Sounding Lowell: Louise Glück and Derek Walcott

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Little would seem to unite Louise Glück and Derek Walcott, for their styles diverge in most respects. Glück is remarkable for her restraint, her suggestive elisions, her interest in the minutiae of parable; Walcott for his lushness of description, his breadth of scope and reference, his clear love of epic. But both poets owe much to Robert Lowell, even if they took up different aspects of his writing for their own purposes. Their common debt hints at the extent of Lowell’s influence on English poetry. It also provides a fitting testament to his flexibility as a model and companion.

Lowell’s importance to Walcott is something Walcott himself readily owned. In an essay written shortly after the poet’s death, he observed that: “My style had been, perhaps still is, that of the magpie. A bit here, a bit there, hopping from one poet to another, but it wasn’t that of the buzzard. I had practiced Imitations all my life, and I had given up hope of not sounding like Lowell.” Notice how quickly these sentences slide from the magpie, and its scattershot pickings, to the permanent shadow of Robert Lowell. “Old New England,” from The Fortunate Traveler (1982), is certainly haunted by Lowell. J.D. McClatchy has criticized the poem for betraying too “direct” an influence, yet to me it reads as a conscious homage to a poet who had died just five years prior. Walcott begins:

Black clippers, tarred with whales’ blood, fold their sails entering New Bedford, New London, New Haven. A white church spire whistles into space like a swordfish, a rocker pierces heaven as the thawed springs in icy chevrons race down hillsides and Old Glories flail the crosses of green farm boys back from ’Nam.

The poem does far more than imitate. Walcott is writing in the style of Lowell, but at the same time he alludes richly to Lowell, so the poem acts as both a formal exercise and a tribute. In just seven lines, he conjures up the Old Glory in Lowell’s “The Old Flame” and The Old Glory; the whales from “Waking in the Blue,” “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” and other poems; as well as the “old white churches,” the “small town New England greens,” the “giant finned cars,” and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial sticking “like a fishbone / in the city’s throat” in “For the Union Dead.” None of these references are so close to the original that they read as quotations, and no phrase is so foregrounded that it becomes a stand-in for the rest. Walcott swirls around his allusions, playing them off one another and working by association. In doing so, he evokes the music of Lowell’s poetry—the hard stresses, the knock of consonant against consonant, the veering turns of syntax—and his world of ocean, church, New England towns, and Old Glories.

Importantly for our purposes, the poem reveals which aspects of Lowell’s verse he found most useful for his own writing. Some belong to the realm of technique, like the compression of images from different contexts into a single metaphor. For an example in Lowell, one need only think of the “yellow dinosaur steamshovels” from “For the Union Dead,” or the palace tower that is also a “hypodermic needle” in “Florence.” Walcott out-Lowells Lowell at the start of “Old New England” by describing a church spire that becomes a rocket that becomes a fish. He uses this technique throughout his writing, as when the ocean in “The Sea Is History” “kept turning blank pages”; but he sometimes changes its tenor by layering scenes from history and myth onto present-day landscapes. In “Greece,” for example: “the rooted phalanx of coconuts, / Trojan and Spartan, stood with rusting helms.” Something similar happens in the second stanza of “Old New England”:

The war whoop is coiled tight in the white owl, stone-feathered icon of the Indian soul, and railway lines are arrowing to the far mountainwide absence of the Iroquois.

Yet the historical application of Lowell’s compression technique is not really a break from Lowell, for it resonates with one of his deepest beliefs (noted by Helen Vendler and others) that our civic responsibility depends on our willingness to face—and face up to—the past. To Lowell, historical figures like Caligula, Lincoln, or Robert Shaw are living presences we must confront in our own era. Walcott, who once wrote a poem in which he encounters Ovid in modern-day Los Angeles, shares this distinctive relationship with history. The “mountainwide absence of the Iroquois” is really a mountainwide presence.

This technique points to a broader affinity between the two poets. Lowell taught Walcott how to weigh the politics of the present against his own private sensibility, and combine a long view of history with the resonance of an individual voice. The effect is often curious and hard to describe:

The hillside is still wounded by the spire of the white meetinghouse, the Indian trail trickles down it like the brown blood of the whale in rowanberries bubbling like the spoor on logs burnt black as Bibles by hellfire.

What kind of speaker are we dealing with here? This is not the impersonal perspective one might find in a poet like Auden, for instance. While the first-person singular never appears, the passage does seem to be spoken by an individual voice, so an implicit I stands at the back of each line. At the same time, the poet does not claim the status of a prophet or visionary. He is not the source of these insights, but a consciousness attempting to record them. That restraint also comes, at least in part, from Lowell’s poetry, where the I tends to be fragile or deeply conscious of its delusions of grandeur, while the we is typically compromised, only rarely authoritative. “Fourth of July in Maine,” for instance, begins with the phrase “Our Independence Day” to point out the paradox of a communal identity founded on separation. In a more sorrowful register, “Waking Early Sunday Morning” makes the oratorical first-person plural part of the monotony lamented in the phrase “our monotonous sublime.” Compare these to the end of Walcott’s “Old New England,” where God is projected onto the New England landscape:

His harpoon is the white lance of the church, His wandering mind a trail folded in birch, His rage the vats that boiled the melted beast when black clippers brought (knotting each shroud round the crosstrees) our sons home from the East.

That “our” is almost certainly American, so the pronoun—and the point of view surrounding it—get handed to Lowell in a final homage. At the same time, the borrowed quality of that phrase “our sons” reins in whatever patriotism might have lifted it into the realm of oratory. This is not a first-person plural Walcott can participate in, and his distance from it encourages us to distance ourselves in turn. Like Lowell, and thanks in no small part to him, Walcott wrote public-minded poems that acknowledged the risks inherent to public writing: the danger of assuming too grand a role, of speaking for a people, and of believing oneself a political authority. This New England poet showed Walcott how to address issues of civic importance without thinking it granted him any special importance as an individual.

Glück’s Lowell does not go against Walcott’s, though their differences reveal the variety of readings his poetry can accommodate. Of course, to say that Glück was influenced by Lowell is hardly a new proposition. Frank Bidart, Elizabeth Dodd, Robert Miklitsch, and Burton Raffel have all made a point of this; and David Orr has even deemed Lowell’s shadow in her early work to be “overwhelming.” Of the opening lines in “The Lady in the Single”—“Cloistered as the nail and conch / in Edgartown where the Atlantic / Rises to deposit junk / On plush, extensive sand and the pedantic / Meet for tea”—he says, a touch dismissively: “This may as well have ‘Lowell 1959’ stamped on it.” But Lowell’s influence extends beyond her first volumes in subtler ways. Her middle and late poems fittingly make use of his own later poetry—the collections For Lizzie and Harriet, The Dolphin, and Day by Day—so that she can be seen maturing with and through Lowell. Crucially, her work of the past twenty years does not imitate the obvious sonic effects of “Lowell 1959,” but rather probes the dynamics of his poetic voice.

For voice is key to her indebtedness to Lowell, as it was for Walcott, though the tones she adopted and adapted for herself were distinct. Glück’s definition of voice is worth quoting here; it is both less vague and more capacious than that commonly used in the wake of “confessional poetry”—a category she is sometimes associated with, but which she never claimed for herself. In her introduction to The Best American Poetry (1993), she argues that “the poem, no matter how charged its content, survives not through content but through voice,” and goes on to explain:

By voice I mean style of thought, for which a style of speech—the clever grafts and borrowings, the habitual gestures scattered like clues in the lines—never convincingly substitutes. We fall back on that term, voice, for all its insufficiencies; it suggests, at least, the sound of an authentic being. Although such sound may draw on the poet’s actual manner of speech, it is not, on the page, transcription. The voice is at liberty to excerpt, to exaggerate, to bypass what it chooses, to issue from conditions the real world will never reproduce; unlike speech, it bears no immediate social pressure, since the other to whom it strives to make itself clear may not yet exist. The poem means to create the person, first in the poet, then in the reader.

To borrow Glück’s distinction, the lines from “The Lady in the Single” cleverly graft and borrow Lowell’s early “style of speech,” whereas her later work proceeds from a “style of thought” that owes something—that owes much, even—to Lowell’s later writing.

Of course, styles of thought express themselves in and through styles of speech. The following lines from “Ulysses and Circe” are representative of Lowell’s later rhetoric:

After so many millennia, Circe, are you tired of turning swine into swine?

How can I please you, if I am not a man?

I have grown bleak-boned with survival— I who hoped to leave the earth younger than I came.

Age is the bilge we cannot shake from the mop.

Each sentence feels curiously isolated from those that surround it—not only by the blank spaces that make sentences into stanzas, but also by the tone and rhythm of the lines themselves, and the absence of any real transition between statements. (To move from the third to the fourth stanza is to shift radically from the small-voiced lament of an individual speaker to a universal proverb.) The questions appear to be cast off into silence: we are made to feel the absence of response, so that the speaker’s direct appeal remains a soliloquy, performed in solitude. “Ulysses and Circe,” like much of Lowell’s later work, is a poem painfully coming to terms with the loneliness of the lyric speaker, whose addressee remains a fiction, and whose audience may never materialize.

Compare this to the following lines from “Penelope’s Stubbornness” by Glück, collected in Meadowlands (1996):

…………. My thoughts are deep and my memory long; why would I envy such freedom when I have humanity? Those with the smallest hearts have the greatest freedom.

The reimagining of a classical epic as lyric poem—Lowell speaking through Ulysses, Glück speaking through Penelope—is perhaps the least interesting connection between two poems that share much at the level of tone, rhythm, address, and structure, even as Glück’s effects are far bolder. The questions here are plainly rhetorical; the shift from individual expression to general maxim comes even more abruptly; and the poem’s various gaps—between sentences, as well as between poet, addressee, and reader—have deepened. Glück learned from Lowell how to make the loneliness of lyric part of a poem’s sound and texture. What sets her speakers apart from his is their defiance. Consider the lines from “Cana”:

What can I tell you that you don’t know that will make you tremble again?

Forsythia by the roadside, by wet rocks, on the embankments underplanted with hyacinth—

For ten years I was happy.

And now she is happy no longer, though what she wants—as she makes clear from the start—is to make you tremble, not cry.

Walcott also identified the messy, alienated qualities in Lowell’s writing, and invented a grand metaphor for them:

All of his writing is about writing, all of his poetry is about the pain of making poems. The physical labor. He doesn’t sweep the fragments off the floor of his study, or studio, and show you only the finished sculpture. In History you see the armature, the failed fragments, the fix, but every new book was an upheaval that had critics scuttling. … Criticism of Lowell is more seismographic than aesthetic.

Like Lowell, Glück makes the difficulty of speech one of her chief subjects; she takes the “failed fragments” other poets might prefer to conceal, and instead arranges and displays them. For both artists, these strains become a way to represent accurately the writer’s experience. Glück sought to describe that experience in the essay “The Education of the Poet”:

The fundamental experience of the writer is helplessness. This does not mean to distinguish writing from being alive: it means to correct the fantasy that creative work is an ongoing record of the triumph of volition, that the writer is someone who has the good luck to be able to do what he or she wishes to do: to confidently and regularly imprint his being on a sheet of paper. But writing is not decanting of personality. And most writers spend much of their time in various kinds of torment: wanting to write, being unable to write; wanting to write differently, being unable to write differently. In a whole lifetime, years are spent waiting to be claimed by an idea.

“Writing is not a decanting of personality.” Nor does she believe it simply mirrors the facts and feelings experienced by the author in her own life. In the introduction to The Best American Poetry (1993), she admits that while “poems are autobiography,” they are also “divested of the trappings of chronology and comment, the metronomic alternation of anecdote and response.”

Art’s truth is as different from sincerity’s honest disclosure as it is different from the truth administered in the doctor’s office, that sequence of knowns which the doctor, newly trained to respect the patient’s dignity, makes wholly available, affording, in the process, glimpses into a world of probabilities and strategies, the world of action transposed to conditions in which action can do only so much. The poem may embody perception so luminous it seems truth, but what keeps it alive is not fixed discovery but the means to discovery; what keeps it alive is intelligence.

Glück would clearly resist the habit of reading Lowell’s poems as crystallizations of the self or self-exposure. She prizes Lowell for his ability to capture the mind searching, doubling back on itself, failing to resolve its own questions, and pressing on. And this is where Louise Glück and Derek Walcott, two contemporaries who seem worlds apart in many regards, intersect. For what better way to describe Walcott’s poetry than to say it is kept alive not by a “fixed discovery,” but by “the means of discovery”—a voice conscious both of the world’s pressures and of its own limitations, and pressing on nonetheless.