Robert Lowell   Robert Lowell  


In his enormous Pulitzer Prize-winning account, Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer describes the kaleidoscopic tumult and turmoil of the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest American involvement in Vietnam. It was an instant in history when the formal orders of the Old and New Left came together, sometimes reluctantly, with hippies, sectarians, self-styled revolutionaries, and demure New England intellectuals. This was perhaps the last time that such a bizarre gathering would occur on American soil. Among the intellectual élites in attendance and chosen as the avant-garde, literally the advance guard of the march, was the inconspicuous and professorly Robert Lowell, looking a bit capsized and alarmed by the day's events. Mailer described him, accurately, as America's greatest living poet, though he also pointed out, in typical Mailer fashion, that the average National Guardsman assigned to defend the infamous temple of American militarism would no more recognize America's greatest living poet than much care about such an obscure status. Lowell is most celebrated today for his keen historical sensitivity, and he has been described, no doubt hyperbolically, as the greatest historian of his day. It is therefore fitting that he participated in what can be comfortably termed a crucial historical event at a time when his poetry represented the blending of intensely personal and broadly public concerns.

He began his career with the rococo fragility and myth-embracing high style of T.S. Eliot and ended it with the startlingly plain disclosures that initiated the confessionalist tenor of the age (a tenor, it must be said, that persists to the present day). This latter style was his most influential and presented a pivotal shift in American poetics, a casting off of the stately European assumptions nourished by modernists such as Ezra Pound and W.H. Auden. This style later characterized the works of the doomed John Berryman and absolutely dominated those of the equally-doomed Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton (his 1959 Life Studies simultaneously set the tone and kicked open the door; he taught both Plath and Sexton at Boston University). Both poles of Lowell's career and all the restless sea between them are represented in these recordings, from the densely-constructed and enormously referential "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" to the sparse and even glaring late poem "Reading Myself".

Born into one of the most prominent and oldest families in the country, Lowell spent his entire life after age thirty (when he won his first Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary's Castle, received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was appointed Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress) in the public eye. He was one of the last poets to achieve such prominence. After declaring himself a conscientious objector in a letter to President Roosevelt during the Second World War, he was jailed. Later, in a highly-publicized gesture, he refused an invitation to Nixon's White House. The southern accent he cultivated and preserved from his years studying with the great critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University is audible in these recordings, yet the New England drawl of his home is perceptible beneath the otherwise weary, proper inflexion. The rise and fall of the diction is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's recordings for the Library of Congress (Lowell's recordings were also assembled by the Library of Congress and it is still possible to find bins of marked-down vinyl LPs of "For the Union Dead" in the library's gift shop), and thus from the lofty but staid intonations of the High Anglican or Catholic service (Eliot converted in adulthood to the Church of England, Lowell to the Roman Church). Lowell projects rhythmic jolts and dips, fashioning a musical texture suggestive of his classical training, though the strained internal spleen that increasingly dominated his private and public lives is also in evidence.

The recordings include early poems such as "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" and "Falling Asleep over the Aeneid", a generous number of poems from Life Studies, and the two poems most familiar to younger generations, "Skunk Hour" and "For the Union Dead". The cathedral echo of "For the Union Dead" emerges as the most powerful moment of the recordings. Recited at the Coolidge Auditorium on October 31st, 1960 (he read it earlier on June 5th of that year for the Boston Festival of the Arts, on which day the audience included Eleanor Roosevelt), it pulls the public struggle for civil rights together with a moral certainty that makes it one of the most powerful American poems of the century. It stands as a warning and admonition, holding a mirror to the country's deeply-rooted political hypocrisy, its civic indifference, self-absorption, and arrogance. His life was one of journeys, and the paths of self-discovery and revelation he experienced privately seemed to mimic that of the nation at large as it came to terms with its own imperial brutality and conceit. More than any other poet, he was fortunate to be in a position, both artistically and politically, to realize his complex vision. Like so many poets of his generation, he was, however, plagued by physical ailments, which resulted in his dependence on drugs, and he went through many unstable relationships and multiple marriages, as though endlessly seeking a happiness that would, in the end, prove elusive. In the last days of his life, he attempted to escape from another turbulent marriage, and he decided to return to an ex-wife. When the cab that picked him up at the airport arrived at her apartment, the cabby turned around to find Lowell dead in the back seat, pagan and Puritan, lost in the middle of yet another desperate journey.

—Ernest Hilbert

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  Copyright ©2002, Ernest Hilbert  
Photo credit: Tom Victor