Thursday, July 03, 2003

Yesterday, I noted the degree to which the reception of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems constitutes an act of literary CPR, an attempt to return the School of Quietude (SoQ) back to the imaginary hegemony it once fantasized as its birthright.


Lowell’s advocates are not unaware of the odds they face, or the difficulties involved in resurrecting something quite this moribund. They themselves have problems with a lot of Lowell’s writing: “if the equivalent of Uncle Artie had written ‘Day by Day,' published shortly before Lowell died, it would have seemed slack and listless,” writes Pritchard in the New York Times. These partisans are also skeptical as to whether the historical moment will allow their genie to be squeezed back into the lamp. Times Book Review editor McGrath writes


If someone of Lowell-like talent and Lowell-like ambition were to come along now, it's not a given that poetry would be his or her No. 1 career choice. If you had a literary bent and really wanted to become famous and leave a stamp on your generation, you would write novels or screenplays. Or, better yet, you would set your verses to a bass line and become a rap artist.


Leave to the Times not to notice, since its advertisers still have budgets, that the normative adult novel as an art form is far deader than even the poetry of the School of Quietude & that Hollywood’s idea of a screenplay is, literally, Dumb and Dumberer.


Part of the great frustration one senses from Lowell’s acolytes has to do with the fact that his generation in general & Lowell in particular failed to quash the rabble – the Olsons & Ginsbergs & O’Haras – in his day, thus enabling all manner of post-avant nonsense to come tumbling after. By the time Lowell died, the School of Quietude was completely outnumbered. While they may be able to keep the representation of post-avant poets in the Norton to a few, the existence of a Norton Postmodern just demonstrates how complete the revolution has been. McGrath bemoans a world in which “poetry has become an art form with more practitioners than actual readers.” Not dealing with the contradiction that such an actual renaissance of practicing poets suggests – & apparently ignorant of the role trobar clus has had in writing for at least 600 years – McGrath opines that this may be because “Lowell may have belonged to the last generation to believe seriously in the poetic vocation.”


The implication just beneath the surface of all these texts is that Lowell et al didn’t deal these threats from outside because Lowell & more than a few of his comrades – Berryman, Sexton, Plath, Schwartz, Jarrell – were bonkers. “They were all a little nuts,” as McGrath puts it, &, “except for the teetotaling Jarrell, they were all alcoholic.” (These are the “horrific odds” that Caroline Fraser finds Lowell pitted against in her fawning LA Times review.)