Books: HOT TICKET - Pitch Your Tent on Poetry's Lawn
Martin, Tim, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
The Letters of Robert Lowell
ed Saskia Hamilton
FABER pounds 30
pounds 27 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
Robert Lowell's reputation has mysteriously declined since his death in 1977. The density of his verse and its allusion, coupled with a capacity to see public and political events through the prism of his own psychology without detriment to either, has caused him to suffer at the hands of a generation that prefers its poets either purely political or plainly sentimental. A weighty Collected Poems in 2003 marked the beginning of a resurgence in interest in his work, and this excellent volume of letters continues it.
Lowell and his contemporaries " Berryman, Bishop, Plath, Schwartz " have long been marked down as 'confessional' poets, a label that disintegrates upon even the slightest analysis. All poetry is performative; this book, and other volumes of letters, have the virtue of showing us that the verse we have admired is not the poet's only means of objectifying and analysing experience.
Lowell knew most, if not all, of his poetic peers, and early in life he had set about cultivating the previous generation. After showing no particular intellectual distinction in youth, he decided in his teens to become a poet and began assiduously to acquire the necessary talents and connections. When he wrote to Allen Tate asking to come and stay for the summer at Tate's house in Tennessee, Tate tried to wriggle out of it by saying that the house was so full of poets that anyone else would have to sleep on the lawn. Up pitched Lowell with his 'translucent green umbrella tent' and stayed on the lawn for a month. It was this persistence, not unmixed with outright flattery, that would later win him the friendship and tutelage of Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost and George Santayana.
Writing of his contemporaries, though " and usually to his contemporaries " Lowell was catty, entertaining and startlingly acute. The letters show us Randall Jarrell, with his 'scrolled-up sphinx tone... emotionally immature, puritanical, monstrous, odd; but his peculiarity is part of his excellence.' There is Dylan Thomas: 'dumpy, absurd body, hair combed by a salad spoon, brown- button Welsh eyes always moving suspiciously or fixing on the most modest person in the room'. There is Theodore Roethke: 'a sort of tender hard-heartedness, too great a wish to be big, so that much of the poetry is a little dead under the ringing cadences.' And then there is the gossip, clever people on clever people. Jarrell on Edith Sitwell: 'a skull fattened for the slaughter'. Pound on Cummings " 'a razor-blade without the handle' " and Cummings on Pound: 'You're humane without being human.'
Many of the best letters in this book are written to Elizabeth Bishop, the only one of Lowell's contemporaries whom time has proved truly his poetic equal. Lowell cottoned on to Bishop's talent early, and she his, and watching their friendship deepen over nearly 30 years is one of the chief joys of this collection.
It was, for all its mutual kindness, a complex relationship. Lowell, who often developed by imitation of or reaction to poetry and people that he admired, found Bishop's poetry compelling and exciting because of its difference from his own: 'You always make me feel that I have a rather obvious breezy, impersonal liking for the great and obvious,' he writes to her, 'in contrast with your adult personal feeling for the odd and genuine.' Bishop, by contrast, admired and was occasionally envious of Lowell's productivity, but more than that of his sense of entitlement to a poetry that she herself had to fight for. Her comment to him in 1958, after seeing the poems that would become Life Studies, is a psychological biography in a paragraph:
'I am green with envy of your kind of assurance. I feel that I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say " but what would be the significance? …