Robert Lowell's Letters
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Low-Cal: The Letters of Robert Lowell

For a brief period in 1954, Robert Lowell became obsessed with strip-tease. He was Professor of Poetry at Cincinnati University, and, like most Professors of Poetry, he had time on his hands. According to a colleague, whose reminiscences were later recorded in Ian Hamilton’s biography, Lowell began making frequent visits to the Gaiety strip club – ‘every day, not just once but twice, and he didn’t have enough money… one day, coming home, he jumped out of a moving taxi – to keep from paying’.

Not long afterwards, eccentricities like this burgeoned into full-blown mania and Lowell was once again committed. But the poetry later collected in Life Studies continued. Released by his mother’s death from the constraints of his upbringing, and encouraged by his therapy, Lowell began to strip away the intricate, awkward armour of his early poetic style, and to write with openness and candour. This new style would eventually be labelled ‘confessional’.

But however ‘honest’ art is, it is still art. For 45 years it has been a matter of debate how ‘confessional’ Lowell’s poetry is. Even in his later, less uptight incarnations, Lowell wrote and re-wrote with an academic’s care. For Saskia Hamilton (no relation to Ian), the editor of these letters, this is one reason to value Lowell’s correspondence – for its absence of artifice, for its genuineness. Her editorial introduction to The Letters of Robert Lowell is entitled: ‘I was naked without my line-ends.’

His letters are not re-shaped, dismantled, and made again in the daylight of his attention the way his poetry was, but they exhibit the same intelligence and character as his more formally controlled writing…. Lowell’s letters are attempts to arrange his companionable, social self with his ‘ragged conduct, unreality, squabbling uncontrollable desires, etc.’ The shape of that arrangement – what he describes, what he leaves out – is very different from his other writing. The letters have the immediacy of the first rhythm and the first thought that occurred to him – the very thing he revised away in his poems.

The introduction’s title comes from a letter to Elizabeth Bishop where Lowell talks of his difficulty as an amateur trying to write an obituary for the professional philosopher Hannah Arendt: ‘Without verse, without philosophy, I found it hard, I was naked without my line-ends.’

Letters like this, for Hamilton, demonstrate a truth about Lowell’s personality, a belief in his essential benignity that she shares with Lowell’s family. Lowell did and said such appalling things in his manic state that his loved ones naturally wished to see that mania as an aberration. The real Lowell was loving and kind; the Lowell of the breakdowns was unreal, lost. Unfortunately, it was always difficult with Lowell to tell where sanity ended and madness began. Episodes of mania arrived gradually; and even in the midst of them Lowell could be quite calculating and self-aware. To see Lowell’s letters as immediate, unmediated, spontaneous expressions of thought implies perhaps that the letters are more truthful about Lowell than the poetry. Here, Hamilton implies, we see the real Lowell, the ‘well’ Lowell, naked before us, clothed neither in the unreality of madness nor in the artifice of poetry. I’m not sure this is true. Hamilton wants us to look out for the real Lowell: ‘The character that emerges is full of affection and candour, funny, gregarious, hungry for fathers, hungry for conversation about writing.’ Certainly such a character does emerge – but only from some of the letters. In others, the ‘unreal’ Lowell is all-too-evident. And not all of these letters are products of mania. Besides which, in letters from the ‘real’ Lowell, that considerate character of considerable charm emerges in the calm following chaos. Naturally we get a gentler, kinder Lowell after electric-shock treatment, straitjackets, institutional constraint, the imprisoned endless marathon of televised basketball games with assorted basket-cases. But why should the chastened Lowell be the ‘real’ Lowell?

Real or not, the chastened, apologetic Lowell, is the surprising star of the book. Readers familiar only with a stereotype of Lowell’s poetic persona – aristocratic, tough, rhetorical, portentous, obscure – will be pleased to encounter this wholly different character. One of the more obnoxious things everyone knows about Lowell is that he attempted to keep throughout his life the schoolboy nickname ‘Cal’. He explained to Elizabeth Bishop in an early letter, August 21, 1947: ‘I’m called Cal, but I won’t explain why. None of the prototypes are flattering: Calvin, Caligula, Caliban, Calvin Coolidge, Calligraphy – with merciless irony…’

But of course the prototypes are rather flattering – if you fancy yourself as a hard man: ‘thick-witted, narcissistic, thuggish.’ By schoolboy standards, even ‘Calvin Coolidge’ is hardly abuse. By the time Lowell writes this, he’s 30; yet he insists on behaving like Richmal Crompton’s William, explaining the rules of a game to his gang. What, you wonder, is wrong with ‘Bob’? Refreshingly, if this irks you, many letters in the collection are apologies for various episodes of Caligula/Caliban behaviour: ‘I’m not anxious to build up a reputation for poetic instability.’ At least one in four letters contains an apology – usually for tardiness in writing, but often for erratic behaviour.

Dear Edmund: [Wilson] I have a memory of being rather loud and drunk and rude to you the other night. I was feeling tired and trying to relax. This can be a pain in the neck to one’s friends. Please trust in my love and admiration forever…

Dear Tom: [Eliot] I want to apologize for plaguing you with so many telephone calls last November and December. When the “enthusiasm” is coming on me it is accompanied by a feverish reaching to my friends. After it’s over, I wince and wither. Fragments of the true man, such as he is, are in both phases. You are very dear to me always…

Dear Keith: [Botsford] I have long owed you a letter of thanks and apology. I suppose it’s a bit like the cat painfully backing down the telephone-pole it scooted up. Anyway, I am deeply grateful for the time, pains and ingenuity of your help through the summer, and most of all, I guess, for seeing me through the rough-house and phantasmagoria at the end of Argentina. I hope our tour did some good and left limited damage. I am ashamed of what I did…

The last is a letter apologising for Lowell’s excesses in South America in 1962, under the auspices of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (a glorified Cold War propaganda front). Chaperoned by Botsford (who had no idea what he was taking on) Lowell painted Buenos Aires red, seducing women, knocking back vodka martinis and climbing every equestrian statue he could find. When the men in white coats finally took him away, Argentinian friends thought it was a CIA kidnap attempt and tried to defend the raging poet. In the end, Botsford (a trained composer) spent long afternoons soothing the straitjacketed Lowell by whistling whole sections of Beethoven’s Ninth. All in all, a great advert for cultural freedom. And not, of course, the ‘real’ Lowell.

The letters of apology often strike a note of manly frankness, but are sometimes rather pathetic and sad. There is a sense of something more than just an alcoholic’s remorse. Lowell has suffered a deprivation of will-power greater than simple addiction. These are reports from ‘the kingdom of the mad’.

After the apology, the next major category is fan-mail. Lowell was a devoted and generous writer of fan-mail from an early age. The first letter in the collection, written when Lowell was 19, begins:

Dear Mr. Pound: I have been wanting to write you for several months, but haven’t quite had the courage to until now. You will probably think that I am very impudent and presumptuous, but I want to come to Italy and work under you, and forge my way into reality…

Thus began a habit of unashamed praise.

Dear Mr. Frost: …Compliments are a dirty business, but I want to tell you that I have been reading over your poems many times in the past year or so; and nothing being written in English strikes me better.

Dear John: [Berryman] I’ve read your marvellous prayer at the end of your book [Love and Fame] and can hardly find words to praise it…

If anything, this love of eulogy became more marked as Lowell himself became more successful. The primary reason for the outbursts seems to be simply a desire to be kind to his friends, for he never really can decide who his favourites were. In successive letters (no’s 455 and 456) Lowell calls the Pisan Cantos ‘our best long poem’ – ‘no poetry since Thomas Hardy so moves the heart.’ He then goes on to tell Elizabeth Bishop: ‘I think you and Auden are writing the best poems now in English, only you two have the form and personality and fullness of great poetry’. A decade later, with Bishop at least still alive he tells Philip Larkin: ‘You surely (more than anyone else living maybe) have added to the literature.’ And Lowell finds words of praise for several young poets, including Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, and Sylvia Plath.

Occasionally, however, into the praise seeps a little hyperbole:

Dear William: [Empson] Just a fan letter for your recent Hough Frye piece… Let me say again that ever since I first met you in 1939 I have loved and reverenced you as my friend and teacher, and as the most important teacher in England, the greatest Englishman.

Strange that these letters seem to be utterly sincere. There is no hint that this is idle black-scratching flattery. The hyperbole is genuine and Lowell seems passionately to believe what he’s writing. Christopher Ricks once wrote, in criticising Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Caligula’: ‘Lowell has always found in Rome a combination of the marmoreal and the frenzied which permits him to use a true hyperbole.’ (‘The Three Lives of Robert Lowell’, New Statesman, 26 March 1965)

‘True hyperbole’ is as often in evidence in the letters as in the poetry. Overstatements passionately affirmed pepper the text. But as with the poetry, the hyperbole is forced and flat unless leavened with a little humour. When Lowell writes like this about Berryman (in a letter to Adrienne Rich) he’s simply panting like a dimwit Hollywood actress:

I was thinking of Berryman, his troubles and his power, and with what smash and vehemence he carries himself. It’s too near me, I would crumble in a minute. I suppose that is why he troubles me more than he does you. Parts of his character are so close to me that I cannot look on him even in the imagination without a drowning feeling. I feel oxygen coming into my lungs and then failing.

This is indeed the grandiose poet who wrote somewhere between mania and eloquence: Sylvia Plath, who’ll wipe off the spit of your integrity, rising in the saddle to slash at Auschwitz, life tearing this or that, I am a woman?

Elsewhere though, the letters, by adding humour, give us an augmented version of what occurs in the poetry. ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’ describes the death of Lowell’s mother:

Your nurse could only speak Italian, but after twenty minutes I could imagine your final week, and tears ran down my cheeks…

In the letters we find another version of events. A note to Elizabeth Hardwick, Lowell’s wife at the time, strikes a less noble note, but nevertheless one of realism: ‘Pretty rough – I spent the morning with her nurse who only speaks Italian, both of us weeping and weeping. I mean I spent it in the room with her body!’

‘Sailing Home from Rapallo’ goes on to say that his mother’s corpse was ‘wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil’ – a macabre yet fugitively playful image, even though he means panforte. All that Lowell implies in the poem about his feelings for his mother – fear and love and loathing – is encapsulated in the letter’s childish daredevil glee: I spent it in the room with her body! One thinks of Paul Morel and his sister in Sons and Lovers, giggling and heartbroken at their dying, deliberately over-dosed mother’s bedside.

Other sparks of humour stand out: the pigeons outside Lowell’s asylum cell moaning ‘Decades, oh decades!’ and ‘HorrOR, horrOR’. Lowell’s daughter Harriet, born in 1957, provides some much needed light relief. Writing to his cousin Harriet Winslow, Lowell says: ‘Five minutes old, Little H. looked strangely like both her parents and like you but also more like Dylan Thomas than say, Audrey Hepburn.’

No photograph accompanies the letter. And Lowell shows himself ahead of his time by doing some text-messaging to Elizabeth Bishop: “U R 2 good 2 B 4 got 10” he writes on 26 October 1956. And, for the English reader, as Lowell moves to England, there are plenty of unintended jokes: ‘Essex, my part of it, is enough like Harvard to sometimes seem a mirage.’

So with contrition, generosity and humour, Lowell in these letters breaks down the stereotype of Olympian toughness. But the language is occasionally sufficiently muscular and rhythmic to remind us of the poetry. Letter openings sound like the rousing openings of poems (though again, undercut with humour):

O Dear! Berium gulpings and bismoth enemas.

And the occasional line emerges from the text ‘written’:

A great ruminating Dutch landscape feel of goneness.

There’s evidence of those great almost accidental lists that feature so prominently in the poetry:

No use describing Yaddo – run down rose gardens, rotting cantaloupes, fountains, a bust of Dante with a hole in the head, sets called Gems of Ancient Literature, Masterpieces of the World, cracked dried up sets of Shakespeare, Ruskin, Balzac, ‘Reminiscences of a Happy Life’ (the title of two different books), pseudo Poussins, pseudo Titians, pseudo Reynolds, pseudo and real English wood, portraits of the patroness, her husband, her lover, her children, lit with tubular lights, like a church, like a museum…. I’m delighted. Why don’t you come?

But in truth, whatever gains might be made in seeing Lowell without his poetic garb, there are also significant losses. The rambunctious modern poet can often sound bizarrely drab and suburban: ‘In a few minutes (this happens every Sunday) we are going to listen to high fidelity long-playing records.’

And occasionally, Lowell begins to sound, well, just boring. Elizabeth Bishop receives the most substantial letters in the collection. They are an important record of the relationship of two great poets, but rarely is something said of true importance either for the poetry or the life. Discussions of international affairs, for example, are hardly ever insightful:

Did the late war scare you to death? It did me while it was simmering. We had a great wave of New York Jewish nationalism, all the doves turning into hawks. Well, my heart is in Israel, but it was a little like a blitz krieg against the Comanches – armed by Russia. Nasser is like a Mussolini ruling some poverty stricken part of India. I never saw a country I would less like to stay in, yet the Egyptians were mostly subtle and sad and attractive.

Lowell’s casual complacency here (in June 1967) is at odds with his reputation for radicalism. But it seems that lack of empathy is really the problem. His letter to Ted Hughes, a few months earlier, shows the same complacency on a personal level: ‘Oh, I don’t think Sylvia’s book [Ariel], and even things like her legend and the Time magazine story have hurt anyone…’

Lowell here, in his ‘real’ guise, without the vividness of the poetry, is surely a poorer writer as well as a poorer man. And with the complacency comes silly trivia. Lowell (especially in writing to Bishop) sometimes takes a strange turn towards campness, mentioning the weight and age of other people’s partners: ‘Mary McCarthy was here last night fresh from her Alabama divorce. Her new man in photographs looks like a combination of Lionel Trilling and Jim Farley – though a year or two younger than Mary, he looks of an older generation…’

These passages add colour; but in themselves, who can they now entertain? And when Lowell comes to consider a poet’s work, aside from writing a gushing fan-letter, he becomes curiously inarticulate:

I feel about Pound that his content is very important, and that it is a content we are scared to define. The disciple, of course, only makes it worse. The mixture of malignity and nobility may not be different than in other writers, but the voice of anti-semitism is like the voice of a drunkard telling people in cars to drive through the pedestrians – nothing can condone for that. Yet as a poet he is a hero, full of courage, and humour, and compassion. Somehow, more than most writers, his ideas aren’t exactly part of him, though they are. It’s hard to find him really hateful. I think everyone who has known him has found him maddening but not hateful – maddening with a kind of gorgeous generosity, that puts us to shame.

All of which confirms Michael Hofmann’s shrewd paradoxical judgement in Behind the Lines: ‘Lowell’s criticism is short, limited in its occasions, violently evaluative, and…unconfident.’

The Letters of Robert Lowell is clearly intended as a companion doorstop to the even more vast and comprehensive Collected Poems of 2003. It is widely recognised that Lowell’s reputation has diminished since his death. And yet, as with its companion, the comprehensive collection of letters does much to obscure Lowell’s real achievement as memoirist and annotator.

Where the panache of Lowell’s middle-period poetry is missing, what truly is left for the reader? Arresting images, a keen eye, and a bold vocabulary. In the letters, such qualities are hidden within mountains of often erratic but everyday prose, not written to entertain, but primarily to elicit contact and show love to friends. The best of the letters are perhaps the two letters of consolation sent in April 1965. The first, to Valerie Eliot, is a model of sincere generosity and grief for T S – ‘This is sheer loss, without recompense… I’m sure everyone tells you that you gave Tom his greatest happiness.’ The second is to Randall Jarrell, Lowell having heard of his breakdown. It shows that, when he knows what he is talking about, Lowell can at last find empathy: ‘What’s worst, I think, is the grovelling, low as dirt purgatorial feelings with which one emerges.’ Elsewhere you have to search hard for writerly touches: the shore-line, at night, ‘an unfamiliar, tremendous ridged shadow, like the back of a crocodile’.

And what of the naked Lowell, of Lowell stripped bare? To the problem of the real or unreal Lowell there is only one solution. The mad man was also the sane man. The sane man was sometimes mad. The real Lowell was both Lowell dressed up, in the line-ends of his verse, and in the jabber of his correspondence. Lowell himself knew that honesty in poetry was never about skin but skins. After his mother’s death, his subsequent breakdown and near-separation from his wife, Lowell tried to return to his family home in Boston. There his ‘confessional’ poems would be written. But, as he wrote to Elizabeth Bishop:

The thought of going back to Boston sometimes makes me feel like a flayed man, who stands quivering and shivering in his flesh, while holding out a hand for his old sheet of skin.

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