Kenyon celebrates Robert Lowell

T he illusion that you're getting the 'real' Robert Lowell is only that, an illusion; part of the power of the poem is to make you feel you're gaining access to something you normally wouldn't . . . . These seemingly autobiographical details are an aesthetic effect."

"Consider Lowell's moral and aesthetic persistence in writing poetry that is about, and that enacts, crushing depression. The terrible gray monotony and dullness of depression: how does he turn that into liveliness on the page?"

"If I could point to any single thing that I learned from Lowell, it would be revision, revision, revision."

"Just hearing your poem read aloud in Lowell's voice often told you what was wrong with it. His concentration on the poem was total."

Such was the Kenyon Review's celebration of Robert T.S. Lowell '40 in November 1998: an interweaving of insight, questioning, analysis, and remembrance about Lowell the poet, Lowell the teacher, Lowell the man. The event was both intellectual and personal, as many of the scholars and poets who came to Gambier were students, colleagues, and friends of Lowell, and many knew one another as well.

The program, which took place in Bolton Theater, opened on Friday evening, November 6, with two lectures and included a full schedule of talks and panel discussions on Saturday, culminating that evening with a reading of Lowell poems. At the same time, the Olin and Chalmers libraries featured an exhibit of letters, first editions of some of Lowell's volumes of poetry, and other memorabilia.

But the celebration transcended its format, as participants exchanged ideas and anecdotes, often citing lines from Lowell's work, referring to episodes in his life, and taking up issues that other participants had raised earlier in the program. "It very quickly became a conversation," says Review editor and Associate Professor of English David H. Lynn '76. "And it wasn't a conversation in front of an audience but one that actively included the audience."

With a generous grant from Richard H. Levey '68 and the Shiffman Foundation of Detroit, Michigan, the Review organized the celebration around two major anniversaries: the sixtieth anniversary of the journal itself, which published its first issue in December 1938 under the editorship of eminent poet and critic John Crowe Ransom; and the sixtieth anniversary of Lowell's arrival at Kenyon in 1937. Lowell left Harvard University to come study with Ransom in Gambier, joining a circle of talented young writers that also included Peter Taylor '40, Robie Macauley '41, and Randall Jarrell. This is the group that is associated with the "golden age" of writing at Kenyon and the beginning of the College's reputation as a center of literary excellence.

Lowell (1917-77) went on to become the most famous of this group, a widely recognized and influential poet who won admiration for both his earlier, more formalistic work and his later, more open and more confessional poems, some of which dealt with his bouts of depression and periods of hospitalization during mental breakdowns. His many awards included the Pulitzer Prize (for Lord Weary's Castle, 1946, and The Dolphin, 1973), the National Book Award (for Life Studies, 1959), the Bollingen Translation Prize (for Imitations, 1961), and the National Book Critics Circle Award (for Day by Day, 1977).

Lowell was a public literary figure as well, who served as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1947and 1948. He received a good deal of media attention in 1965, when, in protest against the Vietnam War, he publicly declined President Lyndon Johnson's invitation to the White House Festival of the Arts. Lowell was also a much sought-after teacher, who, in the words of one critic, "planted America with more poets" than almost any teacher of his time.

Participants in the Review's Lowell celebration touched on all these facets of the man. Frank Bidart, for example, a poet and a professor of English at Wellesley College, made clear that for Lowell, revision was something more than an effort to reach some single "perfect" version of a poem. "The prospect of rethinking, reworking, reimagining, and rewriting was fundamental to Lowell and goes deeply into the nature of what he was doing as a writer," said Bidart, who was a student of Lowell's in the 1960s and went on to become his friend and an editor of his poetry.

Bidart recalled talking once with Lowell about two versions of "Waking Early Sunday Morning," which was first published in the New York Review of Books and later appeared in the collection Near the Ocean (1967). The men agreed that the first version had a certain eloquence and intimacy that the book version lacked, whereas the later effort was more powerful in its ordering of stanzas, the oscillation of cultural concerns, political issues, and visionary passages.

While Bidart expressed frustration at the impossibility of merging the two versions, Lowell said, "But they both exist." It was a revealing comment for Bidart, who is now editing the authoritative edition of Lowell's collected poems. "The aim in this edition is to show that `both exist,'" said Bidart. He has tried to find and include every published version of every one of Lowell's poems, so that readers can "enter [Lowell's] process of thinking through the material." In Bidart's view, this was the way Lowell himself saw reading, as an engagement in "the writer's own inhabiting of his material" rather than as an encounter with perfection.

Helen Vendler, the well-known literary critic and a professor of English at Harvard, gave close, compelling readings of a number of poems to illustrate the way Lowell found a poetic style for expressing the stagnancy and disjunctiveness of depression. In the poem "Water," for example, Vendler called attention to the proliferation of hard c sounds ("and left dozens of bleak / white frame houses stuck / like oyster shells / on a hill of rock"). Those hard sounds can "stop a sentence in its tracks," she noted, creating a sense of obstructiveness and statis--an effect that is accentuated by difficult line breaks that "violate the natural joining of adjective and noun."

She pointed, as well, to "soured" or "corrupted" flashbacks in his poetry, moments when memories of the past are suffused not with sweetness or joy but with "the rotting of the present." Poems in this "depressive style" also convey statis by resisting narrative. The poem "Law" seems to begin a narrative plot in the second stanza ("On Sunday mornings, / I used to foray"), only to undercut it with evocations of the landscape's monotony.

One of Lowell's remarkable achievements, Vendler argued, was his ability to "vivify a paralyzed page," to explore bleakness with "vivacity and tonal energy." She cited images in "The Mouth of the Hudson": "the chains of condemned freight trains / . . . . jolt and jar / and junk in the siding below him"; "and he drifts with the wild ice / ticking seaward . . . / like the blank sides of a jigsaw puzzle." Rather than sink into monotony themselves, the poems brim with "the beauty of accuracy, the beauty of arresting images."

The interplay of poetic artifice and autobiographical "confession" was a theme for several of the participants. Even in the most personal poems, the speaker is not Robert Lowell himself but a persona, observed Wyatt Prunty, a professor of English at the University of the South as well as a poet and the director of the Sewanee Writers Conference. When Lowell writes, in "Epilogue" (the final poem in his last book, Day by Day), "pray for the grace of accuracy," he understands accuracy not in reportorial but in aesthetic terms. "Some things are factually true," said Prunty, "others are true in a larger sense."

Richard Tillinghast, a poet and a professor of English at the University of Michigan who studied with Lowell and wrote a biography of the poet, recalled a trip he took to see the Lowell family cemetery in Dunbarton, New Hampshire. In the poem "Sailing Home from Rapallo" Lowell describes the "pink-veined slice of marble" of his father's tombstone and the "too businesslike" family motto it bore. At the actual grave site, Tillinghast was surprised to find no pink and, instead of a Latin motto, a line of his son's poetry. "So in the poem, he deliberately misdescribes his father's tombstone," said Tillinghast. "I felt, `This is a man who will change anything.'"

Lowell was devoted, above all, to poetry. His students appreciated this perhaps better than anyone else. Robert Dana, now the poet in residence at Cornell College in Iowa, described his class with Lowell at the University of Iowa as "like being in a beehive, like being in a poetic nuclear reactor . . . . It was wonderful to hear Lowell discourse on poems he liked, in his learned and informal way." Paraphrasing his fellow student, the poet W.D. Snodgrass, Dana said, "Lowell was an octopus when he approached a poem. He taught us that you could approach a poem from a social, or psychological, or political, or Freudian, or Jungian point of view. There wasn't just one way of unlocking the interior of a poem."

"His gift to students," said Tillinghast, "was his example of total dedication to his art."

The Saturday night reading of Lowell poems put that art on display, as the participants came to the Bolton Theater stage, one by one, to read favorite poems with feeling, humor, and reverence. It was a fitting culmination: commentary fell away before the poems themselves, which took on fresh force in light of the commentary that had come before and which, in turn, illuminated that commentary.

The reading was hosted by Jorie Graham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1996. Though not a presenter at the celebration, Graham attended the sessions, frequently raising questions and offering ideas. "She provided interesting insights and engaged in enlightening dialogue with the participants throughout the symposium," said Review editor Lynn.

Lynn also had praise for Richard Levey, "the guiding force behind the whole adventure." Levey, who has steeped himself in the work of Lowell and his circle, has donated many volumes of poetry to the Kenyon library, and he lent most of the materials for the exhibit that was on display in the special collections area of Olin Library during the celebration. "Richard had pushed for several years to organize a special occasion like this," said Lynn. "It wouldn't have happened without him."

Lynn himself was delighted with the outcome. "Speaking purely personally," he said, "I came away from the weekend with the sense that for people who really love poetry, Lowell's work is alive and vital and present and beautiful and deeply moving, worthy of careful attention again. It's not that he has been re-canonized, but that we can come back to Lowell with freshness."

The Review plans to publish the talks delivered at the Lowell celebration in its Winter 2000 issue, available late this year. Meanwhile, Lynn is contemplating ways to sponsor similar symposia in the future, "just to feast on the joys of literature."

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