Foreword by Frank Bidart
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 440 pp., $18 paper
Strong Is Your Hold
Houghton Mifflin: 70 pp. with CD, $25
"OUR insoluble lives sometimes come clearer in writing," Robert Lowell wrote in the spring 1977 issue of the journal Salmagundi, several months before he died, in a taxi from New York's Kennedy Airport, returning to his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, and their daughter, after leaving his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, and their son. He had documented his own domestic muddle thoroughly, beginning with "Life Studies" (1959) and homing in by way of a series of 14-line "sonnets" that were published first as "Notebook 1967-68," then as "Notebook" and ultimately as three separate books, divided by theme into "History," "For Lizzie and Harriet" and "The Dolphin." In the note to the 1970 edition of "Notebook," Lowell acknowledged his waywardness: "I am loath to display a litter of variants, and hold up a still target for the critic who knows that most second thoughts, when visible, are worse thoughts. I am sorry to ask anyone to buy this poem twice. I couldn't stop writing, and have handled my published book as if it were a manuscript."
Editing Lowell, then, has been a complicated task, and it was only in 2003 that Farrar, Straus and Giroux, his longtime publisher, brought out "Collected Poems." In the decades since his death, Lowell's reputation as a great American poet, once indisputable, had faded -- even as his close friend Elizabeth Bishop, who died in 1979, grew ever more esteemed. "Collected Poems," along with a 2005 book of correspondence and now a new "Selected Poems" (Lowell prepared one himself, which was published in his lifetime), have resuscitated conversation about one of the most stylish and ambitious poets of the 20th century.
The features that make Lowell exciting to read -- technical brilliance, as well as the instinct to deviate from it; a persuasive, public, rhetorical voice; dark interiority -- are all on display in "Selected Poems." What is also here, which Lowell excluded from the earlier "Selected," is "91 Revere Street," a remarkable prose memoir that demonstrates just how clear he was capable of being about his life. It is a portrait of his family -- his washed-up Navy father and his demanding, highbrow mother -- but he saves the most damning observations for his own young self. "Like other tongue-tied, difficult children," he remembers, "I dreamed I was a master of cool, stoical repartee." Which is one of the things he became.
In 2000, Galway Kinnell, another poet who draws from life, wrote in the preface to "A New Selected Poems": "For many years, I have felt exasperated by my intractable habit of working at certain poems again and again, over long spans of time. But in recent years I have come to accept that, at least in the case of a complex project, this is simply how I write. It makes me think of the digestive process of a Methuselah-ian ruminant animal, one with many many stomachs, that chews its cud for decades (though I don't want to carry this analogy to its logical alimentary end)." This is a typically earthy expression from a writer who, in the exuberant poem "The Bear," evoked a poetic alter ego stalking with knives in his fists and subsisting on "bear blood alone."
A poem in "Strong Is Your Hold," Kinnell's new book, illuminates the complexities of writing about family, as well as the corresponding impulse to revise. (Perhaps revision is at base the fantasy that you can fix what went wrong.) In "It All Comes Back," a child sits on the cake at his fourth birthday party and endures the shame of having all the grown-ups, including his parent -- who narrates the poem -- laugh at him. The poem, easygoing on its surface, atones for the speaker's mixed motives in having a joke at his child's expense:
And yet here I was, locked in solidarity
with a bunch of adults against my own child,
heehawing away, all of us, without asking
if, underneath, we weren't striking back, too late,
at our own parents, for their humiliations of us.
But the speaker still has mixed motives. The ending betrays his abiding discomfort with having made the scene once, 32 years ago, and having remade it here, in a poem.
Shall I publish this story from long ago
and risk embarrassing him? I like it
that he fought back, but what's the good,
now that he's thirty-six, in telling the tale
of that mortification when he was four?
So the poet allows the grown child three choices: "Tear it up. / Don't publish it but give me a copy. / OK, publish it, on the chance that somewhere someone / survives of all those said to die miserably every day for lack / of the small clarifications found in poems."
The poem itself is a "clarification" -- "[a]ctually it was pretty funny," Kinnell writes, "and actually / it wasn't in the least funny." -- and a recalibration, to domestic scale, of William Carlos Williams' grand statement: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there."
Kinnell, in his burly generosity, spares his people much more than does Lowell -- who figured himself as Ahab and Milton's Lucifer, all alone at the center of the drama, the doomed hissing at his feet. On the CD that accompanies this collection, Kinnell prefaces the poem "Shelley" by saying: "There's a theory that goes around that I've heard many times that it doesn't matter how many wrecked lives lie behind us, the important thing is to get that brilliant painting, that amazing sonata, that great poem, and all sins are forgotten. But I really don't believe this. I think, actually, on the contrary, it's the absence of the feelings for others, for one's loved ones, that damages the great work."
And in fact, the outstanding effort in the book, to my mind, is the simple love poem, "Promissory Note":
If I die before you
which is all but certain
then in the moment
before you will see me
become someone dead
in a transformation
as quick as a shooting star's
I will cross over into you
and ask you to carry
not only your own memories
but mine too until you
too lie down and erase us
both together into oblivion.
Kinnell, in an act of metaphysical literary estate planning, signs over the "memories" that constitute his most reliable storehouse of images to an executor who is instructed to suppress all the early drafts. But, revising to the end, the poet makes his last word -- "oblivion "-- contain in its stressed syllables an irrepressible impulse to the contrary.
On second thought, he says, "live on." *