Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Picture of Robert Lowell

The book Lost Puritan by Paul Mariani features a picture of Robert Lowell on the cover. It is a loaded picture, or I am willing to see it so.

I am only in progress with the book (the bibliography of my previous post lists books that I am reading as well as have read), but it seems better than Mariani’s bio of WC Williams. That thing was a stodgy, dry affair. It seemed to leech my interest away from Williams (like Williams was to blame!). But I am on about something else here, the image of Lowell.

It is a black and white photo. Lowell sits on the ground with his back against the trunk of a large tree, presumably oak. It looks like leaves are on the ground, so let us say that it is fall. Some houses are visible in the background. The scene could be some New England suburb, or Lowell could be situated in a more rural area. You know, somewhere where artists gather.

Lowell cuts a lanky figure with long legs. He is dressed darkly, maybe even in black. He faces stage right, not quite a full profile. He has a cigarette in upraised hand, either pre or post inhalation. Well, say pre, since no smoke cloud is evident. He stares super pensively.

The image is plausibly powerful, but really it is just silly. Roving photographer did not just happen upon genus poet, poet was posed. Robert, look over there and look serious. Is he really thinking of a way to translate the experience of this moment (whatever he is looking at) into pentametric iambs? Jeez, I hope so.

The picture is in the class Author Photo. It is not at the level of Truman Capote’s portraits. Capote’s author photos have all the spontaneity of Norma Desmond. There’s one (Music for Chameleons, maybe?) where he places his fingers with precision about his face. It looks like the 80s precursor of gang signs, yo.

The malarkey level of Lowell’s picture is about average. He is playing the game. Anyway, author photo will always be a contrivance, whether the photo is posed or an image caught off, but presented on, guard. Selected for a reason.

Maybe not always. This book by B. F. Skinner that I have offers an image of him on the back cover. It is a smudgy black and white shot of him seated paging thru a book. The pages were in motion at the shutter click. Some people can be blurrily seen in the background. It is not a posed picture, it does not even look chosen. It looks like the first picture to come to hand. Even so, it says something.

Lowell’s picture seems especially pregnant. I am not what you call interested in Lowell. His poems are way to intrigued for me. The craft of such poetry is craftiness. There is a sense of production to his work that probably could take a Marxist reading. Lowell translates experience into poems. In The Dolphin, and elsewhere, he famously quotes letters from his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick. Those italicized passages of Hardwick overwhelm Lowell’s ratty poetics because Hardwick’s words are free of the elabouration that Lowell extrudes.

Lowell is youngish in the picture, tho I will not be so bold as to guess what I mean by youngish. Early 30s, maybe, or younger. Elsewhere in the book there’s a shot of him and his hair verges on a Trotsky pompadour. In the cover picture, his hair is fairly tamed. Lowell himself looks untamed.

Lowell’s eyes are dark in the picture, and the seriousness of his pose really feels weighty. I will not overwork my impression except to say that there is intention in the pose and posture.

Lowell’s work never made much impression on me. I have recounted before that in Robert Grenier’s class, we read Lowell’s “Skunk Island” as if Zukofsky had written it. Grenier led us to hear the syllables homophonically. I did not think this was within Lowell’s sense of mission, nor do I. Grenier could know better, not that it even matters what Lowell intended, because Grenier (amazingly) studied under Lowell. This is not something that I knew at the time.

The idea of confessional poet is obnoxious to me. Of course the term confessional poet is one of those shorthand labels that pretend to greater accuracy than they can bear. There is more to Lowell (and Plath, Sexton, Snodgrass) than confession, but an imperative to divulge certainly exists.

This sense of confession arises from a need to make a subject. Lowell et al. overload that subject. They create spasms of intent out of their nerve storms. They try to make poetry out of that, but the psychological impetus outweighs the poetic. Just as in the cover photo, too much focus plays on the poet’s image.

And yet I am reading this bio, of a poet that I am not much interested in (tho Elizabeth Bishop, guest star, has begun to intrigue me).  Got to shake off the imagery of image, if the words of the writer are to be read.

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