Lowell was a major voice in American poetry in the cold war years, from the end of the Second World War until his death. The endurance of his reputation can be attributed, in large part, to his success in associating personal torment, his so-called confessional subject matter, with the social and geopolitical struggles of the time: the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, the war in Vietnam, and the civil rights struggle. He began as a successor to T. S. eliot and Robert frost and matured into a poet of considerable originality and force. Sylvia plath and Anne sexton, both briefly his students, were profoundly influenced by his work. Other poets closely associated with Lowell include Allen Williamson, Frederick Seidel, Charles simic, and Michael Hoffman.
Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His father was a retired navy officer; his mother, Charlotte Winslow Lowell, was descended from Mayflower stock. The imagist poet AMY lowell was his cousin, the poet James Russell Lowell his great-great uncle. Lowell oscillated throughout his adult life between escape from his familial and social ties and return to the familiar, protective confines of Harvard and Beacon Hill, an affluent neighborhood in Boston. He endured two years as an undergraduate at Harvard before transferring to Kenyon College, where he became the protégé of the poet John Crowe ransom. Through Ransom, Lowell came in contact with the fugitive/agrarian school—principally, Robert Penn warren and Allen tate—writers who hoped to reclaim southern agrarian experience from what they believed to be northern misunderstanding and reverse bigotry. Also while he was at Kenyon, Lowell befriended the poet and critic Randall jarrell. In 1940 he married the writer Jean Stafford. In effect, by his early twenties, he was taken up by the most influential literary figures of the time, largely on the basis of his charisma and promise.
As early as his first year at Harvard, however, Lowell showed signs of emotional instability. During a manic episode in 1943, he declared himself a conscientious war objector and was briefly imprisoned, an experience he would recall in his much-anthologized "Memories of West Street and Lepke" (1959). His powers of recovery were nearly as prodigious as his literary ambition; that same year saw the publication of his first book, Land of Unlikeliness. Three years later Lord Weary's Castle established Lowell as the most important young poet in America. His reputation was consolidated when Life Studies (1959) was published, with its candid studies of personal crisis and its masterful use of free verse (see prosody and free verse).
The enthusiastic critical reaction to Life Studies, and two volumes in a similar mode in the early sixties, For the Union Dead (1964) and Near the Ocean (1967), ensured professional security even when his personal life was deteriorating in a succession of affairs, drinking bouts, divorces, and manic-depressive breakdowns. The late 1960s saw his immersion in politics, inspired by his opposition to the vietnam War and his friendship with senator (and fellow poet) Eugene McCarthy. His later years were taken up with a succession of uneven notebook volumes of 14-line poems (Notebook 1967-68, History , For Lizzie and Harriet , and The Dolphin ). Lowell died soon after the publication of a volume of meditations on memory and death, Day by Day. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary's Castle and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for Life Studies.
Lowell's writing falls into several periods. His early work shifts the ground of the high modernist mythic method of Eliot and Ezra pound from classical Greece and Rome to Puritan New England (see modernism). A wrathful Jehovah, Herman Melville's white whale, and larger than life Puritan and American Indian warriors take the place of zeus and the Achians and Trojans, though the sense of heroic striving in the face of dark fate is more classical than strictly Calvinist. In style the poems derive from early Eliot by way of Ransom; the metrical elegance, the scholarly ambition, and the world-weary tone come from Eliot, while the affinity for American themes shows Ransom's guiding hand. "Mr. Edwards and Spider" (1947) is an early masterpiece in this style: "I saw the spiders marching through the air, / Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day." The iambic rhythm of these lines is so assured that it carries the mixing of sea and military metaphors and knocks the dust off what heretofore had been a little known chapter in local history: the hellfire sermonizing of Jonathan Edwards. The New England, Puritan, haunted terrain of this and other poems from his first two books would remain Lowell's home ground throughout his career.
The early works mark a transition point in American poetry; Lowell and many poets following him could do nothing but aspire to a repetition of what he had perfected. The disruptions and torment that men tal illness brought to Lowell's personal life made the prospect of writing grand meditations on the order of the late Eliot or Wallace stevens untenable. The beat poets, led by Allen ginsberg, and the new york school poets, under the sway of Frank o'hara, brought pressure to adopt a more conversational and colloquial approach. Lowell's guide, in this respect, was William Carlos WILLIAMS, whose minute, nuanced poems of observation retained a high measure of craft. The result in Life Studies was a poetry that embraced the brutal realism of Ginsberg's incantations while avoiding bardic or visionary claims. Lowell's poems achieve a disarming simplicity and candor, but retain the resources of formalist verse, as in these lines from "To Speak of the Woe That Is Marriage" (1959): "My hopped up husband drops his home disputes / and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes."
over the years nearly every American poet of any importance has had to contend with Life Studies and For the Union Dead, either in embracing what Lowell had made or by deliberately turning away from it. "Waking in the Blue" (1959) and "for the union dead" (1964) remain two of the most important political poems of the 20th century; "Commander Lowell" (1959) and "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow" (1959) are among the more important poems of childhood and reminiscence. Lowell's studies of marital troubles, divorce, and mental illness have long been known for their candor in pushing the limits of acceptable subject matter in poetry, but they would not have received such notice without their technical strengths: an epigrammatic concision line by line, exact and psychologically penetrating imagery, and a technical mastery balanced by a measure of ironic and gentle humor. Lowell appears to have shied from the temptation of the "great" that lured Dylan Thomas so often, as well as from the overly modest sense of the particular characteristic of Jarrell's melancholy late poems. Unfortunately Lowell could not sustain work at this level. Among the sonnets he produced in such volume for 10 years there are a few moving portraits—"Robert frost" (1969) and "Ezra Pound" (1969) most notably—but for the most part they show a falling-off of vision and control. His last book, Day by Day (1977), somewhat redeems this late fondness for discursive, autumnal rumination. The poems break free of the previous 14-line restraint, and although the lines tend to meander rather than accumulate or build, the presence of death lends them an expressive coherence of mood.
Lowell can perhaps be compared with English Romantic Samuel Taylor Coleridge in personality and the arc of his life. Both were damaged and sad, their talents only partially realized, yet each was magnificent within his limitations. Like Coleridge, Lowell was a loyal and helpful friend, an unstinting conversationalist, and a great encourager of young talent. In his "Epilogue" (1977), he characterized his work as "heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact." The truth of this has been weighed and struggled with by succeeding generations of poets.
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