Wednesday, July 02, 2003

In a sense, it was on Lowell’s watch as the Guardian of High Literary Value that the barbarians, led by Olson, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Levertov, Ashbery, Duncan, Creeley, O’Hara & LeRoi Jones, overthrew at last any residual pretense of a cohesive literary tradition extending outward from a “center” built around the School of Quietude (SoQ). Much of the reaction this past week to the release of an 1,186 page Collected Poems, published by the SoQ house press, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, has I think to do with reactions to this phenomenon.


On the one hand, you would expect the SoQ to be beating the drums, proclaiming this to be the literary event of the year. & there has been some of that. The subhead to Peter Davison’s review in The Atlantic Monthly, a journal founded by James Russell Lowell, reads “The new collection of Robert Lowell's poems will doubtless stand from now on as The Work.” Similarly, the subhead to a review A. O. Scott, the New York Times film critic, in Slate, calls Lowell ”America’s most important career poet.” The Los Angeles Times, which chose a woman who wrote a book on “living and dying” in the Christian Science church to review Lowell’s Collected, says that “the magnitude of Lowell's achievement — an achievement won against horrific odds — can now come fully and magnificently into view.” That at least deserves some sort of award for overwriting.


At the same time there has been a lot of ambivalence expressed in the reviews as well, not so much at the poetry as at the career & faded reputation, suggesting a deeper (and not overtly expressed) anxiety about what his life & work say about the SoQ in general. The New York Times ran a Sunday Magazine piece on “The Vicissitudes of Literary Reputation,” by Charles McGrath, editor of that journal’s Book Review. W. H. Pritchard’s review in the Times notes that “Lowell had no place to go but down.” Newsday ran a review under the subhead “Robert Lowell was revered in his lifetime but is largely forgotten today.” Caroline Fraser in the LA Times quotes Donald Hall from a Boston Globe article, “You don’t hear his name much.”


But you shall. The Collected represents in many ways one final chance for the School of Quietude to resuscitate any residual life left in the Lowell heritage. A parallel project ten or fifteen years from now on behalf of Richard Wilbur certainly won’t do it. So it’s now or never. If this act of literary CPR doesn’t work, the Brahmin sub-sect of the SoQ will be stuck forever continuing to make do with its imported poets from the U.K. & Ireland.