Showing posts with label Robert Lowell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Lowell. Show all posts

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Photo: Richard Avedon

Robert Lowell
at the Poetry Center,
San Francisco State University
March 27, 1957

Monday, May 07, 2012

Correspondence performed:
Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell,
@ the 92nd Street Y
May 24 2010

Sunday, October 13, 2002

I’ve made caustic comments here about a few poets whom I’ve associated with the tradition I’ve characterized (to borrow from Edgar Allan Poe) as the school of quietude, that tendency within American letters that envisions poetry in the United States as continuous with (& mostly derivative from) verse in the British Isles, and especially from the most conservative elements there. So the question naturally arises: are there conservative poets whose work I genuinely like?

The answer is yes. I think Hart Crane’s The Bridge a master work of American poetry. There are aspects of Wallace Stevens work that I like, even though he suffers from being so overrated by his advocates. Ditto the early Eliot, though the canonization process is not nearly what it was when I was in college, mercifully. I’ve been reading Jack Gilbert and Robert Hass with interest & even passion for over 30 years*, have always thought Berryman’s Dream Songs, Plath’s Ariel, John Logan’s Zigzag Walk and even Merwin’s The Lice admirable. There are elements in Robert Lowell’s best writing that suggest that he had the potential to have been another Frank O’Hara had he not been so horrifically dysfunctional, aesthetically as well as emotionally. Alan Dugan is a guilty pleasure. And Wendell Berry is a poet for whom the term conservative should be understood literally, in the very best sense. The values he espouses in his poetry & life seem to me to fit together seamlessly. So when I come down harshly on a poet such as Richard Wakefield, it’s because he writes so ineffectively: his sense of metrics could only be characterized as plodding and bungled.

On my desk is a manuscript for a book entitled Calendars by Annie Finch that Tupelo Press will be printing sometime soon. It’s a marvelous manuscript by a poet who could easily be taken for one of the New Formalists, in the Timothy Steele vein, but who is also, I would argue, a formalist in the tradition, say, of Bernadette Mayer & Lee Ann Brown. Which is to say: she gets it. Her commitment is to the language, even as the strategies she deploys are most often taken from oldest playbook there is. At times, as in the poem “Moon,” her work reminds me of H.D.’s sense of timing, so very deliberate & ordered:

Then are you the dense everywhere that moves,
the dark matter they haven’t yet walked through?

(No, I’m not, I’m just the shining sun,
sometimes covered up by the darkness.)

But in your beauty – yes, I know you see –
There is no covering, no constant light.
<![if !supportLineBreakNewLine]>
That supplemental yes in the last couplet, the fact that the final syllable in each line articulates a phonemic openness, except for the last, even the use of the capital letter at the start of the final line (but not in the final line of the other stanzas), all demonstrate a control over the materials at hand that is extraordinary. That yes functions as though it were a sigh, modulating & redirecting  the timing of the work away from dialog & toward conclusion. It’s a device that I’ve often been suspicious of – Josephine Miles, another traditionalist whose work I take seriously, too often incorporated such asides just to even out meter or complete an end-rhyme. Finch uses it here to halt the flow of the text, to gather the language up into an expression of breath. It is no accident that every word in that aside uses exactly one syllable** or that there are no hard consonants there – the only moment in this six-line text where either of these conditions applies. I love it when someone can demonstrate such mastery in such a compact terrain.

I want to quote one other short poem here, my favorite, because of the way in which it blends an over-the-top sense of language’s lushness with a tone so soft it all but whispers. It’s called “Butterfly Lullaby.”

My wild indigo dusky wing
my mottled, broad-wing skipper,
a sleepy, dreamy dusty wing,
flying through my night.

My northern, southern, cloudy wing,
my spring azure, my crescent pearl,
a silver-spotted, sweet question mark,
sleeping in my sky.

A tiger swallowtail, harvester,
moving through my hours,
an eyed brown in the redwing dark,
wrapped softly in my words.

We haven’t had a poet so capable of combining control & excess since the young Robert Duncan.

* I have a theory that Jack’s animated & public distaste for langpo has to do with the fact that he himself, were he younger, would have been one. This is, after all, the man who once wrote (quoting from memory here): “Helot for what time there is in the baptist hegemony of death.”

** Shades again of H.D. and even of Lew Welch.