Monday, 3 January 2011

Fresh Starts | Poetry | Robert Lowell, Confessional Chameleon

Forgive me father, it has been many years since my last poem. 

How much of ourselves are we supposed to put in our writing? It is an equation which the greatest writers have always strived to balance. It is a notion which Robert Lowell spent a great deal of his career tinkering with, and is best exemplified in his acceptance speech of the 1960 Poetry Book Award:

“Two poetries are now competing, a cooked and a raw. The cooked, marvellously expert, often seems laboriously concocted to be tasted and digested by a graduate seminar. The raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience are dished up for midnight listeners. There is a poetry that can only be studied, and a poetry that can only be declaimed, a poetry of pedantry, and a poetry of scandal.”

This distinction heightened and hounded Lowell’s career from the moment he uttered these words. The dichotomy between formalism and confessionals pulled his work between the desolate piquancy of Life Studies which gained him his early popularity and the ornate architecture of Land of Unlikeness from which his writing career began.

In the thirty-three years between Lowell’s first and last collections, he never stopped tinkering and refining, one might say reinventing, his approach to writing poetry. But then, is reinventing a misnomer, as it suggests that Lowell was fully complicit in his ever-changing style? In his superb synoptic essay, After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me, he suggests that this is not the case:

“When I was working on Life Studies, I found that I had no language or meter that would allow me to approximate what I saw or remembered. Yet in prose I had already found what I wanted, the conventional style of autobiography of reminiscence. So I wrote my autobiographical poetry in a style I thought I had discovered in Flaubert, one that used images and ironic particulars.”

He then goes on to suggest that his later shifts in style were a direct result of the poems’ requirements, rather than any conscious effort to change his own style:

“Later on in For the Union Dead, free verse subjects seemed to melt away, and I found myself back in strict meter, yet tried to avoid the symbols and heroics of my first books.”

I always find these phrases like ‘I found myself’ and ‘tried to avoid’ fascinating when writers are discussing their own work. It all fits in with that trance-like state that is supposed to take hold of us when we are truly in sync with the muse and writing ‘real’ poetry. It is also entirely at odds with what we know of the drafting process – no writer should be able to look their reading audience in the eye if all they have done is knock a few moments of inspiration onto the page and post it off to their publisher. In his ‘raw’ and ‘uncooked’ analogy, surely Lowell is driving at the idea of the poetic sweet-spot being a figurative ‘medium-rare’ situation.

“I pray that my progress has been more than recoiling with satiation and disgust from one style to another, a series of rebuffs”, writes Lowell at the end of his essay. In retrospectively considering his career, he is clearly aware that his shifting style could be seen as caprice, or a superficial avenue for redecorating his common theme of autobiography.

It must surely have been in reaction to M.L. Rosenthal’s labelling of Lowell as “confessional” that the poet went about such shape-shifting in style, just as his close friend, Elizabeth Bishop, did all she could to avoid being pigeon-holed as a female or feminist poet.

Perhaps it is through my own semantic idiosyncrasies that I have always paired Lowell with a very different stylistic chameleon, David Bowie. At similar stages in both men’s careers they went about the task of ‘cover versions’, of sorts; Lowell with his series of poetic re-working, Imitations (1961) and Bowie with his album of cover-versions, Pin Ups (1973).

I make this connection, purely because it serves as a fine illustration of artists telling us a great deal about themselves through the convenient masking act of ‘translation’. When Bowie was between two elaborate concept albums, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs, two wonderful pieces of musical fiction, he allowed himself an album of cover-versions with which to unashamedly share far more universal and cathartic themes than Ziggy Stardust would ever allow him to explore.

Similarly, we get the sense that Lowell shares far more of himself through the re-imagined monologues of his Imitations than in the more factually autobiographical yet emotionally measured pieces in Life Studies. It puts me in mind of poor Thomas Wyatt, finding the only acceptable public voice for his melancholy in translating the works of Petrarch from the Italian. As Paul Muldoon points out in his Oxford lectures, we often find out most of Lowell’s life when he is writing about and through historical figures.

But then, what are we then to learn from Lowell about fresh starts? Surely the man who happened to find himself writing in one form or another, depending on what the poems required would scoff at the artifice of a ‘fresh start’. In this sense, Lowell tells us that there is no such thing as a fresh start in poetry, merely a willingness and openness to go where our writing requires us to go.

I would argue that it is one of the only true signs of a genuine writer that their work varies from collection to collection, even at the expense of quality and commercial viability. The poet who churns out a second collection of similar length, content and style to their debut has not found that balance between the raw and the cooked; the worst and most repetitive of us can easily be located on either side of this spectrum.

Lowell did something that poets such as Anne Carson and David Morley are doing now (in both cases, look at their three most recent collections and trace the great stylistic eclecticism, held together by clearly tangible thematic threads that run through their respective works). Like many great writers, Lowell knew that his foremost challenge was to harness his writing toward something with purpose, secure that the style of his writing would come through patient exploration, just as the sea sounds from a shell.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

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