc easily drawn in—“a child could give it a face”—with “my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull’s no-nose,” the poet witnessing himself dead. And at the end, the tone lifts yet again with the interjectory “O” preceding the “terrifying innocence” of an aging yet still child-like artist, whose face is “drenched with the silver salvage of the mornfrost,” describing with a beautiful sibilance what I understand to be moonlight, so often associated with mystery and imagination, as well as the gray beard growth of a middle-aged man setting out on a new poetic scheme, an image that combines his earlier use of the mirror and the razor in Life Studies as symbols of aging, madness, and change. Still, despite beautiful and alluring imagery, the poem feels slapdash, the vernacular “flash-in-the-pan” failing to match the majesty of the surrounding language, comma splices clapping independent clauses together, as if the poet could not suffer the pause of a full stop, M-dashes further suspending grammar in a headlong rush toward some revelation. Lines of pure iambic pentameter appear: “it is so dull and gruesome how we die.” Other lines seem to be constructed of loosely decasyllabic prose. This dilation between meter and open form are general to the sequence. In its way, this first poem is most promising and at times sublime, but it is impossible for Lowell to maintain this level of intensity over the hundreds of poems that follow.
Historiographically speaking, Lowell seems to have subscribed to Thomas Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history, that individuals of transcendent intelligence, ability, and charisma direct the course of history, a notion few, if any, historians subscribe to today. There is little question that Lowell personally identified with many of these figures, such as Alexander the Great. In fact, in the grip of his manias he sometimes believed himself Caligula or Caesar. He also made exertions to elevate his friends and selected influences, such as Randall Jarrell and T.S. Eliot, into this pantheon. Later, in the History poems, we encounter efforts to link his life directly with those of historical figures. Dubbed “Cal” as a schoolboy, after Caligula and possibly Caliban, Lowell reminds us in “Caligula 2” (only a single “Caligula” appears in Notebook 1967-1968 and Notebook) how he can mingle personal facts from his school days with descriptions of the crazed emperor and his murderous pronouncements:
My namesake, Little Boots, Caligula,
tell me why I got your name at school—
Item: your body hairy, badly made,
head hairless, smoother than your marble head;
Item: eyes hollow, hollow temples, red
cheeks roughed with blood, legs spindly, hands that leave
a clammy snail’s trail on your scarlet sleeve,
your hand no hand could hold . . . bald head, thin neck—
you wished the Romans had a single neck.
That was no artist’s sadism. Animals
ripened for your arenas suffered less
than you when slaughtered—yours the lawlessness
of something simple that has lost its law,
my namesake, not the last Caligula.
One wonders what lies behind the urge to link one’s private life (and not just one’s nickname) with major figures drawn from a broad sweep of history with a capital “H.” The ambition to do so, and the lack of proportion such an undertaking presupposes, arrived along with one of the poet’s manic phases, during which he would also disappear for periods of time, attempt to marry young women (while he was still married), or experience violent outbursts. “Caligula” first appeared in For the Union Dead as a poem of 52 lines in rhymed couplets, then again in Notebook 1967-1968 and Notebook as a 14-line digest of the original, retaining whole lines unaltered, and finally as “Caligula 2” in History. Compared to “History,” “Caligula 2” feels perfunctory, descriptive in a basic sense (“bald head, thin neck”), with the unsuccessful use of the tabloid “Item” to describe both the young Lowell and Roman emperor while vaguely conjuring some connection between the latter’s paranoid violence and that of the poet. It is reminiscent of the canned histories one encounters in Pound’s later Cantos, when, after such a lyrical and promising beginning, the sequence began to fill with quotes and facts from whatever history Pound happened to be reading at the time. Perhaps it is impossible to keep up the intensity of a long poem in the absence of a narrative thread. What one is left with is a series of fragments, at best connected to each other by theme or style, or, mostly likely, the passing fascinations or events in the poet’s life. Besides all this, the larger body of the For the Union Dead version of “Caligula,” from which the Notebook poem was cut, has much to recommend it and is probably preferable to both of the revisions.
Notebook Poems as Reportage and Confession, and the Perils of Compulsion and Revision
The Notebook style of poem may not be ideally suited to historical meditations or even poems of intimate revelation, but they do work very well as vessels for reportage. John Thompson felt that the brevity of the sonnet ‘‘relieves the poetry of the burden of exposition and encourages [Lowell] to get lyric about anything that catches his fancy.”xxxvi Clive James figured that the “sub-sequences of the proliferating sonnets [could] form round any theme.”xxxvii It was a way for a poet to keep writing without waiting for inspiration. The form became a catch-all for an increasingly kaleidoscopic and disorganized life. Frances Ferguson states that the “poetry of the notebooks is a poetry of restlessness.”xxxviii Kay Redfield Jamison points out that Lowell was “put on lithium at the time he really started writing the sonnets, and that perhaps he was still pretty driven but more controlled.”xxxix At the stage of his life in which he wrote the poems, Lowell was a very public man with the attendant distractions and duties that role implies. This was also the era of what Tom Wolfe in 1973 dubbed the trend toward New Journalism of the sort wielded by Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Norman Mailer, all of whom who leapt into it with great alacrity. The New Journalism placed the writer at the center of the drama when reporting on lifestyle trends or world events. It tended to be written using fictional techniques of psychological development and fully developed settings, and it often bordered on the outrageous, or “gonzo” as Thompson called it.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning account Armies of the Night, Mailer describes the October 1967 march on the Pentagon, a gathering that attracted a broad array of participants, including both members of the old New England and New York literary aristocracy and younger individuals, representing various incarnations of the New Left, who tended to be more vociferous and inflexible in their opinions. Mailer’s description of the day is quite amusing and self-glorifying (he refers to himself in the third person). He recounts locking arms with Noam Chomsky and Robert Lowell in the vanguard of the march, also describing what he felt to be Lowell’s “personal attractiveness,” which he found “immense.” Like these novelists, Lowell adapted poetry to the task. Lowell’s own account of the day appears in the poems “March 1” and “March 2.” In Ernest J. Smith’s essay “Approaching Our Maturity”—which appears in Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell, & Co: Middle Generation Poets in Context, edited by Suzanne Ferguson—we learn that
even in poems such as Lowell’s “The March” I and II, where he presents himself participating in the march on the Pentagon, the poet is more witness and commentator than activist. Part of what enables this dual sense of involvement and detachment is the use of a traditional poetic form, the sonnet, sufficiently varied in structure, subject, and tone to be completely contemporary, in a way similar, as Lowell acknowledged, to how Berryman’s Dream Songs resemble sonnets yet sound and feel like nothing else before them in American poetry.xl
On the other hand, the more clearly “confessional” poems tend to focus on his private life with his second wife, the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick—to whom he was married from 1949 until 1972, when they divorced—and with his third wife, English writer (and heiress to the Guinness brewing fortune) Caroline Blackwood. The poems in For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin are excruciatingly personal, detailed, and, not surprisingly, controversial. For the poems, Lowell went so far as to draw directly from private letters written by Hardwick. Lowell quite literally versified the content of the letters, sparking much anger among mutual friends, including Donald Hall and Adrienne Rich, and leading Lowell’s lifelong confidante Elizabeth Bishop to chide him in a letter when he asked her opinion of the method.
One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them . . . etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.
“But art just isn’t worth that much” could be construed as perhaps the most serious charge one could level against the Confessional School at large, though in this case Lowell claims to have modified experiences and intimate facts, pleading to Elizabeth Bishop in an Easter 1972 letter that “my versions of her are true enough, only softer and drastically cut. The original is heartbreaking, but interminable.” Thomas Travisano writes that
In these unrhymed sonnet sequences Lowell had discovered a form that lent itself quite freely to the art of pen portraiture. And in these books one can readily see that use of letters (both those written by him and to him) had come to permeate the texture of Lowell’s verse. Lowell’s quotations from, or appropriations of, his estranged wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s anguished letters to him are the most famous case of this use of letters, but in fact the employment of letters—to and from—as a kind of mine or granite quarry out of which raw material for poetry might be hewn had come to feature as an essential element of Lowell’s poetic arsenal. It is thus ironic that Lowell’s correspondence with Bishop may have provided him with the technique and disposition to use Hardwick’s letters in his poems, an act to which Bishop objected in a series of 1972 letters in the most strenuous terms. Yet, as I’ve suggested, the letters from Hardwick are only one of many examples of the use of letters in the sonneteering volumes. I think this suggests just how important the elements of quotidian observation and intimate discourse between friends had become for Lowell, a poet whose style had at one time seemed remotely formal, forbidding—indeed, awash in a briny sea of arcane references and violent symbols.xli
Setting to one side the moral dimensions of Lowell’s appropriation of private correspondence, one still finds it difficult to conclude that his use of that material—construed as collage, found text (neither of which technique would have appealed to Lowell), or simply a jolt of authenticity—does much to improve the Notebook-style poem. By way of example, “Records,” from The Dolphin, feels chatty, somewhat portentous, but reads less as a poem than as a big quotation, a piece of dialogue heard from only one side. Lowell even places the entire poem into quotes.
“. . . I was playing records on Sunday,
arranging all my records, and I came
on some of your voice, and started to suggest
that Harriet listen: then immediately
we both shook our heads. It was like hearing
the voice of the beloved who had died.
All this is a new feeling . . . I got the letter
this morning, the letter you wrote me Saturday.
I thought my heart would break a thousand times,
but I would rather have read it a thousand times
than the detached unreal ones you wrote before—
you doomed to know what I have known with you,
lying with someone fighting unreality—
love vanquished by his mysterious carelessness.”
It is hard to engage with the poem in a way that avoids the simultaneous sensations of eavesdropping and that utter boredom one feels at the minor points of another’s private life. It’s unseemly when compared with the bigger scope, and bigger language, of the historical poems.
Kay Redfield Jamison describes a curious division of labor between composition and revision made possible by Lowell’s bipolar disorder.
When you go to the library [to look at manuscripts], [Lowell] has a combination of incredibly bad handwriting and, when you look at a poem, he has 30 pages on the poem of revision. So it’s a nightmare . . . what you can see is that he revised a lot. . . . Jonathan Raban said he wrote when he was manic, and he revised when he was depressed.
Of course it should be remembered that Lowell was not the first American poet to revise his poems in public. Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass in 1855 and never stopped revising and enlarging the volume over the following decades, finally issuing as many as nine separate editions (depending on how one counts them), ending with the 1891-1892 “Deathbed Edition,” though his revisions don’t seem as desperately obsessive as Lowell’s. Still, one may ask if Lowell’s poems are at all improved after revision. William Logan doesn’t think so. Frances Ferguson believes that Lowell traded the “poetry of vision” found in his earlier work for “a poetics of revision in subsequent work,” and this may explain why so few of the individual poems or lines in the Notebook poems are memorable.xlii In fact, Lowell would confess to Elizabeth Bishop in a letter of January 18, 1974, only a little more than three years before his death, that “like other revisers,” he found himself guilty of “spoiling by polishing.”
Lowell lived only four more years after the triple publications of 1973. His last book, Day by Day, appeared in May 1977. Lowell passed away in the back of a taxi cab in New York that September, aged 60, on his way back to Hardwick after having left Blackwood. The book, which won the National Book Critics Circle award that year, is a departure from the Notebook poems, revealing a more sensitive, tranquil Lowell. Day by Day feels very much like a last book. In the fittingly titled “Epilogue,” Lowell reflects on all that came before, the manias, the loves, betrayals, confessions, revelations, successes, and failures:
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
This could be a summary of the Notebook poems themselves.
So what verdicts have critics reached on the Notebook poems? Writing in the January 1975 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Helen Vendler observed that “the brutal force of the three books taken at once forced energetic postures of repudiation or championship from all his readers.” Marjorie Perloff derided the Notebook poems as “trivial and catty.” Calvin Bedient called them “inchoate and desultory,” poems that “never accumulate and break in the great way.” A. O. Scott wrote that reading the three 1973 volumes in order felt like “one damn sonnet after the other,” inducing “more stupor than rapture.” However, he goes on to temper his criticism by reflecting that
every great novel has its longueurs to compensate for the moments of high drama and vivid description. To read Lowell in sequence is to discover that he was indeed a supreme maker—not just of individual lyrics, but of sequences, of books (which he ordered and reordered with the same fanatical care he brought to lines and stanzas), and, above all, of his own biography.xliii
Others were more encouraging. William Meredith declared Notebook 1967-1968 a “beautiful and major work,” though he admitted it was “imperfect.” Christopher Bakken describes the experience of reading all of the poems as being “akin to listening to an obsessive musician riff upon the same scale decade after decade,” though conceding that Lowell produced in the long sequences some of the “best individual sonnets we have in modern English.”xliv Stephen Burt has written that “the energetic Lowell of the late blank-verse sonnets . . . seem[s] to me a far more original, more conscious, more powerful poetry than most readers now acknowledge.”xlv
William H. Pritchard explains in the New York Times that no consensus has been reached regarding what he calls the “late Lowell” poems, including the Notebook poems. He mentions that I. A. Richards wrote in a letter to Lowell (likely unsent) that
The tone, the address, the reiteration, the lacunae in convexity, the privacy of the allusions, the use of references which only the Ph.D. duties of the 1990’s will explain, the recourse to contemporary crudities, the personal note, the ‘it’s enough if I say it’ air, the assumption that ‘you must sympathize with my moans, my boredom, my belches’ . . . puzzle me.xlvi
Despite these accusations, Pritchard still thinks that “one could name 30 or 40 of the sonnets with passages gripping enough to lodge them in our minds and ears.” Looking at the book as a long poem, Clive James senses that “Notebook’s structure was rhapsodic—an adjective which, in its technical sense, we associate with the Homeric epic.”xlvii One can only imagine how that would have pleased Lowell, who summoned Homer in his letters as he began work on the Notebook poems. Adam Kirsch believes that, rather than marking the end of Lowell’s important work, the Notebook poems actually were the last major phase before the decline set in:
Lowell had written exclusively in a form of his own invention, an unrhymed sonnet of fourteen densely packed lines. These sonnets, collected in his magnificent books History and The Dolphin, are almost never perfectly wrought, with the concentrated symbolic force of Lowell’s early poems. They are, rather, negligently magnificent, the rapid sketches of an artist who delights in capturing a subject in a few quick strokes, then moving on to another. The sheer number of Lowell’s sonnets—he wrote many hundreds—is a kind of statement. Reading them, we have the sense that Lowell is like a man with a huge fortune, able to strew his riches carelessly around.xlviii
One measure of importance accorded the Notebook poems is the varying amounts of space given over to them in anthologies. Helen Vendler gave a strong nod of approval when she included thirteen of them in her 1985 Harvard Book of Contemporary Poetry (by way of comparison, James Dickey, who still loomed large at the time, was given a total of seven pages). Richard Ellmann’s 1976 Oxford Book of American Verse allots five pages to them, while David Lehman’s Oxford Book of American Poetry, in 2006, finds room for only one, “The Dolphin” (which appears in Ellmann’s as well). Likewise, the 1988 second edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, edited by Robert O’Clair and Richard Ellmann, contains seven Notebook poems, including again “The Dolphin,” while the 2003 third edition, with editorial additions and extractions made by Jahan Ramazani, reduces that number to only two (one being, again, “The Dolphin”). Rita Dove’s 2013 Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry eliminates them altogether (Lowell’s work as a whole is almost absent).
In 1987, two years after Vendler’s anthology, Harold Bloom pronounced that “time . . . seems to have darkened Lowell’s aura in the decade since his death.”xlix Perhaps it is telling that in this centenary year, which sees the publication of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s New Selected Poems, edited by Katie Peterson, and a reissue of the often-paired Life Studies and For the Union Dead under the FSG Classics banner (the 1968 Harvest/HBJ Book mass market pairing is still in print), there has been no notable determination to rehabilitate the Notebook poems with new editions (Notebook 1967-1968 has remained almost continuously in print, the most recent edition being 2009). Collections of correspondence, such as the 2005 The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton, or the 2010 Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, attract more interest among readers than one can imagine would be the case for the Notebook poems. Why not go straight to the life, if that’s what one is after?
When one sets the poems in Life Studies, which Lowell worked on for years before publication, alongside the poems in the Notebook editions, which were written with white hot speed and then revised, sometimes haphazardly, it becomes abundantly clear that even a major poet of incredible talent needs to spend time slowly working on poems if they are to be worth reading. Triumphs of poetry appear in quality not quantity. Given Lowell’s diminished position, it is hard to imagine any save the greatest devotees expending time and energy on the Notebook poems, much less taking care to read them in all five incarnations. The enterprise seems too daunting and unlikely to pay great dividends. I performed this task (Herculean or Fool’s, as you please) over many months, consuming a handful of the poems each morning and evening on my trolley commutes in Philadelphia where I live and work. It is a solemn undertaking, and it is hard to deny that Lowell’s most punishing critics may have gotten something right about the Notebook poems being less than memorable and uneven in quality. Nonetheless, they yield great surprises. Each turn of the page opens the possibility of strange and utterly original poetry—“negligently magnificent” as Kirsch has it—nearly forgotten among longer passages of clumsy lines and opaque expressions. The very fact that Lowell could try the patience of readers with such an ambitious and yet rapidly-composed quantity of poems, revised and reissued only a year later, and then rewritten and reissued in three more collections three years on, all from a major New York publisher, speaks to the incredibly honored position Lowell held in American letters, a position no poet may ever hold again.
Were such exertions on the part of his publisher worth the trouble? David Bromwich believes that “Notebook marks a point of departure for Robert Lowell—the declaration of a new form, therefore a new content—just as significant as his earlier shift in Life Studies,” but he feels it can’t have much influence on later writers because, plainly put, “the style it invents is bad.”l The lexical unwieldiness of the Notebook poems makes them unlikely candidates for rediscovery. It is impossible to imagine an editor wanting to publish a selected edition of them because it would constitute not only a bibliographical nightmare but would also be confusing to readers, and would at the same time undermine Lowell’s idea of a long poem or poems. In the Collected Poems, Bidart and Gewanter chose to sidestep the Notebook 1967-1968 and Notebook altogether, reproducing the three 1973 volumes along with a few pages of Notebook poems consigned to an appendix (even with this maneuver, Bakken counts “607 fourteen-line poems in the Collected”).
Still, I find myself almost endlessly fascinated by the Notebook poems and return to them often. They determined to some degree the approach I chose to use for the poems that appeared in my first two collections, both of which were long series of 14 line poems, borrowing some of Lowell’s line structures, both in and out of verse, though mine rhymed. I believe the Notebook poems remain worth reading for enthusiasts of Lowell’s work and for serious poets. The poems may be profitably quarried for brilliant lines and images that shine out like gemstones in the rock of surrounding poetry. Reading these poems, one can become immersed—through the lines of a virtuoso—in a fascinating life and in a captivating era of American history. After Lowell’s death, Bishop would write “You can’t derange, or re-arrange, / your poems again.” We must negotiate for ourselves what to do with what he left us, so much that is monotonous and so much that is sublime, and it remains a most serious negotiation.
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