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Robert Lowell

Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV (1917-1977), one of the most praised and influential American poets of the 20th century, was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a Boston Brahmin family that included poets Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. His mother, Charlotte Winslow, was a descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the U. S. Constitution. He went to St. Mark's School, a prominent prep school in Southborough, Massachusetts, before attending Harvard College for two years and transferring to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to study under John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. Lowell was nicknamed by his close relatives and friends as Cal, and that is how he is referred to in most of the memoirs and correspondence.

Lowell won two Pulitzer Prizes over the course of his career, one in 1947 for his second collection, Lord Weary's Castle (Harcourt, Brace, 1946) and another in 1974 for The Dolphin (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1973). He won the 1960 National Book Award for Life Studies (Farrar, Strauss & Cudahy, 1959). He served as the sixth United States Poet Laureate (then known at the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry) from 1947 to 1948. From 1950 to 1953, Lowell taught in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, together with Paul Engle, Robie Macauley, and Anthony Hecht. Later Lowell was hired to teach at Boston University, where his students included the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Over the years, he taught at a number of other universities including the University of Cincinnati, Yale University, Harvard University, and the New School for Social Research.

Lowell was married to novelist Jean Stafford from 1940 until 1948. Then in 1949 he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick with whom he had a daughter, Harriet, in 1957. In 1970 he left Elizabeth Hardwick for the British author Lady Caroline Blackwood. Blackwood and Lowell were married in 1972 in England where they lived and raised their son, Sheridan. Lowell had a notably close friendship with the poet Elizabeth Bishop that lasted from 1947 until Lowell's death in 1977. Both writers relied upon one another for feedback on their poetry. Their letters were published in 2008 in Words in Air: the Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.

Lowell suffered from manic depression, and despite this being a great burden for himself and his family, the subject of the mental illness led to some of his most important poetry, particularly as it manifested in his book Life Studies. Lowell died in 1977, after suffering a heart attack in a cab in New York City on his way to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. He was buried in Stark Cemetery, Dunbarton, New Hampshire.

Lowell in Iowa City

Lowell’s impressions of and experiences in Iowa City vary a great deal and it is almost impossible to pinpoint exactly how the poet regarded the early literary hub. The most detailed account of the semesters Lowell and his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick (Lizzie) spent in Iowa City are found in the comprehensive biography of Lowell by Paul Mariani.[fn]Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan. A Life of Robert Lowell. W. W. Norton, New York 1994, pp. 190-192, and 220-229[/fn]

In January of 1950 the Lowell’s moved into their first Iowa City apartment at 728 Bowery Street. He found his students unremarkable but among them only a few intelligent and talented individuals. His workshop class was held in a temporary structure in the barracks that remained on the east side of the Iowa River after World War II. At the end of his first semester at Iowa, he and his wife traveled to Italy for a year as Lowell had proven he was welcome at Iowa at any time. Upon their return to Iowa a year later, the Lowell’s fell back into the swing of their Iowa City lives, quickly finishing their final year and a half there. Lowell stayed busy with his classes and traveled frequently to other universities to speak or teach.  For the most part Lowell found the city, the university and the people “tame and friendly” and his teaching experiences were rife with personal growth and epiphanies about his own writing.

In his 1997 essay[fn]Dana, Robert. Far from the Ocean: Robert Lowell at Iowa, 1953. The North American Review, September/October 1997, pp. 48-52[/fn] Robert Dana muses candidly on Lowell’s days in Iowa:

“Robert Lowell may have disliked his days in Iowa City. In fact, he commented openly on the ‘sterility’ of the Midwest on the dust jacket of Snodgrass’s Pulitzer Prize winning Heart’s Needle. But if he found life in Iowa City ‘a pretty dormant, day to day thing, a rather rustic pastoral after Europe,’ he also found it remarkable for it’s  ‘light, space and cleanness.’ And in at least one letter to Allen Tate he wrote that his students were pretty good. What ever else may be true, twenty years later, Lowell remembered this period with pleasure and a certain amount of fondness.”

Lowell through the eyes of his Iowa students

In a commemorative book titled A Community of Writers[fn]Dana, Robert, ed. A Community of Writers. Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. U of Iowa Press, Iowa City 1999[/fn] the essays by W.D. Snodgrass, Philip Levine, and Robert Dana have captured the unique interaction among the great poets who taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the early 1950s and the talented students who worshipped them. The impressions of Lowell presented in this book are often contradictory and together they form a pastiche that speaks volumes to the complex nature of the famous poet. Anecdotes give us greater insight into his professional lifestyle and classroom demeanor as well as into his personal and writing life.

While Lowell may not have considered his time at Iowa exciting, his students and the literary community at large certainly did. “Even before we knew he was coming, I’d been writing like him.” says W.D. Snodgrass in an essay from A Community of Writers. Lowell’s fame and prestige preceded him in Iowa City, “until his arrival, he was the one topic of conversation” says Snodgrass, “we were surprised to find that, though tall and powerfully built, he seemed the gentlest of mortals, clumsily anxious to please.” Philip Levine’s memories of the poet as a professor were not so generous. Levine admits that he had no idea what to expect, having never taken a poetry workshop before his first with Lowell, but he found Lowell to be “visibly bored with his students and their poems” and “hard to admire.”

Mary Jane Baker, Lowell’s freshman student in 1953, found him shy and mumbling in his advanced course in the spring term. On the first day of class he said they would attempt to read the poets in the original languages—which the students did not know. He read French poems with an atrocious accent in order to show the class “how they sounded.” He was a learned and exciting teacher, but disorganized and confusing. He never mastered the names of the thirty students and was not interested in their comprehension or opinions. Their final paper could either criticize or translate the poems. Baker seems more awed by Lowell, himself, than by his actual performance in class.[fn]Meyers, Jeffrey ed., Robert Lowell—Interviews and Memoirs. The U of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1988[/fn] “Lowell's classroom demeanor was thoughtful and scholarly and marked by irony, offhandedness, and occasionally, dogmatism distilled to arrogance,” notes Robert Dana.

Lowell left strong impressions on his students and marked an integral change in the nature of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. “The fall Lowell arrived was marked by a sense among us that the ante had definitely been upped,” says Dana “the workshop was moving onto a higher level. The mood was one of excited uncertainty, a sense that we were about to be seriously challenged.

Lowell’s Writing

Robert Lowell is often heralded as the “father” of confessional poetry and like many of his contemporaries, Lowell’s poetry pulled his personal life into a public light in a way that revolutionized American poetry in the 50s and 60s. Lowell’s early poems were formal and ornate and meditated strongly on the poetic tradition. By the time Life Studies was published, Lowell began to channel and incorporate more of the energy that inhabited the poems of Allen Ginsberg and other Beat Generation poets. Lowell’s poetry has found iterations in translations and in various modified sonnet forms, in the late sixties he published an experimental verse journal called Notebook 1967-68 (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1969), which captures how the poet played with the sonnet form.[fn]American Poets since WWII, Fifth Series. Ed. Joseph Mark Conte. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 169. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996. pp. 165-178[/fn]

Further reading: Iowa City in the early 1950s: incubator of great poets

(A collage that contains excerpts from: 1) Philip Levine’s essay “Mine own John Berryman,” from The Bread of Time, copyright 1993 by Philip Levine; reprinted by permission of the author; 2) Robert Dana’s essay “Far from the Ocean: Robert Lowell at Iowa, 1953,” from A Community of Writers, copyright 1999 by Robert Dana; reprinted by permission of Peg Dana; and 3) W. D. Snodgrass’s essay “Mentors, Fomenters, and Tormentors,”, from The Southern Review, copyright 1992 by W. D. Snodgrass; reprinted by permission of Kathleen Snodgrass.)

 

 

Bibliography

  • Land of Unlikeness (1944)
  • Lord Weary's Castle (1946)
  • The Mills of The Kavanaughs (1951)
  • Life Studies (1959)
  • Phaedra (translation) (1961)
  • Imitations (1961)
  • For the Union Dead (1964)
  • The Old Glory (1965)
  • Near the Ocean (1967)
  • The Voyage & other versions of poems of Baudelaire (1969)
  • Prometheus Bound (1969)
  • Notebook (1969) (Revised and Expanded Edition, 1970)
  • For Lizzie and Harriet (1973)
  • History (1973)
  • The Dolphin (1973)
  • Selected Poems (1976) (Revised Edition, 1977)
  • Day by Day (1977)
  • The Oresteia of Aeschylus (1978)
  • Collected Poems (2003)
  • Selected Poems (2006) (Expanded Edition)

 

Text: Zlatko Anguelov

United States