Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: William Carlos Williams

Robert Lowell Part 3

This article appeared in the Mosaic section of the Sunday edition of Ceylon Today on October 19 2014

elizabeth-hardwick-and-robert-lowell

Lord Weary’s Castle

Randall Jarrell praised the book in his essay “From the Kingdom of Necessity” in which he wrote, “Many of the people who reviewed Lord Weary’s Castle felt that it was as much of an event as Auden’s first book; no one younger than Auden has written better poetry than the best of Robert Lowell’s, it seems to me.” Austin Warren offered the explanation that the book’s title implied that “disaster is befalling the house, and the household, of aristocratic (Calvinist, capitalist) New England, which has failed to pay its moral bills to the ‘lower order’”.

In “Children of Light”, Lowell looks at how his forebears got where they are today:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones

And fenced their gardens with the Redmen’s bones;

Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,

Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva’s night,

They planted here the Serpent’s seeds of light;

And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock

The riotous glass houses built on rock,

And candles gutter by an empty altar,

And light is where the landless blood of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied grain.

 

Lowell dedicated “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” to his cousin, Warren Winslow, lost at sea during World War II.

The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,   

Its open, staring eyes

Were lustreless dead-lights

Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk   

Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close   

Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,   

Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose   

On Ahab’s void and forehead; and the name   

Is blocked in yellow chalk.

The poem takes as its epigraph St Thomas Aquinas’s idea of man’s superiority in the natural order: “Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts of the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth”. The poem questions New England’s past sins of greed and destruction of nature, the plundering of the sea and the fouling of its floor with corpses. Lowell brings in Melville’s mythic creation to mourn present-day losses, such as those resulting from World War II, in imagery that echoes that of Moby-Dick: “The bones cry for the blood of the white whale.” In this poem, Lowell laments all that American seamen of the nineteenth century “lost / In the mad scramble of their lives.” In grim pictures of Moby Dick’s destruction, the poet questions how the destroyer of the great beast will hide his sin, which risks a God-hurled punishment.

Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are presented as the sources of salvation. The poem ends with a section called “Our Lady of Walsingham”. The poet describes veneration of Our Lady of Walsingham, an English shrine near Norfolk. The Slipper Chapel, where pilgrims have traditionally entered in bare feet to pray, honors a medieval saint, Lady Richeldis de Faverches, who saw and heard the Virgin Mary in 1061. Lowell describes the penitents walking barefoot down “the munching English lane” to the shrine where an inscrutable Virgin Mary sits, plain and expressionless and “too small for her canopy.” The “peace that passeth understanding” that is promised by Christianity is harsh.

Lowell’s ancestors are taken to task in “At the Indian Killer’s Grave” and he has the murdered Indian King Philip arise to condemn the Puritan elders to hell for having hurled / Anathemas at nature and the land. Lowell’s ancestor on his mother’s side, Josiah Winslow, waged a genocidal war against Philip’s people, the Wampanoag.

Philips head

Grins on the platter, fouls in pantomime

The fingers of kept time:

“Surely, this people is but grass,”

He whispers, “this will pass”.

 

Elizabeth Hardwick

hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick was a formidably intelligent woman who came from blue-collar (but intellectual) stock and went on to be co-founder of the wondrous New York Review of Books in 1964. Even when she was a young woman , writers quailed before her acerbic reviews. She had enough intelligence to know what she was taking on; she married Lowell in 1949 when he was going through one of his worst manic phases.

In 1946, Hardwick met Lowell at a party in Greenwich Village. They met again at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in upstate New York, and married in 1949. Hardwick gave birth, at the age of 40, to a daughter, Harriet. In 1960, they returned to New York and settled in an apartment on West 67th Street where Hardwick lived until her death in 2007 at the age of 91.

Soon after meeting Hardwick, Lowell experienced a violently psychotic phase and had electric shock treatment in hospital. He was confined again when entered the depressive aftermath of the manic episode. After Lowell was released from the Payne Whitney Clinic, the couple embarked on a European tour during which he had a serious breakdown in Salzburg. Similar troubles happened throughout their marriage. Lowell gave in to many infatuations and was serially unfaithful to his wife. In 1970, Lady Caroline Blackwood, a member of the Guinness dynasty, smote him. Lowell and Hardwick divorced in 1972.

Hardwick paid a huge price for her love of Lowell. She accepted her fate with considerable dignity and a minimum of self-pity.

lowell and harriet

The Mills of the Kavanaughs

In 1951, Lowell published The Mills of the Kavanaughs. This did not receive unmixed praise. Randall Jarrell liked the shorter poems, but thought the epic title poem did not work. The people too often seem to be acting in the manner of Robert Lowell, rather than plausibly as real people act . . .I doubt that many readers will think them real.” Dudley Fitts used the term “Inoperable Particularity”. Fitts found the work full of “the kind of detail that looks significant, that one worries about as a possible symbol, and that is finally rejected”.

Philip Hobsbaum was more enthusiastic, calling it a” work of considerable distinction… verse of considerable suavity and flow”. William Carlos Williams liked it and Gene Baro found a new level of excellence in Lowell’s tight integration of idea, imagery and symbol.

Lowell hit a creative roadblock and took a long break from publishing.

Life Studies

His next book of verse, Life Studies (1959), which won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960, became the most influential book that Lowell would ever publish. In his acceptance speech for the NBA, Lowell divided American poetry into two camps: the “cooked” and the “raw.” These poems drew on the energy of Beat poetry and recorded Lowell’s break with Catholicism, soul-bearing confessions, and revelations of dishonour and scandal among the Brahmins. Because many of the poems documented details from Lowell’s family life and personal problems, one critic, ML Rosenthal, labelled these poems “confessional”. The label stuck and led to Lowell being grouped together with other influential confessional poets like Lowell’s former students W D Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton.

“Skunk Hour” is set on an island off the coast of Maine. The first part of the poem takes place during the daytime hours. The second half of the poem takes place at night as the narrator drives up the hill in his car. The town is deserted and he abandons the rich seaside description for a darker, lonelier look at things. We see dark streets and foraging skunks. “Skunk” stands for Lowell’s mood.

bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was a very close friend. Lowell talked of marrying her, even though he knew she was a lesbian. The poet models its atmosphere, pacing, and focus on Bishop’s “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to him in 1965. The poem caricatures the short-term vacationers spoiling the New England coast. The poet drives his car over a skull-shaped hill, an allusion to Christ approaching Golgotha. Approaching lover’s lane, he acknowledges the black mood by comparing parked cars with downed ships. He ends the fifth stanza with, “My mind’s not right.” A battered ego recognizes that “I myself am hell”.

A mother skunk at the head of a line baby skunks shows the absurdity of defiant animals scavenging in the heart of town.

I myself am hell,

nobody’s here–

 

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

 

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air–

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

 

Lowell wrote this about the poem: “This is the dark night. I hope my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where the one free act is suicide”.

 

The English critic A Alvarez wrote of Life Studies:”Instead of contorting his conflicts into a baroque theology, Lowell exposes their beginnings in a series of ironic, and often tender, reminiscences about the family figures who loomed large in his childhood”.

Imitations

Lowell followed Life Studies with Imitations (1961), a volume of loose translations of poems by classical and modern European poets. In the book’s introduction, Lowell explained that his idiosyncratic translations should be thought of as “imitations” rather than strict translations since he took many liberties with the originals, trying to “do what [his] authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America.” TS Eliot liked it and insisted that ”Imitations” should be the title rather than “Versions”. The book won the 1962 Bollingen Poetry Translation Prize but critical response to Imitations was sometimes hostile. In the New York Review of Books, on December 4, 1969, Vladimir Nabokov condemned Lowell’s Mandelstam translations – “some of the quite unambiguous passages misinterpreted, or otherwise mangled, by Robert Lowell in his ‘adaptation’”.

Thom Gunn complained that all those writers “translated” in the book “speak with the unmistakeable voice of Robert Lowell. Preserving the tone of most of these poets is, in fact, the last thing he has done”. Although Gunn also says that Lowell makes Villon sound like Allen Ginsberg. Many critics were offended that Lowell had treated these great poets as his equals.

Others saw the book as a positive development in Lowell’s style and a step forward for poetry. Philip Hobsbaum said that the book had to be read as a set of original texts and that some of the poems are among the finest in the language. Michael Hofmann wrote that Imitations was Lowell’s most “pivotal book,” arguing that the book “marks the entry into his work of what one might term ‘international style’, something coolly open to not-quite-English.” Hobsbaum wrote: “The theme of Imitations, then, is a romantic one. Ennui spells death; mania brings enlightenment; suffering is the matrix of poetry. This is self-justification: quite as much as TS Eliot’s doctrine of impersonality, though at the opposite end of the spectrum.”

Also in 1961, Lowell published his English translation of the French verse play Phèdre by 17th century playwright Jean Racine. I saw a memorable production of this at the Oxford Playhouse starring Simon Ward and Barbara Jefford. Lowell changed the spelling of the title of the play to Phaedra. This translation was Lowell’s first attempt at translating a play, and the piece received a generally positive reviews. However, George Steiner wrote: “I submit that Phaedra has an unsteady and capricious bearing on the matter of Racine. Far too often it strives against the grain of Racine’s style and against the conventions of feeling on which the miraculous concision of style depends… To link this version with Racine implies a certain abeyance of modesty. But modesty is the very essence of translation. The greater the poet, the more loyal should be his servitude to the original”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-75739-news-detail-lord-wearys-castle.html

 

Delmore Schwartz Part 1

shwartzsmaller

 

On the fly-leaf of my dog-eared copy of Summer Knowledge: Selected Poems of Delmore Schwartz, I have noted “Oxford, December 1968”. That means that I bought the book just two years after the poet’s sad death. In that same year, I would have become familiar with the first album by the Velvet Underground on which Lou Reed pays tribute to his friend and mentor in the song “European Son of Delmore Schwartz”.

summer knowledge

Early Life

Delmore Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, New York on December 8, 1913. His parents, Harry and Rose, were immigrants from Romania, part of the first great wave of Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe. Delmore grew up in a drab apartment in Washington Heights, which he shared with his mother and his younger brother. His father was only reliable in the pursuit of his own pleasure, although he managed to accumulate a good deal of wealth from his dealings in the real estate business. When Delmore was only six, his parents woke him one night with the demand that he choose between them. They divorced. Delmore’s mother was hysterically self-dramatizing, and more than a little mad. Rose Schwartz threatened to kill herself when Delmore “abandoned” her in order to marry Gertrude Buckman; she also told her younger son that he would have been better off in Buchenwald than married to his non-Jewish wife. When Harry died at the age of 49 in 1930, Delmore only inherited a small amount of his money because of the shady dealings of the executor of the estate.

This was the emotional manure from which grew a young man of startling good looks who had read Blake, Rimbaud, T.S. Eliot, Joyce, and Hart Crane by his mid-teens and all the philosophers by the time he was twenty. Teachers who read Schwartz’s early writing encouraged him to develop his talents. As a teenager, he began to identify with the European avant-garde.

He made his parents’ disastrous marriage the subject of his most famous short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” (a quotation from his hero WB Yeats), which was published in 1937 in the first issue of Partisan Review. Dwight McDonald believed that “It is as good as a story can be, I’d say after reading it again for the fifth or sixth time, comparable with Kafka, Babel, or Through the Looking Glass.”

indreams

Boundless Ambition at Mosaic

While at New York University, Schwartz and a group of fellow students founded Mosaic, a literary magazine devoted to Marxist aesthetics. Norman Macleod, R.P. Blackmur, and William Carlos Williams were among the prominent poets and critics who had their work published in Mosaic. As editor, Schwartz used the publication as a vehicle to air his own critical opinions. His essays earned the attention of the New York literary community. William Barrett, whom he met in 1933, when they were both twenty, remembered him as “the most magical human being I have ever known”. Philip Rahv, of Partisan Review, described the “boundless ambition that was part of the precocity that never left him,” of “his singular personal charm and the slight stutter that served only to draw attention to his frequently extravagant speech”. The New York literary world was eager to welcome this “newly fledged eaglet,” as Dwight Macdonald later called him. Schwartz won the extravagant praise not only of the New York intelligentsia but also of such commanding voices of the day as Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Mark Van Doren and Wallace Stevens. His precocious early poems prefigured the flowering of the powerful generation of poets who came to the fore in the ’40s—Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman – of whom I will write in future weeks.

Robert Lowell

One of the earliest tributes to Schwartz came from Schwartz’s friend, another mad poet, Robert Lowell, who published the poem “To Delmore Schwartz” in 1959.

Lowell, reminisced in his poetry collection, Life Studies, about the time that the two poets lived together in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1946, writing that they were “underseas fellows, nobly mad,/ we talked away our friends.”

John Berryman

In 1968, Schwartz’s friend and peer, fellow poet, John Berryman, dedicated his book His Toy, His Dream, His Rest “to the sacred memory of Delmore Schwartz,” including 12 elegiac poems about Schwartz in the book. In “Dream Song #149,” Berryman wrote of Schwartz:

In the brightness of his promise,

unstained, I saw him thro’ the mist of the actual

blazing with insight, warm with gossip

thro’ all our Harvard years

when both of us were just becoming known

I got him out of a police-station once, in Washington, the world is tref

and grief too astray for tears.

 

(Tref — is the Yiddish word for food that does not conform with the Jewish dietary laws)

 

Lou Reed

lou reed

Schwartz, who was then a professor at the University of Syracuse, taught Lou Reed in the early 1960s. Reed remembered Schwartz reading from Finnegans Wake and sayingthere “were few things better than to devote one’s life to Joyce.” Lou Reed’s 1982 album The Blue Mask included a Schwartz homage with the song “My House”. In the June 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, Lou Reed published a short prose tribute to Schwartz entitled “O Delmore How I Miss You.” In the piece, Reed quotes and references a number of Schwartz’s short stories and poems including “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” “The World is a Wedding,” and “The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me.” “O Delmore How I Miss You” was re-published as the preface to the New Directions 2012 reissue of Schwartz’s posthumously published story collection In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.

Reed wrote:

 

My friend and teacher occupies a spare room

He’s dead, at peace at last the wandering Jew

Other friends had put stones on his grave

He was the first great man that I had ever met

Sylvia and I got out our Ouija Board

To dial a spirit, across the room it soared

We were happy and amazed at what we saw

Blazing stood the proud and regal name Delmore

Delmore, I missed all your funny ways

I missed your jokes and the brilliant things you said

My Dedalus to your Bloom, was such a perfect wit

And to find you in my house makes things perfect

 

“Reading Yeats and the bell had rung but the poem was not over you hadn’t finished reading—liquid rivulets sprang from your nose but still you would not stop reading. I was transfixed. I cried”.

Historical Precursor

Schwartz occupied an important slot as an intellectual, a modernist, and a Jew. He was historically important as a precursor, as a man whose work provided a tantalizing hint of the rich material, which other Jewish writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow worked so effectively. The protagonist of Saul Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift (1975) was based on Schwartz and revived interest in his career and provided further evidence of his insight into the conflicts associated with Jewish-American identity.

David Lehman: “It is hard not to see Schwartz as an emblematic figure, capable of stirring us in his ravings no less than in his brilliant and original literary creations, meant to reproach and admonish us with the purity and grandeur of his aspirations as well as with the unbanished image of his demise.”

Photographs show that Schwartz was a handsome man but he went into a sad decline. He descended into madness and alcohol and became dishevelled and embarrassing. He drank frequently at the White Horse Tavern, and spent his time sitting in parks. His friends deserted him. In the summer of 1966, a penniless Schwartz checked into the Times Square hotel, perhaps to focus on his writing.

In the pages of this Mosaic, Wimal Dissanayake has expertly guided us through the thought and works of Friedrich Hölderlin. Delmore Schwartz wrote a poem called Hölderlin:

Now as before do you not hear their voices

Serene in the midst of their rejoicing

Chanting to those who have hopes and make choices

Clear as the birds in the thick summer foliage:

It is! It is!

We are! We are!

Clearly, as if they were us, and not us,

Hidden like the future, distant as the stars,

Having no more meaning than the fullness of music,

Chanting from the pure peaks where success,

Effort and desire are meaningless,

Surpassed at last in the joy of joy,

Chanting at last the blue’s last view:

It is! It is!

This is eternity! Eternity is now!

 

My favourite Delmore poem is Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon along the Seine, which is a poetic evocation and reflection upon Seurat’s pointillist painting.

Next week I will analyse that poem and look at Delmore Schwartz’s poetry and themes in more detail.

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