Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Poetics and Politics in Robert Lowell's "The March 1" and "The March 2"*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Poetics and Politics in Robert Lowell's "The March 1" and "The March 2"*

Article excerpt

Typographical ellipsis, diverse forms of repetition, an array of rhetorical devices, sonnet configuration, and prosodie maneuvers are salient features of Lowell's poetics that deserve close attention in any consideration of the political workings of "The March 1" and "The March 2." So does Lowell's self-representation, which he spoke of in a 1969 interview, casually linking himself with Horace. He was the most classically oriented American poet of his generation, and Horace will help in my discussion of the truthfulness, biographical or otherwise, of his rhetorical poetics.1 Lowell was also the most historically minded, and his quatorzains call for the sort of historical contextualization that I provide. To highlight his rhetorical strategies I will draw on the classical rhetorical terminology that he was conversant with. In a 1971 interview, he linked his rhetorical practice with his adoption of sonnet form in Notebook (1970), which comprises over three hundred quatorzains, among them "The March 1" and "The March 2." He declares that "unrhymed loose blank- verse sonnets [...] allowed me rhetoric, formal construction, and quick breaks. [...] It was a stanza, as so much of my work - a unit blocked out a priori, then coaxed into form" (Lowell, Collected Prose 270-71). The formal construction that Lowell coaxed his quatorzains into is, I will argue, a variant of Petrarchan sonnet form, sans rhyme scheme but with a rhetorical turn or "quick break" at line 9. Poetics and politics converge crucially toward the close of "The March 2," when verbal repetition, apostrophe, and typographical ellipsis invite the reader to construe out of textual indeterminateness an emblematic tableau.

"The March 1" and "The March 2" appeared in The New York Review of Books on November 23, 1967, barely a month after the March on the Pentagon on October 21 ? The biggest pre-march rally that day was held at the Lincoln Memorial, where protesters lined the Reflecting Pool several rows deep, and listened, listened, listened to speeches against the war in Vietnam. Four years earlier, on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King had delivered his "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the end of another mass march, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But on October 21, 1967 the March, this time not on Washington but the Pentagon, across the Potomac in Virginia, had not yet begun as the "amplified" speeches droned on. It was time to get going:

The March 1

(For Dwight Macdonald)

Under the too white marmoreal Lincoln Memorial,

the too tall marmoreal Washington Obelisk,

gazing into the too long reflecting pool,

the reddish trees, the withering autumn sky,

the remorseless, amplified harangues for peace -

lovely to lock arms, to march absurdly locked

(unlocking to keep my wet glasses from slipping)

to see the cigarette match quaking in my fingers,

then to step off like green Union Army recruits

for the first Bull Run, sped by photographers,

the notables, the girls ... fear, glory, chaos, rout...

our green army staggered out on the miles-long green fields,

met by the other army, the Martian, the ape, the hero,

his newfangled rifle, his green new steel helmet.

Scenic presentation demarcates a notional octave, as visual panning ranges from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, to the Reflecting Pool, then upward to the withering sky, then downward to the surrounding trees. The focus then shifts to a row of frontline notables, then to one of them, the poet himself, and finally to his close-up view of his own hand: "to see the cigarette match quaking in my fingers." The grand panorama with which the octave began contracts at the end to a single match.

Lowell begins his octave with the weighty spatial marker "Under." Nothing moves and everything is too something - "too white, too tall, too long." The "too long" of line 3 is not temporal, but "Gazing into the too long reflecting pool" - the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is in fact 2,029 feet long - almost suggests that the pool has been reflecting too long. …

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