Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Whenever I feel too completely dismissive of Robert Lowell, I think of Bob Grenier. Grenier studied with Lowell at Harvard &, I believe, it was Lowell who helped Grenier get into the Writers Workshop at Iowa City even as the triumvirate of Creeley, Zukofsky & Stein were beginning to render Grenier opaque to the Brahmin crowd back in the Bay State. You can still find vestiges of Lowell’s influence, though, in Grenier’s first book, Dusk Road Games: Poems 1960-66, published by Pym-Randall Press of Cambridge, Mass.:


On the lawns before the brown House

on the hill above the city

the wheeled sick sit still in the sunshine –


Lowell turns up again as an influence in the “conservative” portion of Hank Lazer’s remarkable Doublespace: Poems 1971-1989, his attempt to bridge the gulf between Le School d’ Quietude & post avant poetics. One of Marjorie Perloff’s first books was her 1973 The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell.


But what always gets in the way of any possible admiration I might have for Lowell is his poetry. When it was first published in 1946, Lord Weary’s Castle – that title alone tells you everything about literary allegiances – was read, rightly, as a turn away from any poetics of direct speech, not only anti-Williams & the polyglot circus of Pound’s Cantos, but even anti-Frost & anti-Auden. For the New Critics, the conservative agrarian poets who were at that same moment consolidating their hold on English departments across the United States & beginning to wonder about their legacy, Lowell was an affirmation of their larger program. It didn’t hurt that he was a Lowell, either. By the time he was 30, Lowell had already won the Pulitzer Prize and had a photo spread in Life Magazine.


Yet Lowell, especially the early Lowell, is seldom a good poet for more than two or three lines at a time, which invariably are buried in larger lugubrious monologs that do little more than show a man unable to actually get to his own writing through his presumptions about “what poetry should be.” It is precisely that should be, the sense of obligation to a dead aesthetic inherited from a mostly imaginary British Literary Heritage, that I take to be behind David Antin’s famous line “if robert lowell is a poet i don’t want to be a poet,” a sentiment that was virtually universal among the poets I knew in the 1960s & ‘70s. Still, in 1964, on a week when Time magazine could have focused on the aftermath & implications of the first Harlem riots of the decade, it chose instead to feature Lowell on its cover.