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Madness and scandal, outlived by art

Collected Poems, Robert Lowell, Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1,186 pp., $45

June 22, 2003|Caroline Fraser | Caroline Fraser is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the author of "God's Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church."

IN the words of his friend Frank Bidart, Robert Lowell was "not quite civilized," not because Lowell was occasionally outrageous or intermittently out of his mind, although he was. He once camped, uninvited, for months on the lawn of his mentor, Allen Tate; he broke the nose of his first wife, Jean Stafford, once by accident, once on purpose; he altered and published the personal letters of his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, in his lacerating poems about his third, Lady Caroline Blackwood. Lowell was "not quite civilized," Bidart says, because he was "unfashionably -- even, at times, ruthlessly -- serious." He once told Bidart: "When I'm dead, I don't care what you write about me; all I ask is that it be serious."

Lowell died in 1977, so there has been a rather extraordinary delay -- a quarter of a century -- in publishing his "Collected Poems," remarkable considering that Lowell was nothing less than the most renowned, most lauded, most influential poet of his day, the last to command the public stage, featured on the cover of Time and called, by one critic, "the greatest poet writing in English." Indeed, Lowell's celebrity was so exalted that he still inspires envy: The poet Donald Hall recently went so far as to suggest in the Boston Globe that Lowell's reputation has dwindled, saying, "You don't hear his name much."

But the delay -- having allowed the melodramatic dust of the life to settle -- has resulted in an edition as unfashionably, ruthlessly serious as the poet himself, one he doubtless would have appreciated. Edited by Bidart and David Gewanter, it features an unusually elaborate scholarly apparatus for a collected work: notes, chronology, bibliography, even a glossary. While I am not persuaded it was necessary to unearth every magazine version of virtually every poem on the chance it might yield material for those notes -- an eccentrically Lowellian, revisionary task that Bidart attempts to justify in the introduction, which doubtless added years to the project -- its riches will be a treasure for any curious, involved reader eager to penetrate Lowell's allusive poems.

Regardless of the current state of the poet's reputation or how often his name is bandied about by lesser lights, the magnitude of Lowell's achievement -- an achievement won against horrific odds -- can now come fully and magnificently into view. "We only live between / before we are and what we were," Lowell once wrote, but his work in this "Collected Poems" stands secure, timeless, outside the relatively brief span that was his bedeviled life.

That life, the subject of an excellent biography by Ian Hamilton and a mediocre one by Paul Mariani, should be approached with caution: The narrator of the poems is an ever-evolving voice, not a literal autobiographer, but the life is nonetheless a crucial starting point. Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was born in Boston in 1917 -- scion of Winslows and Lowells, Boston's oldest, most illustrious clans -- and the only child of a weak-willed, mumbling naval officer, Robert Lowell III, and his cold, overbearing wife, Charlotte Winslow Lowell. A truculent boy, nicknamed by classmates "Cal" -- short for Caliban and Caligula -- famously expelled from the Boston Public Garden for fighting, the young Lowell transferred his aggressions to intellectual pursuits, organizing a punishing summer curriculum -- Homer, Shakespeare, Spenser, the Bible -- for himself and his teenage friends, Frank Parker (whose frontispiece illustrations for Lowell's books are reproduced in this edition) and Blair Clark, who would eventually run Eugene McCarthy's campaign for president in 1968.

Grown up, Lowell looked like a "matinee idol," according to his friend John Berryman. In photographs he resembles a young Tom Hanks: tall, lanky, with a quirky, off-kilter grin, his pale skin set off by curly dark hair. After a year at Harvard and a near-break with his family -- he had abruptly become engaged to be married at 19 and socked his father over a perceived insult to his fiancee -- the young poet, "full of Miltonic, vaguely piratical ambitions," set out for the South (having lost interest in the fiancee) and Tate, one of the Southern agrarian Fugitive poets. He had not been invited to stay the summer, and when Tate told him the house was full -- joking that if he wanted to stay he'd have to pitch a tent on the lawn -- he went to Sears, bought a tent and set up camp in the yard. He then transferred to Kenyon College, where he majored in classics, studying with John Crowe Ransom and becoming a close friend of student-poet Randall Jarrell.

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