Paul Mariani’s bio of Robert Lowell is workmanlike at best. His bio of William Carlos Williams somehow made WCW seem dull, which is outrageous. Lowell was crazier, giving Mariani more to work with. Even retailing Lowell’s many juicy indiscretions, as well as the glittery crowd to which Lowell belonged, Mariani manages to keep things on the dull side.
And really, that’s okay. I do not want to fuss over how creepy Lowell was. He was manic depressive, and a thorough drinker in a thorough drinking crowd, so one looks at that, the chemical humanity of the man. Behaviour-wise, he’s a patch on Scott and Zelda.
Getting into the biography of artists is a step into murky water. OBVIOUSLY, it is the artist’s work that counts, finally. With Lowell, that biography is a tool for the writer. The term Confessional Poet is yet another attempt to concentrate critical matter to a couple of words. It is apposite to a degree, but it is imperative to keep that degree in mind. Lowell confessed, I would say, but in a self-serving way. I would like to say that Lowell’s work is anathema to me, because it is built on many shaky assumptions. Assumptions, I daresay, I have carried and may carry still, but anathemas still.
I am not really deriding the confessional aspect of his work. There is trickery therein, however, as in (according to Mariani) not just using his ex-wife’s letters in his own work but both editing her words and attributing some to himself. He works within a framework in which everything is material. Okay, except that he must put his stamp on it all.
He was well read, and thoughtful about that reading. But that reading is more material. It forms the basis of allusion and reference. As such it becomes, in my view, claptrap. Milton was a thing to use, as was Shakespeare, etc. It all passes thru Lowell, and you know where that metaphor leads.
Jeff Harrison, in an installment I have
not yet now put up now on Antic View, has written “… I try to follow the poem's unfolding as a poet while contributing little to nothing as a writer. The less writer and the more poet in a poem, the more that poem gestures toward purity.” Purity, I know, is a difficult word (I put the word to him), but the idea for me is to follow the poem’s imperative and not force it to match one’s writerly position. Lowell, and that whole crowd, were too damn busy being writers to succeed as poets. Berryman and Bishop seem to be the only ones I hold interest in from that crew.
Reading about Lowell, or reading Plath’s journal, and how the poet rewrites the bejesus out of poems, is dispiriting. It is not that rewriting is bad, it is that the skulking intellect has so many plans beyond the poem’s blossom. I mean poems to answer critics, to make careers, to settle emotional situations. These uses are straying actions. to allow the poem rather than the poet to succeed is what I mean by purity, not to channel Mallarmé too much.
Mariani describes Lowell in between the dual (or duel) mentors of Eliot and Williams. It is almost funny how WCW reacts to Eliot, regarding Eliot as retrograde motion. There is something to that sense, a feeling that Eliot is offering the peace of the past rather than the excitement of the present. Lowell seems to be beguiled by both directions. As far as I can see, tho, for Lowell, Eliot won.
To me, Lowell’s work creates a static patronage of official culture, which is just the oblivious serenity of Eliot’s acceptable hierarchy. Lowell’s prose work is less enforced, and he is allowed to simply enter the thinking a poem might have, without the distraction of rendered form, culture, and official allusion. There, in the calm of prose, did he do his best work.
Robert Grenier was mentioned in the book—how many books currently speak of him at all? Grenier is listed as one of Lowell’s many famous, or sort of famous, students, and does not rate a place in the index. I remember saying to Grenier that I liked a Plath poem a bit and he said—gently, really—that I should probably look elsewhere. That is, for what he understood of me as a writer, her work would not be of use (O’Hara, on the other hand, he recommended to me). This was said without proscription, more like prescription. Lowell simply never suited me, and I have said the reasons why.