Quick Notes on Robert Lowell

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.


Robert LowellRobert Lowell (1917 – 1977) was an American poet, who taught both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. His book Lord’s Weary Castle (1946) won the Pulitzer prize in 1947 and Life Studies (1959) won the National Book Award in 1960. He was influenced by Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom (who he studied under), and New Criticism, as well as W. C. Williams. His poetry is complex, has allusions, and imagery. At times in his early poetry, it feels like he is channeling T. S. Eliot in technique, such as recurring images to create symbols and even in rhythms. His craftsmanship is top notched and sometimes I get lost in its mastery and forget what’s going on in the poem. His poetry is considered the beginnings of confessional poetry, and despite the mastery of technique, confessional poetry is a reaction against the New Critics as it brings in the personal full force.

In Life Studies, Lowell provides a history of his family to show where he came from and to suggest, perhaps, that this past is part of who he is, while at the same time trying to determine if he has any control over who he is. He is a divided soul trying to find and/or portray his identity. In doing so, in recounting various histories (both familial and personal), “the work frequently takes the reader by surprise as seemingly random images and memories collide and spark into meaning, the coherence that underlies the poems only apparent in retrospect” (Parini 141). The poems in Life Studies according to M. L. Rosenthal “invoked ‘the most naked kind of confession.’ Rosenthal considered the word confessional appropriate, and later said, ‘because of the way Lowell brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems’ into his poems, which were thus ‘one culmination of the Romantic and modern tendency to place the literal Self more and more at the center” (Hirsch 125). This culmination arrives in “Part Four: Life Studies,” where it most autobiographical. Many of the poems in Life Studies have a casual and prosaic feel, but sometimes in the midst of the prosy style, they rise up like song. Despite the prosy style, Lowell will chime sounds within lines to give it a more traditional sense of poetry. His main issues or confessions are his relationship with his parents (and which is the better role model) and his time spent in a mental hospital. I’m not sure Lowell finds any cures but maybe he finds hope in the skunks in “Skunk Hour,” the book’s closing poem. These skunks, who, after he states, “I myself am hell; / nobody’s here,” “will not scare” walking around the empty streets under the moonlight and a church, do just fine eating from the garbage. Prior to this book during Modernism, if a poet used the “I” it wasn’t necessarily in reference to the poet and was often the universal “I,” but here the “I,” the speaker of the poem, and the poet are the same. There is no modernist mask wearing. The poet is exposed willingly and deliberately.

In “For the Union Dead,” the final poem in The Union Dead (1964), Lowell will again move between histories, but this time between personal history and political/cultural history. However, in this case it’s mostly to make a political statement about racism and war and how materialism is undermining long-established values. The poems in this book are more rhythmic and with more definite rhymes – the rhythm and rhymes linger in the head long after reading them. Maybe this is how he reaches out into the world, because this book, on some level, seems to be about him trying to interact with the world he can barely see because of his myopia, a theme of many of the poems. The main confessions in this collection are about his weak eyes, finding meaning, his concerns with lack of sexual drive, and trying to connect with a romantic past that evades him.

In his later books, he writes poems that are scaffolded on the sonnet structure.


Works Cited

Hirsch, Edward. “confessional poetry.” A Poet’s Glossary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 125. Print.

Parini, Jay. “Robert Lowell In Retrospect.” Salmagundi 141/142 (Winter-Spring 2004): 138-144. JSTOR. Database. 21 Aug 2015. PDF.


2 Responses to “Quick Notes on Robert Lowell”

  1. 1 seamus cashman
    August 24, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Just to say thank you for all the fine commentaries you put here – I have been shamelessly reading, copying to my kindle to read later, etc for a year or more now, and wish to acknowledge your work and my delight in it – and if I ever have occasion to quote from it give a proper citation. So, thank you.

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