A reflection on Robert Lowell
Robert Lowell knew I was not one of his devotees. I attended his famous “office hours” salon only a few times. Life Studies was not a book of central importance for me, though I respected it. I admired his writing, but not the way many of my Boston friends did. Among poets in his generation, poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Alan Dugan, and Allen Ginsberg meant more to me than Lowell’s. I think he probably sensed some of that.
To his credit, Lowell nevertheless was generous to me (as he was to many other young poets) just the same. In that generosity, and a kind of open, omnivorous curiosity, he was different from my dear teacher at Stanford, Yvor Winters. Like Lowell, Winters attracted followers—but Lowell seemed almost dismayed or a little bewildered by imitators; Winters seemed to want disciples: “Wintersians,” they were called.
A few years before I met Lowell, when I was still in California, I read his review of Winters’s Selected Poems. Lowell wrote that, for him, Winters’s poetry passed A. E. Housman’s test: he felt that if he recited it while he was shaving, he would cut himself. One thing Lowell and Winters shared, that I still revere in both of them, was a fiery devotion to the vocal essence of poetry: the work and interplay of sentences and lines, rhythm and pitch. The poetry in the sounds of the poetry, in a reader’s voice: neither page nor stage.
Winters criticizing the violence of Lowell’s enjambments, or Lowell admiring a poem in pentameter for its “drill-sergeant quality”: they shared that way of thinking, not matters of opinion but the matter itself, passionately engaged in the art and its vocal—call it “technical”—materials.
Lowell loved to talk about poetry and poems. His appetite for that kind of conversation seemed inexhaustible. It tended to be about historical poetry, mixed in with his contemporaries. When he asked you, what was Pope’s best work, it was as though he was talking about a living colleague . . . which in a way he was. He could be amusing about that same sort of thing. He described Julius Caesar’s entourage waiting in the street outside Cicero’s house while Caesar chatted up Cicero about writers.
“They talked about poetry,” said Lowell in his peculiar drawl. “Caesar asked Cicero what he thought of Jim Dickey.”
His considerable comic gift had to do with a humor of self and incongruity, rather than wit. More surreal than donnish. He had a memorable conversation with my daughter Caroline when she was six years old. A tall, bespectacled man with a fringe of long gray hair came into her living room, with a certain air.
“You look like somebody famous,” she said to him, “but I can’t remember who.”
“Yes . . . now I remember!— Benjamin Franklin.”
“He was a terrible man, just awful.”
“Or no, I don’t mean Benjamin Franklin. I mean you look like a Christmas ornament my friend Heather made out of Play-Doh, that looked like Benjamin Franklin.”
That left Robert Lowell with nothing to do but repeat himself:
“Well, he was a terrible man.”
That silly conversation suggests the kind of social static or weirdness the man generated. It also happens to exemplify his peculiar largeness of mind . . . even, in a way, his engagement with the past. When he died, I realized that a large vacuum had appeared at the center of the world I knew.