THE UNPROPORTIONED EGO
POET ROBERT LOWELL, MANIC DEPRESSIVE AND SELF-DESCRIBED “ENEMY TO WOMANKIND,” WAS A STYLISTIC SHAPE SHIFTER AND TOO SUCCESSFUL FOR HIS OWN GOOD.
As Lowell points out in his 1961 review of Yvor Winters’s slim Collected Poems,
Walter Bagehot begins a review of Lord Macaulay’s History of England with this sentence, “This is a marvellous book.”
I want to scrap all my impressions, pro and con, of Yvor Winters’s critical theories, insights, and prejudices, and say that his Collected Poems is a “marvellous book.”
Sometimes a book demands that its review begin like this. Sometimes nothing else will do. Lowell’s own Collected Poems, then, is a marvelous book.
It is daunting to review a book that contains 1,200 pages and nearly the entire creative output of one of the most respected writers of the last century. This book is heavy and hard as a brick—as two bricks, even—and contains poems as densely packed. This, then, amounts to a disclaimer of sorts. It is not possible to do justice to the fairness and scholarship exhibited here by the editors, Frank Bidart, one of Lowell’s former pupils and closest friends, and David Gewanter.
The Collected Poems contains all but one of Lowell’s books: Lord Weary’s Castle (1946), The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), Life Studies (1959), Imitations (1961), For the Union Dead (1964), Near the Ocean (1967), History (1973), For Lizzie and Harriet (1973), The Dolphin (1973), Day by Day (1977), and three poems amassed under the title Last Poems (1977). The missing collection, Notebook, was published in a first edition in May 1969, in a second version in July of that year, and again in a revised third version (featuring more than ninety new poems) in January 1970. Lowell, in a note to the third edition, stated, “I am sorry to ask anyone to buy this poem twice. I couldn’t stop writing, and have handled my published book as if it were a manuscript.” He then went on to carve both History and For Lizzie and Harriet out of Notebook, and Frank Bidart, in choosing to include the two later books at the expense of the earlier, concludes that “Notebook is less ‘well-written,’ perhaps—but, in its free-wheeling catch-as-catch-can improvisations, compelling in an entirely different way from History. Lowell in the end didn’t think of either book as replacing the other, and hoped both would remain in print. When, in his Selected Poems the year before his death, he had to choose which to excerpt, he chose History.”
This book also contains seven appendices which together comprise Land of Unlikeness (1944), Lowell’s first volume of poetry (reworked, this became the Pulitzer-winning Lord Weary’s Castle); translations of Akhmatova and Mandelstam; alternate magazine versions of poems; two sequences from Notebook; uncollected poems; poems in manuscript; and “After Enjoying Six or Seven Essays on Me” (Robert Lowell’s Final Essay on His Work). There is an afterword, On “Confessional Poetry,” by Bidart, then 153 pages of small-print notes, a glossary, a chronology of Lowell’s life, a selected bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index of titles. This is an exhaustive, painstaking record of Lowell’s productivity.
Acres of print already exist about Lowell’s life and work. Readers interested in his life could start with Ian Hamilton’s colossal Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982) or Paul Mariani’s briefer Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell (1994), but those interested in the actual poetry have had to make do with individual volumes (usually hard to come by, aside from Life Studies) and the Selected Poems. With Lowell, of course, the poems themselves are part biography, refracting the changing details of his personal circumstances. The fact that the Collected Poems has appeared—and particularly in this lovingly meticulous edition—more than twenty-five years after Lowell’s death shows the remarkable esteem in which he is held, at least by his publishers and editors.
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