Life studies for the union dead
Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert LowellThis review is cross-posted from my blog, so forgive the rather overwhelming length.
I’ve been a bad, bad little aspiring poet. Naughtily, I’ve avoided reading a single collection of poetry—by a male writer—in all my years of writing, and, perhaps more criminally, done so even throughout the entirety of my undergraduate English experience. So I figure, hey, it’s time to catch up on my weaker points, as I head into graduate school; I order Robert Lowell and John Berryman, brush off the dust collecting on my unread Ted Hughes, and consider grabbing a few others—Randall Jarrell, Hart Crane, W.S. Merwin, Stanley Kunitz—from half.com (these are all still on my wishlist, darlings). Well, Lowell was the first I’ve come to, and he’s likely my most glaring error. Though I profess my undying admiration for the school of confessionalism, I’ve somehow evaded Lowell, one of the founding fathers of this ‘school,’ and indeed, the teacher of both Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath (my two favorite poets), and his collection Life Studies, which is one of the seminal works of the poetic subgenre.
Like most poetry I’ve read, however, even these two collections suffered their predecessors’ intellectual imprints—upon me, that is. Only two collections of poetry—Sexton’s Transformations and Plath’s Ariel—have ever really wowed me in their entirety. Most other books of poetry—most recently, Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House—become something like a roadtrip for me; there are a handful to a dozen poems that I want to rubberneck to, while the majority flit past like flat landscapes. Bad metaphor, I know. But perhaps fitting when I speak, all high and mighty, about my tastes in poetry. With Lowell, this was particularly the case in the latter book, For the Union Dead. Besides the eponymous poem, which is probably one of his most famous and has an absolutely thrilling dissection of Bostonian decay, and maybe three or four others, the collection left me feeling vaguely nonplussed. But hear this line, from “For the Union Dead”:
“The Aquarium is gone. / Everywhere, / giant finned cars nose forward like fish; / a savage servility / slides by on grease.”
As I said, there are gems that glitter through. And it’s not to say that the rest are bad, or even bland, just somewhat unmemorable. What I find with Lowell, which is less the case with his protégés Plath and Sexton, is that his command of language and rhythm and rhyme are awe-inspiring, but that his images don’t stick in your craw the way the others’ often do. I think of Sexton’s stepmother in “Cinderella” who fries upward ‘like a frog’ in her red hot iron shoes, or Plath’s suffocating girl-self in the Nazi boot of her towering father in “Daddy” (though I guess “Daddy” is a bit of a cheap shot, because who doesn’t remember that tempestuous, bloody poem?). Lowell’s images are less striking, but his language—to borrow Plath again—sticks in my jaw. I wrote a poem last night and saw the almost Beat-like insistence of Lowell tracing through. The flow of his work is incomparable.
Life Studies fares better. It’s divided into four parts, the second of which is a prose memoir that illuminates a lot of the poems that follow in part IV. His prose style is surprisingly readable, catchy, and frequently hilarious. I found myself completely taken with his father’s friend Billy “Bilge” Harkness, who was repulsive and boisterous and completely alluring all at once. I’m not all that familiar with Lowell, as I said, and I’d be curious to read more prose from him. And it’s that second part, as I said, that helps us work through the unwieldy names and places of Part IV (which is, too, divided in half—the former dealing more with his childhood and the lead up to his mental break, and the latter looking backwards). But the memorable poems here far outweigh the forgettable—I think of “To Speak of the Woe That is In Marriage,” with the battered wife, and her prostitute-craving husband—the poem ends with a strangely conflicting image of his sexual violence as an almost impotent elephant ‘stalling’ above her. “Skunk Hour” is of course a direct descendant of Elizabeth Bishop, and borrows from her beautifully (if I recall, he was thinking of her poem “The Armadillo”). “Memories of West Street and Lepke” recounts a bit from within the mental institution, but in a very different way to someone like Sexton’s haunting and bodily reminiscences.
Again, there are poems that I waded through, and those that kicked me in the gut. At least I can say with greater certainty that I understand why Life Studies is such a significant work of modern poetry, and so powerful a text for the confessional genre. I can only imagine repeated readings will render that impression more fully. I’ll leave you with a verse that particularly stood out to me, as I was looking back over this to write this review. This is written from the perspective of Marie de Medici, after her husband (Henri IV) is assassinated, and she’s been exiled by her son:
“O tension, groin, and backbone! Every night
I kicked the pillows and embroidered lies
to rob my husband’s purse. I said his eyes
flew kiting to my dormer from the blue.
I was a sparrow. He was fifty-two.”
C.K. Williams reads Robert Lowell's poem "For the Union Dead"
Life studies, and For the Union dead
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Robert Lowell Reads "For the Union Dead"
National Book Awards Winner. Robert Lowell, with Elizabeth Bishop, stands apart as the greatest American poet of the latter half of the twentieth century—and Life Studies and For the Union Dead stand as among his most important volumes. In Life Studies , which was first published in , Lowell moved away from the formality of his earlier poems and started writing in a more confessional vein. The title poem of For the Union Dead concerns the death of the Civil War hero and Lowell ancestor Robert Gould Shaw, but it also largely centers on the contrast between Boston's idealistic past and its debased present at the time of its writing, in the early 's. Throughout, Lowell addresses contemporaneous subjects in a voice and style that themselves push beyond the accepted forms and constraints of the time. More than any contemporary writer, poet, or novelist, Lowell has created the language, cool and violent all at once, of contemporary introspection. The natural heir to Eliot and pound as well as to Crane, he extends their methods.
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