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How Robert Lowell Turned Words Into Art

Henri Cole explains the poet's genius

Elsa Dorfman

“75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here is Henri Cole, The New Republic’s Poetry Editor, responding to a reading by Robert Lowell recorded live at 92Y on December 8, 1976. Cole will read from his own work at 92Y on Thursday, November 14.

When Robert Lowell read at the 92nd Street Y on December 8, 1976, he was 59. He’d written to a friend saying that he was only three days out of the hospital, “but ninety-per-cent certified healthy.” He’d been in and out of the hospital that year because of manic behavior, and though lithium treatments helped, they did not prevent relapses. He was writing the poems of Day by Day. Less than a year later, he would die of a heart attack in a taxi on his way to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, to whom he’d been married twenty-three years.

During his final appearance at the Y, he was charming and funny, reading from the newly published Selected Poems (“instead of having about eight rather small thin books to fumble through”). He told the audience that he believed in chronology in everything, rather than having little sections called “friendship and wisdom and divine wisdom.” But on this occasion he had paired off the poems—about homecomings; about his first wife, his “old flame” Jean Stafford (“one of our best writers,” who was quite ill); about Robert Frost (“a man of great magnanimity and generosity and music and intuition”); about William Carlos Williams (“who was terrified of his old mother”); about Stalin (“I suppose Stalin was a Statesman, wasn’t he? He believed in the State”); about his third wife, Caroline Blackwood (“gay, disrespectful” poems), who becomes a mermaid, a “Rough Slitherer” in her ocean caves, in his poem “Mermaid”; and, finally, about the act of writing itself. Lowell ended the night with “Epilogue,” saying that a poem has to be more than memory, “and yet memory, we’re told, is the mother of the muses. Memory is genius—but you have to do something with it.” 

There is plenty of commentary throughout, and Lowell tells the audience that the language of his poems has grown plainer and more autobiographical with time. “I do think I manage to get a much simpler style than when I started, almost as easy as prose,” he says, adding that though Yeats spoke of people withering into truth as they got older, he (Lowell) believed that they can sometimes wither into untruth, too. 

When he reads “Skunk Hour,” he says, “I suppose it’s my most popular poem, and I’m rather sick of it. My first popular poem was called ‘The Drunken Fisherman.’  The next one was something called ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,’ and then it became ‘Skunk Hour.’” The trouble with seeing the poem reprinted again and again, Lowell says, is that he is then reproached for not ever equaling it. “However, I do like this one,” he says cheerfully.

 “It’s the end of a whole long sequence called Life Studies. It begins with a description of a summer village in Maine, which I suppose in my perverse, deterministic, pessimistic way, I have going downhill. Then it shifts to a sort of secular dark night of the soul, a moment of anguish. The lovers are taking their cars and parking in the graveyard, and I look at them from a distance (I got this from Whitman)...And at the end I watch some skunks coming in a line—the mother skunk and the little ones making for the garbage pail. People have interpreted this in different ways. My old friend, the late John Berryman, said that the skunks were a catatonic vision of frozen terror, but Dick Wilbur said they were cheerful emanations of nature. That’s the advantage of writing in an ambiguous style...”

Then, mischievously, Lowell says that there’s one line even critics don’t understand, “and it’s really quite easy.” About “A red fox stain covers Blue Hill,” he explains that he only “meant it as a sort of reddish fall color, a fox color,” in the changing leaves. “But it’s had amazing interpretations”—some have said Lowell was thinking about the “Spartan boy who held a wolf under his coat and let it gnaw his chest to pieces without making a sound.” Before reading the poem, Lowell tells the audience, “Oh, there’s one more thing that needs to be explained. There was something called a Tudor Ford, and it meant two doors. Ford was being very Elizabethan—it’s dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop.”

Before “Reading Myself,” Lowell says that “a poem should be imperfect and have loose edges. You can close the thing in and kill the poem. [Or] keep it open somehow, and then put all the craft you can into writing it.” In “Reading Myself,” there’s a beautiful metaphor of language being like a bee’s honeycomb and of poetry being like wax and honey. Just as the bee adds “circle to circle, cell to cell,” proving it alive, Lowell assembles his words into art.   

Henri Cole’ is the poetry editor at The New Republic. His latest collection of poetry is Touch.