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The Robert Lowell Revival: Peter Davison

     Robert Lowell (1917-1977) is back, in spirit and in a massive new edition of Collected Poems.  I feel him hovering again over a surreal presidential campaign.  In Eugene McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam insurrection of 1967 and 1968, Lowell was the spooky presence often in the car with the candidate, or at his side, bearing witness as only a certifiably mad poet could (a “throughbred mental case,” in his phrase) that the times were out of joint.  The autobiographical, oft narcissistic Lowell can be classified as a father of “confessional” poetry, though he rejected the label.  Just as clearly he was a poet of public life in a line going back to the Romans.  Lowell rose to the occasion of the 1960s as something of a Boston Brahmin version of Norman Mailer, a celebrity rebel, historian and aphorist for all time.

Only man thinning out his kind

sounds through the Sabbath noon, the blind

swipe of the pruner and his knife

busy about the tree of life…


Pity the planet, all joy gone

from this sweet volcanic cone;

peace to our children when they fall

in small war on the heels of small

war–until the end of time

to police the earth, a ghost

orbiting forever lost

in our monotonous sublime.

                    from “Waking Early Sunday Morning”

     Politics may be the least of the reasons to rediscover Robert Lowell.  His Collected Poems, edited and annotated by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, is being read and reargued all over the place–in blogs, too, of course.  In poetry publishing, some say, this is the biggest event since Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems of 1954.  Our assignment is to share a little of the sound and fury of Lowell’s poetry.  The conversations here with the poet and editor Peter Davison are only a beginning.  Part One is a quick walk around the Lowell monument and, in particular, his best-known poem, “For the Union Dead.”  Part Two invokes the poet of his own madness in poems like “Man and Wife” and “Skunk Hour.”

     To be continued.


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