The postmodern turn in Robert Lowell's poetry.
T. S. Eliot's recent prediction that we should soon see a return to formal and even intricate meters and stanzas was coming true . . . in the verse of Robert Lowell. Every poem in the book has a formal pattern, either the poet's own or one borrowed.... (36)
Both Eliot and Pound made favorable pronouncements. With Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs Lowell became the preeminent young American poet of the 1940s and 1950s. Over twenty years after his death, however, Lowell remains in the grip of the New Critical formalism that created him, despite his considerable effort to move away from it. Life Studies, For the Union Dead, and Near the Ocean are still viewed as products of the teachings of Tate and Ransom, and these works remain ensconced in their critical stance. Early in his career Lowell embraced Eliot and Pound, and he died bearing the burden of his embrace: "for Lowell and his contemporaries" were "born not before or after but with Modernism"; therefore, their victories "were not likely to be achieved" (Gilbert 72).
I wish to address the complexities of Lowell's efforts to alter his work into what we now call the postmodern. Despite his poems after Life Studies, he continued to be viewed as the heir to the modernism of Eliot, Pound, and Tate, as if his poetry were still meant to be evaluated according to the New Critical tenets established by Ransom and Cleanth Brooks. Lowell's work has been treated with relative indifference by those who superseded the New Critics. His ties to an earlier generation of poets and his reigning stature among the New Critics did nothing to make his work palatable to new critical perspectives. Harold Bloom, for instance, dismisses Lowell as one who has made a weak misreading of his own life and consequently will ultimately be viewed as a rather weak poet (1). Lowell's work poses too many problems for postmodern critics who are interested in maldng distinctions between modernism and postmodernism, in determining where the first ended and the second began. From Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs, both essentially governed by the Modernist and New Critical aesthetic, to Life Studies and after, there is a change, a movement, in Lowell's poetry that repeats the discussions found in the modernist-postmodernist debate. My purpose here is to say that Lowell's work should not continue to be held hostage to New Critical paradigms, or to conflicts about literary history. Instead, Lowell's later work from Life Studies to The Dolphin, For Lizzie and Harriet, and History ought to be viewed as his version of the "postmodern turn."
In his early work, Lowell was a traditionalist from the standpoint of poetics and religion, a formalist and Roman Catholic and friend to Flannery O'Connor. Beginning with Life Studies, Lowell rejected the emphasis on strict metrical and stanzaic forms as well as the religious basis of his earlier work. With Life Studies, he began to write what has come to be known as confessional poetry, which some commentators, such as Steven Axelrod, believe originated on the evening of November 18, 1953, when W.D. Snodgrass wrote on his concert program lines that became the beginning of "Heart's Needle": "Child of my winter, born I When the new soldiers died / On the ice hills, when I was torn." According to Axelrod, these lines contain the essentials of confessional poetry: "an undisguised exposure of painful personal events (in this case Snodgrass's divorce and separation from a child), a dialectic of private matter with public matter (the Korean War), and an intimate, unornamental style" (98). It is this mixture of "pri vate" and "public matter" in Lowell's poetry that I wish to examine as distinctly postmodern.
As the fifties progressed through the Korean War and with the rise of the Beat poets, Lowell began to reassess his own accomplishment, believing his poems "seemed distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult," or they "seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down into the bog and death by their ponderous armor" (qtd. in Kalstone 81). By this time he had befriended William Carlos Williams and W.D. Snodgrass; he wanted more directness, more honesty and authenticity in his work. Listening to the Beat poets, Lowell said of his own poems: "I was still reading my old New Criticism religious symbolic poems. . ." (81). When Allen Tate read Lowell's drafts of the poems about his family that became part of Life Studies, Tate tried to get Lowell to suppress the poems or at least to re-write them. They were too confessional, too private, a denial of the Modernist axiom of impersonalization. These poems were also formless in Tate's view. William Carlos Williams, on the other hand, paid tribute to Lowell's accomplishme nt, telling him in effect that he had created a new voice, a new honesty.
In Life Studies and the volumes after, Lowell responds openly to the ephemeral and chaotic in a manner that is strikingly different from the closed off stanzaic patterns and the doctrinaire certainties of Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs. Not only does he accept discontinuity and fragmentation as any good modernist does, as well as ephemerality and the chaotic, but like any good postmodernist, he "does not try to transcend [them], counteract [them], or even to define the 'eternal and immutable' elements that might lie within [them]" (Harvey 44). Yet, these very qualities in Life Studies expose Lowell to the following charges:
Thus, though history both public and private is naturally the subject of most of these history imprisoned poems, history here is not a chronicle of grandeur, or even of grandeur diminished, but a compendium of trivial details and tedious repetitions. Where Pound and Eliot weave entrancing webs of quotations, or at least shore fragments of the Western mind against their ruins, Lowell shores his New England up with sandbags full of facts, names, dates. (Gilbert 72)
Sandra Gilbert's commentary about Life Studies, her observation about "history imprisoned poems," has been applied to Lowell's sonnet sequences, beginning with Notebook 1967-1968. However, as Professor Gilbert suggests, there is little doubt that these attributes have their beginnings in Life Studies in such poems as "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" and "Dunbarton." Without specifically saying so, Professor Gilbert is addressing some of the risks or, depending upon one's point of view, some of the negative attributes of postmodernism usually associated with an emphasis on facts and documentation made in an effort to focus on the micro-politics of local circumstances. Eliot and Pound wrote grand narratives, embodying the stance of the artist embracing literary modernism. They addressed themselves to the conceptual frameworks of the various human sciences: anthropology in the case of Eliot, economics in the case of Pound. Lowell's poetry, on the other hand, is much more conventionally historical. He documents his personal life just as writers typically do who are confessional. The result is a kind of claustrophobia that at times speaks profoundly while at other times is tedious. Some of the poems from Life Studies through The Dolphin seem trivial, filled with facts, names and dates. But many of the poems also have a grandeur that is not diminished even when the history in question perhaps is, as in "Inauguration Day: January 1953":
The snow had buried Stuyvesant. The subways drummed the vaults. I heard the El's green girders charge on Third, Manhattan's truss of adamant, that groaned in ermine, slummed on want .... Cyclonic zero of the word, God of our armies, who interred Cold Harbor's blue immortals, Grant! Horseman, your sword is in the groove! Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move. Look, the fixed stars, all just alike as lack-land atoms, split apart, and the Republic summons Ike, the mausoleum in her heart. (Life Studies 7)
The "green girders" are at once a terrible weight and yet support the city of Manhattan; they are both strength and burden. All the meanings of "ermine" apply. The snow, the "white" of the ermine, causes the wheels of the elevated train to work harder. The people who overwhelm Manhattan are like weasels, carnivorous, aggrandizing, and territorial. Those who are wealthy enough to wear the furs of ermine also possess a parasitic relationship to the city. Lowell suggests that the elevated train is living off the poor since it "slummed on want." The first poem of Life Studies, "Beyond the Alps," views Rome as a precursor to the United States as empire, and in "Inauguration Day: January 1953," there is the sense that the fate of this country will be the same as that of Rome.
Grant's Tomb is in New York. The country has elected another victorious General after a war, and the implication is that Eisenhower will prove as poor a President as Grant. Ice symbolizes the death and inertia which reigns over the American people. Under the aegis of Eisenhower, they will turn the country into a kind of spiritual tomb and continue the Cold War policies of the late 1940s. From the political and social standpoint, this poem reiterates Lowell's vision of the fifties in "Memories of West Street and Lepke" "where even the man / scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, / has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, / and is a 'young Republican"' (Life 85).
"Skunk Hour," the last poem in Life Studies, repeats the sense of living death found in "Inauguration Day: January 1953," but it is now on a personal level. Lowell finds value in the skunk's commitment to its own existence and its responsibility for its children. As Charles Altieri says, "The skunk's rooting the garbage takes on overtones of a sacramental meal, and the blending of religious overtones with radically de-sacralized phenomena creates an emblem which frequently recurs in contemporary poetry" (618). Confessional poets like Lowell have willfully deprived themselves of philosophical, cultural, and most of all, mythic universals. Poetic intensity is created exclusively by way of a "tortured presence" and "aesthetic patterning" (616). Lowell's confessional poetry seems resigned to self-pity and real pessimism about the failure of American culture.
Lowell was at this time without Christian belief, without metaphysics, without anything except the present moment, swatches of time which he attempts to apprehend in the sonnets. (1) In the autobiographical Life Studies, Lowell manages to successfully avoid what poststructuralists such as Derrida will later critique: "the autobiographical project -- namely, a self that proposes to speak about its self and the apparent circularity of a narrative that recounts the spiritual experiences that enabled it to come into being as a narrative -- would seem to be one of the most egregious examples of literary totalization that one can imagine" (Robbins 24). There is no hint of a spiritual experience in Life Studies, nor is the narrative circular, turning back upon itself in order to offer an explanation of events in terms of some grand narrative. Instead, the poems describe circumstances, situations, each in their own contexts which do not extend beyond them.
If the "Republic summons Ike, / the mausoleum in her heart," a father figure to the country if ever there was one, and there exists this sense of inertia, the same is true for Lowell's own family and more particularly, of his father. In Life Studies, the public and private are equally deadening, and there are several passages that describe Lowell's absent father and his surrogate father, his grandfather:
Daddy was still on sea-duty in the Pacific; It seemed spontaneous and proper For Mr. MacDonald, the farmer, Karl, the chauffeur, and even my Grandmother To say, "your Father." They meant my Grandfather. ("Dunbarton" 5-9)
In the next line, Lowell says about his grandfather: "He was my Father. I was his son" (10). His father was in the Navy and on sea-duty in the Pacific. When his father left the Navy, he "deeded Mother his property" ("Commander Lowell" 44) and proceeded into a downward spiral where each year he seemed less successful than the last. "Commander Lowell" is touching and pathetic, the antithesis of the strong father who claims his heritage and his future. In History, the sonnet entitled "Father," which first appears in Lord Weary's Castle as "Rebellion," makes clear the dilemma between father and son:
There was rebellion, Father, and the door was slammed. Front doors were safe with glass then... you fell backward on your heirloom-clock, the phases of the moon, the highboy quaking to its toes. My Father... I haven't lost heart to say I knocked you down.... I have breathed the seclusion of the life-tight den, card laid on card until the pack is used, old Helios turning the houseplants to blondes, moondust blowing in the prowling eye-- a parental sentence on each step misplaced.... You were further from Death then I am now-- that student ageless in her green cloud of hash, her bed a mattress half a foot off floor... as far from us as her young breasts will stretch. (History 113)
There is an almost shameless candor in this sonnet, yet there is also the hint of a real sense of shame. The sonnet suggests that the family made an effort to deny the young Lowell's "rebellion," which took place around Christmas 1936. But it undoubtedly and violently did take place, and although he is older than his father at the time of his "rebellion," his father is with him, his father is co-equal with him in the pronoun "us" of the last line, as he lies in bed in some young woman's arms, never having separated himself from his father or succeeded his father. This sonnet is far more confessional, situational, and more haunting than the first version, which alludes to "Behemoth and Leviathan." The first version is more mythological and theatrical, ending with "[w]hen the clubbed flintlock broke my father's braln." The first version also takes place in the past as a narrative poem while the second version takes place in the present, and Lowell's father lives with him in the present.
In The Ear of the Other, Derrida, in describing the dynamics of Nietzsche's relationship to his father in Ecce Homo, makes some observations that apply to Lowell and his father: "It is not only that the son does not survive his father after the latter's death, but the father was already dead; he will have died during his own life. As a 'living' father, he was already only the memory of life, of an already prior life." (17) Although Lowell's father lived much longer than Nietzsche's father, the elder Lowell was already dead in his son's experience of him, even prior to his knocking down his father. This sonnet and other poems in Life Studies make it clear that Commander Lowell died long before his own life ended. Yet, the "us" in the last line of the sonnet also suggests that Lowell did not survive his father's death as a separate identity. Robert Lowell the son does not survive, but Robert Lowell the adult is wounded by his father's visible and painful death-in-life.
Postmodernist theory denies the modernist assertion of the separation of art from other social activities. Lowell's letters to Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson make clear that Lowell was aware of the connection between art on the one hand and politics and the social realm on the other. (2) Furthermore, Lowell recognized that culture does not merely reflect power relations in society but rather the forms and representations of culture possess power in themselves (Connor 224). His Notebook certainly gives every indication of his awareness of this social dynamic. According to most observers of postmodernism, however, power is best understood as micro-political rather than macro-political, and power relations exist at every point in a society. This concept is consistent with the postmodernist notion of "local and particular forms of difference and struggle" as opposed to "all-encompassing global narratives of history and politics" (225).
Of the confessional poets of the period, Lowell managed a greater balance in his work between public occasions and intimate moments. Lowell's concern for public events is in some ways modeled after the occasional poetry of the eighteenth-century. Lowell's concern for public events was almost always mixed with the personal and confessional, as, for instance, in "For the Union Dead." Public moments became the occasion for personal reflection, while intimate moments were sometimes presented as public performances. In the midst of this world filled with contingencies, this "first period in history that has suspected everything that can be suspected" (Lang 306), Lowell, nevertheless, at least through For the Union Dead, shared the Enlightenment poet's sense of civic responsibility. In the sixties he wrote occasional poetry that celebrated liberal and leftist causes, adopting an "oppositional" stance as a poet against Lyndon Johnson's White House and the Vietnam War. He felt it was his duty to write about the polit ical and social problems of the day, of the fissures and ruptures of the local and the national. When he turned to American culture, Lowell found great difficulty in separating it from the destiny of his family, whom he viewed at once as benefactors and prisoners of the American enterprise.
"For the Union Dead" forcefully asserts that cultural representations possess inherent power in the body politic, and it also suggests that art cannot be regarded in any way as separate from other activities of a society. A postmodern vision of decay of "broken windows" that are "boarded" opens the poem, with the poet remembering his youth and what the "old South Boston Aquarium" meant to him: "My hand draws back. I often sigh still / for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom I of the fish and reptile" (9-11). The poet recalls a time when he was a child and the South Boston Aquarium was a vibrant and meaningful place, but now it is closed and boarded, waiting, perhaps, for urban renewal, which usually has little respect for the private memories of its citizens.
Then the poet recalls "one morning last March," when he "pressed against the new barbed and galvanized / fence on the Boston Common" (12-13); he views another circumstance of change, where sacred images of the past are being challenged. As a free standing work of art, the statue of Colonel Shaw is easily evaluated, even in its historical context of Colonel Shaw and the Negro soldiers going off to die in the Civil War. But in the presence of the Statehouse, the excavations, parking garages, urban renewal and progress, all part of the postmodernist landscape, the statue of Colonel Shaw becomes profoundly problematic even as a work of art, for it lacks stability and permanence:
A gridle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders braces the tingling Statehouse, shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw and his bell-checked Negro infantry on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief, propped by a plank split against the garage's earthquake. (21-24)
The statehouse "faces Colonel Shaw." The "girdle" here is like the "truss" of "Inauguration Day"; in each case strength is provided. But to what purpose? The "tingling Statehouse" suggests lack of permanence, the tentative nature of human endeavor. The very building erected by the knowledge of the Enlightenment is being made to tingle, threatening the ideas that the building represents. The girders attempt to protect the cultural and historical artifact that is the "Statehouse," while a profound change of the landscape occurs. The body politic of the fifties and sixties will risk making the "Statehouse" tremble a little at its foundations in order to render the landscape contemporary and utilitarian. The Statehouse, which represents all of the people, faces Colonel Shaw in this moment of transition. No apparent consideration is given for Colonel Shaw's sacred battle. St. Gaudens's sculpture also designates a moment of change which deserves commemoration: "Two months after marching through Boston, / half the r egiment was dead; / at the dedication, / William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe" (25-28). Yet, the statue seems a reminder of the failures that undermine its heroic stature.
What was once a heroic moment in Boston, in the Republic itself, celebrated by all, now appears almost as if it were an inconvenience: "Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat" (29-30). This striking image conveys the extent to which the monument of Colonel Shaw resides at the very nerve center of the city, the Statehouse itself. That it does so reflects Colonel Shaw' s uncompromising character. The animal imagery, the "wren" and the "greyhound," suggests that Colonel Shaw is not an easy man for the people of the Republic to embrace. Shaw is a man ruled by an idea, not the pleasures of day-to-day existence. Colonel Shaw committed his life to a grand narrative, to the Enlightenment cause of freedom of the individual. He would much prefer to bear his burden in private, without having to bear the responsibility for being a symbol to the Republic, since all he did was what was expected of him as an citizen.
There appear to be no statues commemorating World War II; instead, the closest thing to it is an advertisement for the "Mosler Safe" that could even withstand an atomic blast of the kind dropped on Hiroshima. Not only is the ditch of Colonel Shaw nearer because the construction workers are digging so close to his statue, it is also nearer to the continuing battle in the South, as if Colonel Shaw had fought for nothing. "Space is nearer" (53) to "Hiroshima boiling / over a Mosler Safe" (56-57). But it is also nearer due to the television, where he sees "the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons" (60). Throughout the poem there are a series of displacements where the subject experiences greater distance. Whenever space that is far away can be brought into close proximity, there is less community. The union needs awareness of the history of Colonel Shaw, this private man who died for a noble cause. But Colonel Shaw "is out of bounds now" (37), for he means little or nothing to the contemporar y body-politic.
"For the Union Dead" suggests that there is an incongruity between the statue of St. Gaudens and the citizens of Boston in 1960 who are more concerned with the convenience of parking garages and other types of urban renewal. There is confusion between the private concerns of individuals, whether about personal or historical issues, and the public concerns of the body politic. The statue reminds the citizens of what has not been accomplished with regard to race in this country; it reminds us of a once heroic and selfless attitude that governed the abolitionist movement. Colonel Shaw's moral and social commitments have been displaced by the images displayed on the television of events taking place hundreds of miles away. But those images also confirm the validity of Colonel Shaw' s beliefs and reaffirm his history.
At the beginning of "For the Union Dead" a child is at the South Boston Aquarium; his "nose crawled like a snail on the glass" and "bubbles" drift from "compliant fish." At the end of the poem, the aquarium is gone, and the boy now a man, instead of viewing the fish in the aquarium, watches "Negro school-children" on the television and the bubbles at the beginning of the poem are now in the "balloons" and Colonel Shaw's "bubble." The fish in the aquarium are gone and "[e]verywhere, giant finned cars nose forward like fish" (65-66). The boy at the beginning of the poem is never really seen except in terms of the changes that take place in the external world. From boyhood to manhood, there has been an increase in distance and alienation.
"For the Union Dead" describes the sculpture of Colonel Shaw as his story, but it also treats it as a representation. The sculpture of Colonel Shaw is an artifact which has a life as such. If the story of Colonel Shaw is a grand narrative, the story of the statue as artifact is not so elevated since it is being risked for the sake of "excavations" and it is being "propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake." The story of Colonel Shaw is being compromised for the convenience of the citizens without regard for its historical and even heroic importance. The grand narrative of Colonel Shaw has been reduced to local politics. Urban renewal is a requirement of the times.
In The Illusions of Postmodernism, Terry Eagleton argues that history has not disappeared among postmodernists but rather it has moved from history with a capital H to history with a small h (45) and along with this move comes the concomitant disbelief in totality (10). In "For the Union Dead," Lowell addresses History with a capital H, the grand narrative that Colonel Shaw fervently believes regarding the elimination of slavery. Even a cursory reading of Lowell's sonnet sequences, however, suggests that Lowell indulges in history rather than History and that he is no longer interested in poetic totalizations. Instead, Lowell embraces "history as a mater of constant mutability, exhilaratingly multiple and open-ended, a set of conjunctures or discontinuities" (46). What Lowell embraces, Eagleton rather severely critiques from his Marxist perspective. Yet these days it seems fair to say that history favors Lowell's general approach rather than Eagleton' s. Grand narratives of social and religious progress have been discredited. There is the prescient observation by Thomas Parkinson, made in the 1960s, of Lowell's generation of poets which may also have bearing: "That generation ... held a vision of itself as politically radical while practicing and admiring art that is culturally conservative" (143). Parkinson's observation may be the crux of the problem regarding Lowell's current reception, the source of the tentativeness that some see in his poetry. Nor does it seem that Lowell himself offers any basis for disagreement, for Alex Williamson quotes Lowell as saying: "'Emotionally I am in sympathy with the 'Revolution,' intellectually I am doubtful that it would really make anything better"' (165). This suggests a basis for limitations, a latter day version of dissociation of sensibility where emotion travels down one road and intellect another. As if to support this particular assertion, Lowell writes a sonnet entitled "The Revolution" in which the atmosphere is neither fiercely political nor life-threatening, but rather occurs in an ambience of upper-middle class affluence: "the terror of spending the summer with a child, / the revolution has happened in the mind, / a fear of stopping-when the soul, even the soul / of ruin, leaves a country, the country dies...." (2-5). Lowell apparently is apprehensive about spending the summer with a child, presumably a college student, who is committed to the counter-culture. Then the "child" speaks in the remainder of the sonnet:
We're in a prerevolutionary situation at Berkeley, an incredible, refreshing relief from your rather hot-house, good prep-school Harvard riots. The main thing is our exposure to politics; whether this a priori will determine the revolutionary's murder in the streets, or the death of the haves by the have-nots, I don't know; but anyway you should be in on it-- only in imagination can we lose the battle. ("The Revolution" 6-14)
This is hardly the stuff of History; it is neither a grand narrative, nor is it anything resembling a totalization. But that is not to say that the poem does not reflect a serious theme from the 1960s; nor is it to say that the presentation is not worthy of poetry. There was a counterculture "revolution" which went only so far since it never involved those who are the traditional constituency of revolutions. What Lowell describes is distinctly postmodem; it is not a revolution of Paolo Freire's oppressed, but it is a revolution of the privileged who are governed by the image and a belief that extending privilege to the less fortunate is an exercise in consumerism. Yet it is possible to say that History as grand narrative does not exist, nor does a unified subject exist who is committed to one or more overriding causes.
"The Revolution" does not exhibit the revolutionary fervor of Che Guevera. It presents the image of Guevera, a simulacrum, to the reader, not the Che Guevera who dared to challenge the CIA:
Week of Che Guevera, hunted, hurt, held prisoner one lost day, then gangstered down for gold, for justice -- violence cracking on violence, rock on rock, the corpse of our last armed prophet laid out on a sink in a shed, revealed by flashlight.... (1-5)
The poem is too matter-of-fact to be tragic, yet it appears too factual to trivialize. Lowell embraces Guevera as "our last armed prophet," as the New Left often did. Then the sonnet turns to Central Park:
The leaves light up, still green, this afternoon, and burn to frittered reds; our tree, branch-lopped to go on living, swells with homely goiters-- under uniform sixteen story Park apartments....(6-9)
Beginning with the death of Che Guevera, moving to Central Park, the sonnet follows with an ironic ending: "kings once hid in trees / with prices on their heads, and watched for game" (13-14). Aside from verging on the apolitical, there is a whimsical indeterminacy in these lines, despite the effort of a deliberative irony.
Along with this new version of what constitutes history is also what Brian McHale describes as "ontological uncertainty" in which the self no longer has fixed points of reference and becomes fragmented and decentered. If Eliot and Pound searched for external points of reference and found them, Lowell abdicated the Catholicism that had governed his first three volumes of poetry, accepting the realization that no external point of reference that would order the world could be found. In "Double-Vision" from The Dolphin, the self is both tentative and fragmented:
I tie a second necktie over the first; no one is always waiting at the door, and fills the window ... sometimes a Burmese cat, or maybe my Daughter on the shell of my glasses. I turn and see persons, my pajama top loose-knotted on the long thin neck of a chair-- make yourself at home. The cat walks out-- or does it? The room has filled with double-shadows, sedation doubles everything I see . . . . You can't be here, and yet we try to talk; somebody else is farcing in your face, we haggle at cross-purposes an hour. While we are talking, I am asking you, "Where is Caroline?" And you are Caroline. (22)
Although Lowell is experiencing double-vision because he is sedated, he nevertheless is attempting to sort out his new life with Caroline Blackwood. It is as if the sedation merely brings emphasis to what is already going on in Lowell's life; he is confused, disoriented. He describes the experiences of double-vision before he attributes it to sedation because he is living with it and attempting to make his way in the world through this haze. "The logic of identity, of full presence, is simply displaced, fully intact, from the field of totality to the field of multiplicity of atomized narratives" (Laclau 330). Even this sonnet is a series of little narratives involving others whom he thinks are there and then decides they are not, such as the cat, his daughter, and persons, and in the case of Caroline, he thinks she isn't there when in fact she is. This is confessional poetry pushed to its limits. Lawrence Kramer appropriately points to Steven Axelrod's observation about the "double etymological appropriatenes s" (97) of the meaning of confession, which is that it "derives from corn plus fateiri: to speak completely and also to speak with, to speak together" (Axelrod 131). In this sonnet, Lowell speaks completely; he also speaks with the "no one" who is "waiting at his door." He speaks to Caroline even though she is not there, or so he thinks at that moment.
"Double-Vision" is perhaps a more extreme rendering of a favorite theme of the fractured self. According to Jill Robbins, when she writes about Denida's Circumfession, "what is tempting is a model for a self that can undergo the extremes of self-alienation and self-loss and still return to itself, as another, as an 'I,' identifying itself"' (24). "Double-Vision" is written after Lowell recovers into another 'I' who is looking back on the experience and recognizes the true dimensions of his plight. From Life Studies throughout the sonnets, Lowell constantly sees if he can regain his identity, return to himself, despite the division that he experiences within. Virtually all of Lowell's work beginning with Life Studies recognizes the "impossibility of a finite autobiography, or a closed subjectivity, in a relatively ordinary psychological or empirical sense" (P. Smith 30).
Many of these sonnets from Notebook through The Dolphin seemingly meander, lacking in energy to remain focused; they are at once hypotactic and often whimsical. The sonnets are poems in process (an important postmodernist notion) since Lowell is constantly rewriting them from one volume to the next. Virtually all of the poems in Notebook are seen again in the next three volumes of sonnets. Lowell writes "about the 'great men in history' but they do not stand as monumental figures representing high points or low points in the onward march of civilization" (Calder 135). Important historical figures such as Napoleon, the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King are treated in his sonnets as if they were local figures, intimately known to all, or as if the poet were conducting ethnographic studies of historical sensibilities. Lowell is aiming for proximity and detail that make these eminent figures unique but familiar. History is rendered as local.
In Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of the Kavanaughs Lowell generates poems predicated on the modernist assertion that poetry is a separate activity from the political, economic, and social activities of everyday life. In his work beginning with Life Studies and particularly in the sonnets, Lowell writes poems as a form of material practice. His poems, especially his sonnets, become cultural signs in their own right, written in the liberatory atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s. His sonnets recognize multiple centers, both in the body-politic and the culture, and in the self. There are always multiple strategies, not to return to some ideal state, but to refine questions of participation and situation for each individual, and Lowell is willing to consider himself and his work as a part of this new paradigm. In a sonnet from History, "Reading Myself," Lowell says that "he never wrote something to go back to" (4), which is to say that he regarded his work as standing outside the realm of representati on. In the same sonnet, Lowell describes as the "corpse of the insect" (11) who "prays that its perishable work live long / enough for the sweet-tooth bear to desecrate -- / this open book... my open coffin" (12-14). Lowell seems to view his own work as "perishable," and if there is any hope of lasting, it is in the act of desecration, which takes place when the poems are changed by the reader. Lowell understood that any kind of resistance, political or otherwise, could be resisted by the society-at-large in the manner suggested by Baudrilliard, (3) and his sonnets in History reflect this reality.
In his sonnet sequence "Mexico," Lowell asks: "What is history?" The answer is: "What you cannot touch." History for Lowell is the absence of the woman he loves, for he can no longer touch her. But there is also the suggestion that history has been textualized throughout his sonnets into discreet units, microcosms of atomized power and influence whose concrete references disappear into the absence of the self. In his sonnet, "History," the first in the book by the same title, Lowell says that "[h]istory has to live with what was here, / clutching and close to fumbling all we had" (1-2). History is the past and the suggestion is that it really doesn't involve the present except in its efforts to clutch the past but at the same time to fumble it, to let it go so that it seems to disappear. Fredric Jameson describes in one of his later books what I find in Lowell's "History" and in his sonnets generally: "Cultural production is thereby driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monadic subject... ; it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, as some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present" (25). In this same sonnet, Lowell ties history to the absent self: "two holes, two holes, / my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull's no-nose." There is nothing inside the skull, nothing much more than a breathing and seeing apparatus. The self is tentative, fractured, moving from one momentary identity to the next, which creates a history of little consequence in the process of living. The sonnets embody a radical historicism that undermines the self because "we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach" (Jameson 25), which is precisely what Lowell suggests in the two sonnets under discussion.
Lowell's confessional poetry may be compared to The Confession of Saint Augustine, in which Augustine states "I am not what I was" (qtd. in R. Smith 105). Although Lowell does not confess in order to transfigure himself in a Christian sense, he is aware of recreating himself from what he was into what he is. There are "two different 'I's' which are separate and discernible in the assertion 'I am not what I was.' But in order to discern the two, there is also a third 'I' which performs 'the moral and ideological operation of trying to maintain the coherence ... of the.., subject"' (R. Smith 105). Lowell's confessional poetry makes the claim for the cultural, social, and political reality of the decentered subject who operates with multiple centers and a variety of strategies for getting along in the world. There is never a sense of restoration to a source or origin, some ideal condition to return to like the prodigal son. Lowell's sonnets are situational and participatory in every sense. Consciousness, meaning , and intention are effects rather than causes, and they do not regulate circumstances from a transcendental vantage point. Instead, every circumstance is non-transcendental, viewed as situationally unique, and evaluated according to its context.
(1.) See Vendler, 111.
(2.) Lowell wrote the following to Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from an event at the White House during the Vietnam War: "I thought of such an occasion as a purely artistic flourish, even though every serious artist knows that he cannot enjoy public celebration without making subtle public commitments" (Collected Prose 370-71). It is interesting to observe that Lowell is respectful toward President Johnson as many others of the period were not. As we would expect of Lowell, he handled the situation, one that was to some degree of his making by accepting the invitation to go to the White House in the first place, with great skill. In "Memories of West Street and Lepke," Lowell says that he "told off the President" and that he made his "manic statement." To Roosevelt, he was respectful, perhaps even deferential, alluding to the roles both of their families had played in the history of the country.
(3.) See Baudrillard's Forget Foucault: "The same body of gesture, body, gaze, and discourse encloses both the positive electricity of power and the negative electricity of resistance" (37).
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-----. The Dolphin. New York: FS&G, 1978.
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Peter Lecouras is Assistant Professor of English at Coastal Carolina University, where he teaches courses in British Romanticism and Literary Theory. He has published or has forthcoming articles on Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Yeats, and Hemingway in Texas College English, the Shakespeare Bulletin, Yeats Eliot Review, the McNeese Review, and the Midwest Quarterly.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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