POETRY

A Poem Is Being Practiced Upon Me—Not!

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It’s been well documented, the taking apart of Robert Lowell’s scaffolding. For any poet interested in the debate between form and free verse, this phase of Lowell’s life is critical to know. He began his career devoted to rigorous formal structures and produced Lord Weary’s Castle, an early book that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 and marked me deeply when I first read it, much later, when I was in my teens. How can you forget “A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket” or a monolithic statement like “The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.” Both lines come from the rhetorically wound-up “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” dedicated to his cousin Warren Winslow, who drowned at sea. Here, as an example of the style, is section II:

Whenever winds are moving and their breath
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,
The terns and sea gulls tremble at your death
In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear
The Pequod’s sea wings, beating landward, fall
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall
Off ’Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids
For blue fish? Sea gulls blink their heavy lids
Seaward. The winds’ wings beat upon the stones,
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
At the sea’s throat and wring it in the slush
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast
Bobbing by Ahab’s whaleboats in the East.

There is a booming, Miltonic majesty in the wall of sound that was typical of his early style. Famously, though, Lowell turned away from this formal rigor to a looser, more variable line that felt less constructed and let the breath of life into his poems. His change in style from Lord Weary’s Castle to Life Studies was as much psychological and spiritual as artistic. By the time he began writing poems for Life Studies in the late 1940s, he had lost his wife, his faith and, partially, his mind. He was, he said, looking for a “breakthrough back into life.” In his biography, Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton University Press, 1979), Steven Gould Axelrod remarks that “in the late 1940s, Lowell had been developing an esthetic of plain speech quite contrary to his own practice at the time. In an essay written in 1948, he said: ‘How few modern poems… have the distinction of good conversation’ ” (p. 85). That’s what Lowell was looking for as a way back into life, poems that felt like good conversation, not like a phalanx of drums and French horns. He wanted to get away from “the traditional rhetoric and meter that seemed to proclaim, I am a poem” (Axelrod, p. 107). What interests me most as a poet is the simple and rather organic way this shift in his style began. Let’s look specifically at how his scaffolding came down. Lowell explains this in the following exchange from Frederick Seidel’s 1961 interview with him for The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: Did the change of style in Life Studies have something to do with working away from that compression and pressure [of the couplet] by way of, say the kind of prose clarity of “Katherine’s Dream”?

LOWELL: Yes. By the time I came to Life Studies I’d been writing my autobiography and also writing poems that broke meter. I’d been doing a lot of reading aloud. I went on a trip to the West Coast and read at least once a day and sometimes twice for fourteen days, and more and more I found that I was simplifying my poems… If adding a couple of syllables in a line made it clearer, I’d add them, and I’d make little changes just impromptu as I read. That seemed to improve the reading.

INTERVIEWER: Can you think of a place where you added a syllable or two to an otherwise regular line?

LOWELL: It was usually articles and prepositions that I added, very slight little changes… It was just done for the moment.

INTERVIEWER: Why did you do this? Just because you thought the most important thing was to get the poem over?

LOWELL: To get it over, yes. And I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms. If you could make it easier by adding syllables, why not? And then when I was writing Life Studies, a good number of the poems were started in very strict meter, and I found that, more than the rhymes, the regular beat was what I didn’t want. I have a long poem in there about my father, called “Commander Lowell,” which actually is largely in couplets. Well, with that form it’s hard not to have echoes of Marvell. That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, “I’m a poem”—though it was a great help when I was revising having this original skeleton. I could keep the couplets where I wanted them and drop them where I didn’t; there’d be a form to come back to… I felt that the meter plastered difficulties and mannerisms on what I was trying to say to such an extent that it terribly hampered me.

During this phase, Lowell was starting to appreciate the plain, unornamented language of William Carlos Williams and Elizabeth Bishop (and, a few years later, W. D. Snodgrass). By the time he got to Life Studies, Lowell, in his own words, was doing “all kinds of tricks with meter and the avoidance of meter” to bring his lines closer to real speech. Here, from Life Studies, is the poem “Man and Wife”:

Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed;
the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;
in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine,
abandoned, almost Dionysian.
At last the trees are green on Marlborough Street,
blossoms on our magnolia ignite
the morning with their murderous five days' white.
All night I've held your hand,
as if you had
a fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad—-
its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye—-
and dragged me home alive… Oh my Petite,
clearest of all God's creatures, still all air and nerve:
you were in your twenties, and I,
once hand on glass
and heart in mouth,
outdrank the Rahvs in the heat
of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet—-
too boiled and shy
and poker-faced to make a pass,
while the shrill verve
of your invective scorched the traditional South.

Now twelve years later, you turn your back.
Sleepless, you hold
your pillow to your hollows like a child;
your old-fashioned tirade—-
loving, rapid, merciless—-
breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.

This poem is still rather manic, but it breathes easier than most poems in Lord Weary’s Castle. I cite these thoughts and examples not to suggest that anyone reject the heritage of the formal canon (Lowell never did) but to argue in favor of the emotional power of the line. Clear, unmannered expression trumps a lifeless devotion to metrics. “Quaker Graveyard” was not lifeless, but the book that came next, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, was lifeless, and that is what Lowell needed to escape from, and did, in Life Studies. To “get the poem over,” sometimes you have to jump the tracks. For Eliot, he only asked that the ghost of iambic pentameter lurk behind the arras, and if you read Philip Larkin, you see him breaking ranks all the time, and his poems are the warmer for it.

Here’s a personal example. “At Sea” was inspired by a series of paintings by Piet Mondrian called Pier and Ocean. In the sequence, Mondrian depicts a pier jutting into the water that gradually disintegrates into visual abstraction along with the surface of the sea. My poem laments this wandering off into the unreal. I conceived it as a sonnet in perfect iambic pentameter, but after the final brick was laid, I realized I’d lost the vital, intimate sadness I felt when I stood in front of Mondrian’s paintings. The poem felt too constructed. Here is the original version:

At Sea
(original draft)

The pier and ocean. What has happened here?
What kind of freedom is it that we’ve won
now the ocean overwhelms the pier?
The pier is gone, or it is almost gone,
the lines that it was made of more or less
disaggregated now till all we have
are plus and minus signs, a meaningless
eolian effect upon the waves.
Is this what you and I’ve become? No sun,
no sky, no water we’re familiar with,
only a broken-up geometry
that bears no trace of anything we’d been.
We left the pier behind, what it was worth
we didn’t know, and now we are at sea.

Although this held together as a sonnet, I knew that a cup or two of life had been drained out of it. What was the problem? Well, it was technical, and I realized that Lowell had the answer. I needed to go back to my metrical frame and loosen it so that the poem could breathe. I needed to bring the phrasing and rhythm of the language back into line with the natural speaking voice so that readers would not feel that a poem was being practiced upon them. To make this tonal adjustment, I had to knock out some of the unnecessary feet that were padding the lines. Here’s the final version:

At Sea
(final version)

The pier and ocean. What has happened here?
What kind of freedom have we won
now that the ocean overwhelms the pier?
The pier is gone, or almost gone,
the lines that it was made of more or less
disaggregated now till all we have
are plus and minus signs, a meaningless
eolian effect upon the waves.
Is this what we’ve become? No sun,
no sky, no water we’re familiar with,
only a broken-up geometry
that bears no trace of what we’d been.
We left the pier behind, what it was worth
we didn’t know, and now we are at sea.

The adjustments I made in this poem were not complicated. I only modified the rhythm in certain lines. Specifically, I added a syllable (“that”) in line 3, and I eliminated one metrical foot in lines 2, 4, 9 and 12, falling back into tetrameter. This kept the iambic integrity of the voice, but it eased the rhythmic predictability that was stupefying the lines. What I wanted to demonstrate was what Lowell already knew, that “nothing can grow unless it taps into the soil.” Here, tapping into the soil meant getting the lines closer to the sayable. I hope this is helpful for poets struggling with the same problem.

John Foy’s first book is Techne’s Clearinghouse (Zoo Press, 2004).  His poems have appeared in the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (Ohio University Press, 2009), Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Criterion, Parnassus, Cimarron Review, The Raintown Review, Barrow Street, Think, and other journals, and on line at Poetry Daily, Nervous Breakdown, Umbrella, linebreak, and Big City Lit.  He works as a senior financial editor at Itaú BBA Securities.  He lives in New York with his wife, son, and daughter.

It’s been well documented, the taking apart of Robert Lowell’s scaffolding. For any poet interested in the debate between form and free verse, this phase of Lowell’s life is critical to know.