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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Declan Ryan

Robert Lowell: Memoirs, edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc – review

Robert Lowell in Boston, Massachusetts in 1964.
Robert Lowell in Boston, Massachusetts in 1964. Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Courtesy of Sarah Payne Stuart

In an exceptionally gifted generation of American poets, Robert Lowell was, in his lifetime, number one. That was the critical consensus at least after Robert Frost’s death in 1963 left space at the head of the table. Since Lowell’s own death in 1977, however, his reputation has waned, while others in his circle – especially his friend Elizabeth Bishop – have outstripped him.

Born to one of the grandest families in the US, Lowell was a difficult figure. His early work was all hellfire and bombast, leaning on Milton and his zealous Catholicism. It won him acclaim, but the brimstone fervour was accompanied by what we would now call bipolar disorder, resulting in bouts of “enthusiasm”; short-lived love affairs, hospitalisation and stultifying regret.

In 1954, shortly after his mother’s death, Lowell underwent psychotherapy at the Payne Whitney clinic in New York and began writing an “autobiographical monster”, reflecting on his childhood, spurred by the therapy that saw him revisit his formative years. He hoped this might be his way out of writer’s block – as a lapsed Catholic, he didn’t want to continue with the “old rhetoric” – and would lead to a less enervated existence. In one poignant extract here he sets out what he hoped to gain: “What I ask is… that these extremes be cured, or at least moderated… I want to live the life I have – married, teaching, writing”.

The project led to a great artistic leap, but not in the way he’d anticipated – the “monster” became material for poetry, and in 1957 he completed drafts of 11 poems that formed the basis of Life Studies (1959), his influential shift into “confessional” writing. Memoirs publishes, mostly for the first time, the prose Lowell composed – chiefly in two spells between 1954 and 1957 – and allows the reader to see it not only as origin story for the poems, but as a graceful, stately work in its own right. Lowell was influenced by Flaubert, his “images and ironic or amusing particulars”, and was in possession of invaluable source material.

Elizabeth Bishop, writing to Lowell after reading the Life Studies poems, noted wryly: “I am green with envy... I feel I could write in as much detail about my uncle Artie, say, but what would be the significance?” Unlike Bishop’s uncle, Lowell’s family were historic public figures. In one of a number of “undertaker’s pieces” on writers, Lowell writes: “Wasn’t I… a young man doomed to trifle with poetry and end up as president of Harvard or ambassador to England? I have stepped over these pitfalls. I have conquered my hereditary disadvantages.”

The family portraits, rich in stabbing detail, deepen our understanding of Lowell’s childhood and his attempts at recovery in the “balanced aquarium” of the hospital. His reminiscences fill out figures known to readers of his work, which, from Life Studies onwards, became a “small scale Prelude”; like Wordsworth’s epic, Lowell made his life his grand subject. As in the poems, he can be dismissive of his father, the permanently smiling Robbie, a former naval man who “treated even himself with the caution and uncertainty of one who has forgotten a name”. By contrast, Lowell’s mother, Charlotte, is imposing, dominant, almost mythic: “Mother, her strong chin unprotected… seemed to me the young Alexander”. Lowell’s grandfather, Arthur Winslow, the clan’s true patriarch, is also seen in colour, in a deepening of Memoirs’ oedipal overtones. He “presided like Lear at the head of the table”, we learn, his presence haunting and unbalancing the family.

There’s something oedipal in Lowell’s tributes to other writers too, among them mentors such as Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom (“the intellectual father I would have chosen”). Then there are his thoughts on former students Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Plath’s last poems, Lowell writes, have “the wild energy of a horse throwing off its trappings”, but the cost of their terrible courage was too great, “the finality of playing Russian roulette with a full cylinder”.

He is quick to downplay the morbid glamour that clung to his generation: “the life of the ant is more to the ant than the health of his anthill”. Lowell wrote this prose, as he wrote more broadly, to supply himself with “a sort of immense bandage of gauze… for my hurt nerves”. Giving a reading in 1976, he remarked, as an aside, “memory is genius” and as he puts it here: “From year to year, things remembered from the past change almost more than the present.”

Writing was a life raft. Through it he found a way to lower his poems’ temperature and fix, in lasting images, what his biographer Ian Hamilton called “the moderate emotions”, fashioning memory into art.

Declan Ryan’s first collection of poetry, Crisis Actor, will be published by Faber next year

Robert Lowell: Memoirs, edited by Steven Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc, is published by Faber (£40). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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