Mar. 1, 2013
Report from the West
Snow is falling west of here. The mountains have more than a
foot of it. I see the early morning sky dark as night. I won't lis-
ten to the weather report. I'll let the question of snow hang.
Answers only dull the senses. Even answers that are right often
make what they explain uninteresting. In nature the answers
are always changing. Rain to snow, for instance. Nature can
let the mysterious things alone—wet leaves plastered to tree
trunks, the intricate design of fish guts. The way we don't fall
off the earth at night when we look up at the North Star. The
way we know this may not always be so. The way our dizziness
makes us grab the long grass, hanging by our fingertips on the
edge of infinity.
It's the birthday of poet Robert Lowell (books by this author), born in Boston (1917), who twice won the Pulitzer Prize and whose work established the Confessional style of poetry in America. Among his most famous poems: "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," "Skunk Hour," "For the Union Dead," "Fall 1961," "To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage," and "Epilogue."
His 20s were eventful. He got angry with his father and left home in Boston, dropping out of Harvard in the process. He moved to Tennessee, pitched a tent on the lawn of poet Allen Tate, and dined every evening with Tate's family. He converted to Catholicism, married the novelist Jean Stafford, and then renounced Catholicism. During World War II, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt announcing that he would not be drafted. He then spent five months in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, a jailed conscientious objector. He later summed up his youth in the poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke": "Ought I to regret my seedtime? / I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., / and made my manic statement / telling off the state and president, and then / sat waiting sentence in the bull pen."
He studied with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College and wrote the poems that make up his first two collections. At 30, he won his first Pulitzer. That year, he was appointed poet laureate of the United States. He was offered a teaching position at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. And it was about this time that he was hospitalized for mental illness — what would be the first of many, many times.
He had manic-depressive disorder, today called bipolar. He himself referred to his mania as "pathological enthusiasm." He once described a manic episode as "a magical orange grove in a nightmare." He was in and out of psychiatric hospitals throughout his adult life, admitted on a couple of dozen different occasions. He frequented McLean's psychiatric ward in Boston, a place where two of his best poetry students, fellow future Pulitzer Prize winners Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, would also spend time.
Lowell once said that whereas depression is an illness for oneself, mania is an illness for one's friends. Many of Lowell's writer friends penned anecdotes about his mania. Stanley Kunitz wrote about the time he visited Lowell at McLean's, and Lowell read him an improved version of the "Lycidas" that he'd written — firmly convinced that he, not John Milton, had written the original masterpiece as well. One friend who visited him at a London hospital told of how Lowell would entertain visitors with French liqueur he concealed in a repurposed aftershave bottle.
One of Lowell's Harvard poetry seminar students, James Atlas, wrote: "I had never witnessed one of these breakdowns, but I had heard about them in grim detail: Lowell showing up at William Alfred's house and declaring that he was the Virgin Mary; Lowell talking for two hours straight in class, revising a student's poem in the style of Milton, Tennyson, or Frost; Lowell wandering around Harvard Square without a coat in the middle of January, shivering, wild-eyed, incoherent. In the seminar room on the top floor of Holyoke Center, we waited nervously — perhaps even expectantly, given the status accorded anyone who had been present at one of these celebrated episodes — for it to happen before our eyes, watching eagerly for any manic soliloquies, references to Hitler, or outbursts of unnatural gaiety. These were the signs that Lowell had 'gone off' and would have to be put away."
After his episodes, when he'd regained his sanity, Lowell was inevitably embarrassed. He explained to a friend: "After the manic attack comes an incredible formless time of irresolution, forgetfulness, inertia, all the Baudelairean vices plus what he must never have known, stupidity."
Graham Greene and many others found that Lowell's disease was also his material. When he was working on the poems for Life Studies, Lowell said: "I found I had no language or meter that would allow me to approximate what I saw or remembered. Yet in prose I had already found what I wanted, the conventional style of autobiography and reminiscence." So he began to blend genres, he said, and wrote his autobiographical poetry in a style he thought he got from Flaubert — one, he said, "that used images and ironic or amusing particulars." And he quit trying to "bang words into rhyme and count," instead doing "all kinds of tricks with meter and the avoidance of meter."
Life Studies won the 1960 National Book Award. It was a turning point in his work, which had been highly formal and metrical until then. And it was a turning point in American poetry. A critic wrote a review entitled "Poetry as Confession," and described Lowell's poems as "confessional" — a cliché now, but brand new at the time. It's from this review of Lowell's work that we get the name "Confessional" to describe a genre of poetry, one in which the poet draws on his or her own life events in an often unflattering way.
His life was tumultuous and he once said, "Sometimes nothing is so solid to me as writing — I suppose that's what a vocation means — at times a torment, a bad conscience, but all in all, purpose and direction." He was married to three writers, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, and then Lady Caroline Blackwood, with whom he moved to England for the last decade of his life. He was separated from his third wife, and in a taxi from JFK into New York City to visit his second ex-wife, when he had a heart attack and died, age 60.
Today is the birthday of the poet Richard Wilbur (books by this author), born in New York City (1921). He came from a long line of editors, and thought he might become a journalist, but World War II changed his plans. He served in the infantry, read Edgar Allan Poe in the trenches, and wrote poems about the war, but he didn't write about the battles and the experience of being on the front lines. Instead, he wrote about the quiet, lonely moments, like evenings spent peeling potatoes in the Army kitchen.
He said: "I would feel dead if I didn't have the ability periodically to put my world in order with a poem. I think to be inarticulate is a great suffering, and is especially so to anyone who has a certain knack for poetry."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®