Robert Lowell, For the Union Dead

For the Union Dead.For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The tag next to Robert Lowell’s corpus in the museum of literary history designates him the most influential American poet of the 20th century’s second half—less the founder of a school (Confessional Poetry) than an author the gravity of whose work legitimated anyone who followed him in abandoning the modernist impersonality extolled by Eliot and exploring instead the uncharted paths among personal experience, poetic form, and history.

Lowell’s contemporaries and successors could have gotten this from, say, Ginsberg or other Beats, the “raw” poets Lowell himself praised, but I wonder if they needed to hear it from a writer with Lowell’s command of traditional verse form and (dare I say?) Boston Brahmin pedigree. And this scion of Puritans and Transcendentalists, temporary Catholic convert though he was (hence “Confessional,” perhaps), reminds us that suffering inwardness and commitment to self-expression defined American literature from the start. From one of my favorite poems in For the Union Dead, “Jonathan Edwards in Western Massachusetts”:

As a boy you built a booth
in a swamp for prayer;
lying on your back,
you saw the spiders fly,

basking at their ease,
swimming from tree to tree—
so high, they seemed tacked to the sky.
You knew they would die.

Poor country Berkeley at Yale,
you saw the world was soul,
the soul of God! The soul
of Sarah Pierrepont!

Lowell does Hawthorne too:

Leave him alone for a moment or two,
and you’ll see him with his head
bent down, brooding, brooding,
eyes fixed on some chip,
some stone, some common plant,
the commonest thing,
as if it were the clue.

These two poems on historical predecessors, in second and third person respectively, “confess” only at a distance, vicariously. They set the tone, formally and affectively, for the poetry of their time, in part still our time.

Formally: note the more or less free verse, structured not by strict rhyming or metrical schemes but by a consistent weave of consonance, assonance, and slant-rhyme binding the poem internally sans line-ending rivets. (Lowell was internationally renowned, too, and Heaney and Walcott might have done it better, but they credited Lowell’s influence.)

Affectively: note the distanced, ironized pity (ultimately self-pity) for the marginal poet-intellectual, observing the world-soul in common things with furrowed brow, even though the world doesn’t heed or understand. Lowell dramatizes and elegizes the position of the postmodern poet, so concerned for us all and yet so bereft of any power to transform even himself, let alone society.

Lowell’s poetry is as political as it is personal—it is a thinking-through of how history is refracted in his individual experience—but its way of being political reifies and reinforces its own social isolation. The poet’s doleful, theatrical public despair, as in the nuclear war lament “Fall 1961,” aestheticizes and therefore relishes itself, in a gesture I’ve also observed in the work of Lowell’s contemporary, Adrienne Rich:

All autumn, the chafe and jar
of nuclear war;
we have talked our extinction to death.
I swim like a minnow
behind my studio window.

Our end drifts nearer,
the moon lifts,
radiant with terror.
The state
is a diver under a glass bell.

A father’s no shield
for his child.
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.

With Lowell and with Rich, you get the feeling that these ostensible radicals enjoy the conditions they decry as an occasion for their elaborate performances of sorrow and anger. And I object not to the enjoyment—I’m not a moralist; I expect only perversity from people—it’s the bad-faith posture of self-pitying and lonely enlightenment, which was not always the only tone literary artists could strike in public, but which now is, for which Lowell must share some blame.

Contrast, for instance, Lowell’s friend and correspondent Elizabeth Bishop, with her much more thorough and self-implicating verbal irony (her poems are often self-cancelling metafictional artifacts) wedded to the sometimes distastefully if wryly jocular laying-down-the-law swagger you find only in the very best poets (“Somebody loves us all”). In short, my argument is Nietzsche, not Marx: better the open proclamation than the dissimulation of power and how it gets that way, whether aesthetic or political.

Take the remarkable conclusion to Lowell’s “Florence,” a tribute to the city that ends with the speaker’s declaration of allegiance to the villains of Classical and Biblical history:

Oh Florence, Florence, patroness
of the lovely tyranicides!
Where the tower of the Old Palace
pierces the sky
like a hypodermic needle,
Perseus, David and Judith,
lords and ladies of the Blood,
Greek demi-gods of the Cross,
rise sword in hand
above the unshaven
formless decapitation
of the monsters, tubs of guts,
mortifying chunks for the pack.
Pity the monsters!
Pity the monsters!
Perhaps, one always took the wrong side—
Ah, to have known, to have loved
too many David and Judiths!
My heart bleeds for the monster.
I have seen the Gorgon.
The erotic terror
of her helpless, big bosomed body
lay like slop.
Wall-eyed, staring the despot to stone,
her severed head swung
like a lantern in the victor’s hand.

I recently read an interview with a young writer. Her interlocutor asked her who her favorite villain was, and she refused the premise of the question by arguing that villains have been assigned that role by the powers that be and were probably just misunderstood. Here we see what for Lowell at midcentury was a striking poetic insight (see also Bishop’s extraordinary “Man-Moth”) curdle to our contemporary doxa.

Identification with monsters is now the ideology of mom and dad as they approach their soft middle age—hence the current moral panic about the arrival of real monsters: restive youth choosing communism, fascism, left or right identitarianism, left or right libertarianism, trad-Catholicism, or any other ideology that rejects this now complacent “compulsory transgression” unconvincingly proposed by the buttoned-up professionals (hardly the outcast villains) of an increasingly centralized and ideologically monocultural literary-academic world.

Modern art is reactive, which is why it is revolutionary. The embourgeoisement of marginality’s signifiers, of the nose ring, the tattoo, the blue-dyed hair, the superhero comics and the horror movies, and the aesthetics of queerness and blackness in general, is the ideological crisis of our age. Whatever was once fresh and vital in a range of rebellious midcentury writing, from Lowell and Bishop to Ginsberg and Kerouac to Baldwin and O’Connor to Le Guin and Delany to Shirley Jackson and early Marvel Comics, has now, along with Marvel’s intellectual property itself, become boring, middlebrow, middle class, suburban, and profitable to the present power structure. Aesthetes (and almost all political radicals whatever their politics are aesthetes in denial) won’t be bored—if necessary, they won’t-be-bored to death. And people wonder why the new avant-gardes, like the old ones, are illiberal.

Lowell is eloquent, but has too little conceptual or verbal power in his poetry (though he was radical enough in his life, willing to be jailed for his convictions) to resist this hijacking-by-smug-boredom of his worldview. Someone—Hayden Carruth, perhaps—once said that poets can never be liberal or conservative, but only revolutionary or reactionary.

But Lowell undeniably produces some magnificent poetry. These poems’ vein of nature imagery especially stands out, and is also no less historico-political (surely someone has done “Reading Lowell in the Anthropocene” by now). The non-cuddly denizens of the non-human world persistently catch Lowell’s interest (if the spiders come from Jonathan Edwards, do the turtles come from D. H. Lawrence?) and offer a more persuasive corollary than mere “monsters” for all that the oppressively civilized world (including poetry, represented by the Keatsian urn below) abjects:

Oh neo-classical white urn, Oh nymph,
Oh lute! The boy was pitiless who strummed
their elegy,
for as the month wore on,
the turtles rose,
and popped up dead on the stale scummed
surface—limp wrinkled heads and legs withdrawn
in pain. What pain? A turtle’s nothing. No
grace, no cerebration, less freedom will
than the mosquito I must kill—
nothings! Turtles! I rub my skull,
that turtle shell,
and breathe their dying smell,
still watch their crippled survivors pass,
and hobble humpbacked through the grizzled grass.

The personal, the natural, and the political all come together in the final, titular poem, one of Lowell’s most famous, his elegiac portrait of a modernizing Boston (or America at large) where automobiles have replaced marine vitality and segregation has displaced the moral fanaticism that defeated the slave power:

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

[…]

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die—
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Some say the descendants of Lowell—white American liberals—are undergoing another moral awakening like that which preceded the Civil War. And with my own brand of marginal and aestheticized bad-faith radicalism, forged in protest against the Bush administration’s militarism, justified as it was with reference to progress and democracy, I have been skeptical of some of our own recent Civil War kitsch and nostalgia. Not, I assure you, from any sympathy with the Confederacy (or the Taliban or the Ba’ath Party), but from a conviction that we should find some way to solve our problems without mass slaughter.

Yet as a palpable, habitable locus for this feeling of sublimity in the presence of a spirit like Robert Gould Shaw’s, “For the Union Dead” confesses more about personal experience’s union with history than any other discourse possibly could. There are perhaps better poets—I have named them above: Heaney, Walcott, Bishop—but Lowell’s more fractious and precarious persona, albeit occasionally irritating, makes him a superbly alert witness to his—our—times.

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