Robert Lowell: For the Union Dead



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Now the midwinter grindis on me New Yorkdrills my nervesas I walkthe chewed up streetsAt forty fivewhat next what nextAt every cornerI meet my Fathermy age still aliveFather forgive memy injuriesas I forgivethose Ihave injuredYou never climbedMount Sion yet leftdinosaurdeath steps on the crustwhere I must walk Middle Age pg 7 I long for the black inkcuttlefish April Communistsand brothels of Florence everything even the Britishfairies who haunted the hillseven the chills and feverthat came once a monthand forced me to thinkThe apple was human there than herebut it took a long time for the blindinggolden ind to mellowHow vulnerable the horseshoe crabsdredging the bottom like flat ironsin their antiue armorwith their swordgrass blackbone tailsmade for a child to graband throw strangling ashoreOh Florence Florence patronessof the lovely tyranicidesWhere the tower of the Old Palacepierces the skylike a hypodermic needlePerseus David and Judithlords and ladies of the BloodGreek demi gods of the Crossrise sword in handabove the unshavenformless decapitationof the monsters tubs of gutsmortifying chunks for the packPity the monstersPity the monstersPerhaps one always took the wrong side Ah to have known to have lovedtoo many Davids and JudithsMy heart bleeds black blood for the monsterI have seen the GorgonThe erotic terrorof her helpless big bosomed bodylay like slopWall eyed staring the despot to stoneher served head swunglike a lantern in the victor s hand Florence for Mary McCarthy pg 13 14 Think of Leonidas perhaps and the hoplitesglittering with liberationas the combed one another s golden Botticellianhair at Thermopylae friends and loversthe bride and the bridegroom and moved into position to die Epigram for Hannah Arendt pg 23 This might be nature twenty stories hightwo water tanks tanned shingle corsettedby stapled pasture wire while bed to bedwe two one cell here liegazing into the ether s crystal ballsky and a sky and sky and sky till death my heart stops This might be heaven Years agowe aimed for less and settled fora picture out of style then and now inof seven daffodils We watched them blowbuttercup yellow were the flowers and greenthe stems as fresh paint over them the windthe blousy wooden branches of the elmshigh summer in the breath that overwhelms the termites digging in the underpinning Still over us still in parenthesisthis sack of hornets sopping up the flamestill over us our breathsawing and pumping to the terminaland down below we two two in one waterdropvitalised by a needle drop of bloodup up up up and upsoon shot soon slugged into the overflowthat sets the wooden workshoe working here below New York 1962 Fragment pg 65 The tag next to Robert Lowell s corpus in the museum of literary history designates him the most influential American poet of the 20th century s second half less the founder of a school Confessional Poetry than an author the gravity of whose work legitimated anyone who followed him in abandoning the modernist impersonality extolled by Eliot and exploring instead the uncharted paths among personal experience poetic form and historyLowell s contemporaries and successors could have gotten this from say Ginsberg or other Beats the aw poets Lowell himself praised but I wonder if they needed to hear it from a writer with Lowell s command of traditional verse form and dare I say Boston Brahmin pedigree And this scion of Puritans and Transcendentalists temporary Catholic convert though he was hence Confessional perhaps eminds us that suffering inwardness and commitment to self expression defined American literature from the start From one of my favorite poems in For the Union Dead Jonathan Edwards in Western MassachusettsAs a boy you built a boothin a swamp for prayer lying on your backyou saw the spiders flybasking at their easeswimming from tree to tree so high they seemed tacked to the skyYou knew they would diePoor country Berkeley at Yaleyou saw the world was soulthe soul of God The soulof Sarah PierrepontLowell does Hawthorne tooLeave him alone for a moment or twoand you ll see him with his headbent down brooding broodingeyes fixed on some chipsome stone some common plantthe commonest thingas if it were the clueThese two poems on historical predecessors in second and third person espectively confess only at a distance vicariously They set the tone formally and affectively for the poetry of their time in part still our timeFormally note the or less free verse structured not by strict hyming or metrical schemes but by a consistent weave of consonance assonance and slant hyme binding the poem internally sans line For the Union Dead is a well known 1964 poem by Robert Lowell published in a book of the same name and originally written for the Boston Arts Festival in 1960 where Lowell first ead it in publicThe title eferences Allen Tate's 1928 poem Ode to the Confederate DeadThe setting of the poem is the Boston Common near the well known Robert Gould Shaw Memorial In the poem Lowell's visit to the park leads to a series of associations that the dug up park con.

Nding ivets Lowell was internationally enowned too and Heaney and Walcott might have done it better but they credited Lowell s influenceAffectively note the distanced ironized pity ultimately self pity for the marginal poet intellectual observing the world soul in common things with furrowed brow even though the world doesn t heed or understand Lowell dramatizes and elegizes the position of the postmodern poet so concerned for us all and yet so bereft of any power to transform even himself let alone societyLowell s poetry is as political as it is personal it is a thinking through of how history is efracted in his individual experience but its way of being political eifies and einforces its own social isolation The poet s doleful theatrical public despair as in the nuclear war lament Fall 1961 aestheticizes and therefore elishes itself in a gesture I ve also observed in the work of Lowell s contemporary Adrienne RichAll autumn the chafe and jarof nuclear war we have talked our extinction to deathI swim like a minnowbehind my studio windowOur end drifts nearerthe moon liftsradiant with terrorThe stateis a diver under a glass bellA father s no shieldfor his childWe are like a lot of wildspiders crying togetherbut without tearsWith Lowell and with Rich you get the feeling that these ostensible adicals enjoy the conditions they decry as an occasion for their elaborate performances of sorrow and anger And I object not to the enjoyment I m not a moralist I expect only perversity from people it s the bad faith posture of self pitying and lonely enlightenment which was not always the only tone literary artists could strike in public but which now is for which Lowell must share some blameContrast for instance Lowell s friend and correspondent Elizabeth Bishop with her much thorough and self implicating verbal irony her poems are often self cancelling metafictional artifacts wedded to the sometimes distastefully if wryly jocular laying down the law swagger you find only in the very best poets Somebody loves us all In short my argument is Nietzsche not Marx better the open proclamation than the dissimulation of power and how it gets that way whether aesthetic or politicalTake the emarkable conclusion to Lowell s Florence a tribute to the city that ends with the speaker s declaration of allegiance to the villains of Classical and Biblical historyOh Florence Florence patronessof the lovely tyranicidesWhere the tower of the Old Palacepierces the skylike a hypodermic needlePerseus David and Judithlords and ladies of the BloodGreek demi gods of the Crossrise sword in handabove the unshavenformless decapitationof the monsters tubs of gutsmortifying chunks for the packPity the monstersPity the monstersPerhaps one always took the wrong side Ah to have known to have lovedtoo many David and JudithsMy heart bleeds for the monsterI have seen the GorgonThe erotic terrorof her helpless big bosomed bodylay like slopWall eyed staring the despot to stoneher severed head swunglike a lantern in the victor s handI ecently ead an interview with a young writer Her interlocutor asked her who her favorite villain was and she efused the premise of the uestion by arguing that villains have been assigned that ole by the powers that be and were probably just misunderstood Here we see what for Lowell at midcentury was a striking poetic insight see also Bishop s extraordinary Man Moth curdle to our contemporary doxaIdentification with monsters is now the ideology of mom and dad as they approach their soft middle age hence the current moral panic about the arrival of eal monsters estive youth choosing communism fascism left or ight identitarianism left or ight libertarianism trad Catholicism or any other ideology that ejects this now complacent compulsory transgression unconvincingly proposed by the buttoned up professionals hardly the outcast villains of an increasingly centralized and ideologically monocultural literary academic worldModern art is eactive which is why it is evolutionary The embourgeoisement of marginality s signifiers of the nose ing the tattoo the blue dyed hair the superhero comics and the horror movies and the aesthetics of ueerness and blackness in general is the ideological crisis of our age Whatever was once fresh and vital in a ange of ebellious midcentury writing from Lowell and Bishop to Ginsberg and Kerouac to Baldwin and O Connor to Le Guin and Delany to Shirley Jackson and early Marvel Comics has now along with Marvel s intellectual property itself become boring middlebrow middle class suburban and profitable to the present power structure Jures First watching the construction of the underground parking garage beneath the Common makes him think about his childhood and how Boston had changed; in particular the South Boston Auarium that he'd visited as a child had ecently been demolished in 1954This leads him to think about the Robert Gould Shaw memorial and the history associated with the memorial including Robert Gould Shaw and the all black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry that

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Esthetes and almost all political adicals whatever their politics are aesthetes in denial won t be bored if necessary they won t be bored to death And people wonder why the new avant gardes like the old ones are illiberalLowell is elouent but has too little conceptual or verbal power in his poetry though he was adical enough in his life willing to be jailed for his convictions to esist this hijacking by smug boredom of his worldview Someone Hayden Carruth perhaps once said that poets can never be liberal or conservative but only evolutionary or eactionaryBut Lowell undeniably produces some magnificent poetry These poems vein of nature imagery especially stands out and is also no less historico political surely someone has done Reading Lowell in the Anthropocene by now The non cuddly denizens of the non human world persistently catch Lowell s interest if the spiders come from Jonathan Edwards do the turtles come from D H Lawrence and offer a persuasive corollary than mere monsters for all that the oppressively civilized world including poetry epresented by the Keatsian urn below abjectsOh neo classical white urn Oh nymphOh lute The boy was pitiless who strummedtheir elegyfor as the month wore onthe turtles oseand popped up dead on the stale scummedsurface limp wrinkled heads and legs withdrawnin pain What pain A turtle s nothing Nograce no cerebration less freedom willthan the mosuito I must kill nothings Turtles I ub my skullthat turtle shelland breathe their dying smellstill watch their crippled survivors passand hobble humpbacked through the grizzled grassThe personal the natural and the political all come together in the final titular poem one of Lowell s most famous his elegiac portrait of a modernizing Boston or America at large where automobiles have eplaced marine vitality and segregation has displaced the moral fanaticism that defeated the slave powerMy hand draws back I often sigh stillfor the dark downward and vegetating kingdomof the fish and eptile One morning last MarchI pressed against the new barbed and galvanizedfence on the Boston Common Behind their cageyellow dinosaur steamshovels were gruntingas they cropped up tons of mush and grassto gouge their underworld garageHe is out of bounds now He ejoices in man s lovelypeculiar power to choose life and die when he leads his black soldiers to deathhe cannot bend his backOn a thousand small town New England greensthe old white churches hold their airof sparse sincere ebellion frayed flagsuilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the RepublicSome say the descendants of Lowell white American liberals are undergoing another moral awakening like that which preceded the Civil War And with my own brand of marginal and aestheticized bad faith adicalism forged in protest against the Bush administration s militarism justified as it was with eference to progress and democracy I have been skeptical of some of our own ecent Civil War kitsch and nostalgia Not I assure you from any sympathy with the Confederacy or the Taliban or the Ba ath Party but from a conviction that we should find some way to solve our problems without mass slaughterYet as a palpable habitable locus for this feeling of sublimity in the presence of a spirit like Robert Gould Shaw s For the Union Dead confesses about personal experience s union with history than any other discourse possibly could There are perhaps better poets I have named them above Heaney Walcott Bishop but Lowell s fractious and precarious persona albeit occasionally irritating makes him a superbly alert witness to his our times This was my first eading of a book of poetry by Robert Lowell I d been familiar with his name for years and his books were often ecommended to me In this collection Lowell covers a broad ange of topics across these poems namely social issues and historical subjects while still a few other poems are of a confessional nature I m glad that I took the time to finally euest one of his many poetry collections from the library I ve now ead it through than a few times and have come to appreciate it with each eading There are several poems which stood out for me in this book three in particular The Drinker Hawthorne and The Severed Head Bo Shed skin will never fit another wearerIn For the Union Dead Lowell balances the historical allusions and symbolism of modernism with the conversational intimacy and confessional style popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s Highlights include the title poem Beyond the Alps The Old Flame and Caligula A tad problematic in parts but it s still sort of Robert Lowell using his powers for goo. E led Finally Lowell thinks of the then controversial civil ights movement and the images of the integration of black and white schoolchildren that Lowell had ecently seen on televisionThe final lines of the poem which ead The Auarium is gone Everywhere giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility slides by on grease are particularly well known for their ather dark description of the large American cars that were popular at the tim.

Robert Lowell born Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV was an American poet whose works confessional in nature engaged with the uestions of history and probed the dark recesses of the self He is generally considered to be among the greatest American poets of the twentieth centuryHis first and second books Land of Unlikeness 1944 and Lord Weary's Castle for which he received a Pulitzer Prize