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Book Review : Poet at His Best Wrestling With Himself

April 08, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Robert Lowell, Collected Prose, edited and introduced by Robert Giroux (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $25)

Birds do not interrogate themselves as to the nature of bird song; but poets, at least since the onset of modernism, are obliged to define poetry with every poem they write.

The late Robert Lowell, with his interrupted periods of magnificence, his laborious stretches and his silences, didn't run dry on poetry. From time to time he ran dry on definitions or, to put it a little closer, he ran out of permission to write.

He could go for years without being able to give himself this permission, but the poetry accumulated anyway; and sometimes he was able to find a release for it in prose.

So, what Robert Giroux has searched out and put together, along with some plain lucid writing and a few sometimes-painful oddments, is a new book of Lowell's poetry. It is a large gift; closer in value to "Life Studies" than to "The Mills of the Kavanaughs." It is as if Giroux, a part-time Shakespeare scholar as well as an editor-publisher, had unearthed not a broken-backed Elizabethan lyric with a Shakespeare attribution, but another "Twelfth Night."

Pieces From Publications

With what you spill on the floor, a mother will tell her messy child, I could feed China. With this collection of pieces, a few unpublished, but most from old copies of Sewanee Review, the Nation, Encounter, the Kenyon Review and, above all, the New York Review of Books, Giroux feeds us.

There are a few sketches toward the autobiography that Lowell thought to write and never did. Most of the major pieces are criticism, or more exactly, evaluations of other poets. And these are the most autobiographical of all. Except for a few almost comically pinched and pedantic early essays, Lowell's writing about poetry and poets is indistinguishable from his writing about himself.

There is a wrenching line he delivers to a colloquium about "Skunk Hour" from "Life Studies." (Papers by John Berryman, Richard Wilbur and John Frederick Nims were read. It must have been an ordeal, but Lowell could be devastating when backed to a wall. "My complaint is not that I am misunderstood but that I am overunderstood," he remarked.)

Lowell describes his shift from the highly charged, meticulously worked style of "Lord Weary's Castle" to the seemingly--only seemingly--looser and more direct line of "Life Studies." The brilliance of the earlier period had come to seem a prison--several times he refers to it as a suit of armor--and he dried up altogether for half a dozen years, until the writing of the Beat poets showed him a way out. Of the drought's end, he writes:

"Suddenly, in August, I was struck by the sadness of writing nothing and having nothing to write, of having, at least, no language."

Lowell writes of his contemporaries with dazzling perception. It is something more than criticism. He is like Tolstoy's general, Kutuzov, telling the professional tacticians what it means to fight in the mud. In the early, faintly academic pieces, he is concerned with the form of the cup; later, he teaches how to drink from it.

Fighting His Own Demon

He writes about poetry to learn to fight his own demon. In an essay on Dylan Thomas, the need to understand his own clotted though splendid lines enlightens him about the Welshman's. "Crowded" and "muscle-bound" he writes. "Great lines are thrown away because they lack a context in which their force can function." And we recall how this supercharged poet mastered the hard-won stillnesses of "Life Studies," "Notebooks" and "The Dolphin."

His poetic ear is so faultless that when he lends it to us, we are deafened. Of Wallace Stevens' artifice, he writes: "His places are places visited on a vacation." He picks up Stevens' remark to Robert Frost, marking their polar distance: "The trouble with your poetry, Frost, is that it has subjects."

His last essay about William Carlos Williams, so different from him and from whom, finally, he learned so much, has the gravity and grace of a pilgrim who returns, altered.

"Williams enters me but I cannot enter him," he writes. And goes on:

"When I say that I cannot enter him, I am almost saying that I cannot enter America. This troubles me. I am not satisfied to let it be. Like others, I have picked up things here and there from Williams, but this only makes me marvel all the more at his unique and searing journey. It is a Dantesque journey, for he loves America excessively, as if it were the truth and the subject; his exasperation is also excessive as if there were no other hell. His flowers rustle by the superhighways and pick up all our voices."

Some of the selections show signs of having been written because Lowell thought he ought to write them. There are rather lifeless tributes to W. S. Auden and Stanley Kunitz, and a friendly but wary piece on Sylvia Plath. There is an abominably arch introduction to a children's edition of Hawthorne. Lowell was better at wrestling with himself than wrestling with an occasion.

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