Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lowell Studies (groan)

I've been reading Robert Lowell's Day by Day in advance of a seminar I'm going to on Thursday about the usual Lowelly things - agency, confession and so on. His Collected Poems (or is it Complete, or Comprehensive, or Whacko! Use This as the Basis of my Plinth?) is such a daunting and massive book - though graphically beautiful - that I have always been somewhat afraid of it. This fear is partly relieved and partly reinforced by the fact that, opening it at random, you are pretty much guaranteed to find a piece of good writing in Lowell's own distinctive style.

You may remember August Kleinzahler's attack on Lowell in the LRB; reading the poems, it's hard to suppose that Kleinzahler has done so himself (though I don't want to suggest that he hasn't). What I find, and he, presumably, doesn't, is a style which succeeds more often than not in dramatising its material. I don't mean by saying that to take a position on the whole confession vs craft debate which seems to tether thinking about Lowell's work to the most basic level. (Of course he draws material from his life; of course it is crafted literature and not mere confession.) Rather, I mean that his sentences are constructed in such a way that they create and maintain interest, embody tensions, provoke reactions. The reason Lowell is so much better than most so-called confessional poets is not because he led a more interesting life or confessed it the more or less nakedly but because the man knew how to write a sentence.

There is a sort of humour in Lowell's style which makes you not laugh but gurgle with delight, regardless of the tenor of the underlying material. It is like irony; maybe it is a kind of irony, but the distance between the thing said and the way it is expressed is sometimes very small, or exists in a dimension other than the distance we usually think of as being ironic. Which is probably an obscure way of saying that Lowell's speaker need not sound cynical to create such an effect. I suppose it must leave some people cold. I love it.

On a more mundane level, I note that Lowell has a Russian doll fetish for titles: Day by Day, like Life Studies, contains a sequence of poems with the same title as the collection it is part of. Probably this proves nothing, but I wonder if it is further evidence for the way his collections are startlingly coherent. Or, since I have been overwhelmingly positive up to now, I'll make the same point in a different way by saying that I wonder if it supports the suspicion that Lowell had a very limited range of subjects, and wrote them all to death.


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