Author Bio

Poet of the Month: Robert Lowell

posted: 3.2.10 by archived

Born in Boston on March 1, 1917, Robert Lowell was the son of prominent New England parents. Lowell attended Harvard, Kenyon College, and Louisiana State University, where he studied with literary and critical giants like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate. In his twenties, Lowell converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. Though he later left the Church, his strong religious beliefs during this period deeply influenced his early work.

From 1947-1948 he served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the precursor position to the Poet Laureate). Lowell maintained a lifelong interest in history and politics—an interest that shows up in his work—and was a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War. (During World War II, he had been jailed for conscientious objection.) His life was also dominated by emotional and marital instability—Lowell married three times—and he struggled with alcoholism. Lowell died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 60.

Lowell’s work is famously varied. His early books, Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle, were written under the influence of the New Critics with whom Lowell had studied. They display Lowell’s considerable skill in writing in traditional forms. He is most famous, however, for his 1959 book Life Studies, which was a departure from his earlier writing, and from the sort of writing that was most prominent in the world of poetry at the time. Lowell wrote loosely, without adherence to conventions, and incorporated autobiographical events heavily into his poetry. This volume is considered to have begun “confessional poetry” and altered the course of modern poetry.

A. O. Scott argues for Lowell’s enduring importance in his review of Lowell’s recently published Collected Poems:

Lowell’s story, of heretical, Promethean ambition dragged to earth and chastened, has struck a number of critics over the      years as overly melodramatic, and Lowell, since his death, has been somewhat overshadowed by less self-aggrandizing contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop or Frank O’Hara, who neither made inordinate claims for the authority of poetry nor a big fuss when those claims proved to be untenable.

They left behind bodies of work, whereas Lowell, like Yeats and Milton and very few others, left behind the monumental narrative of a career, which may well, curiously enough, be remembered longer than any single poem he wrote. It is the entirety of that story—the saga of an audacious maker struggling with the raw materials of history, personality, and language—that gives so many of the poems their aura of courage and pathos.

Curious readers can find numerous online resources on Lowell’s life and poetry. The American Academy of Poets features a brief bio, along with a guide to confessional poetry, an overview of Lowell’s Life Studies, and numerous poems by Lowell, including recordings of Lowell reading “Skunk Hour” and “The Public Garden.” The Poetry Foundation features an extensive bio and bibliography, along with numerous poems by Lowell, as well as articles discussing his work. Recordings on the site include one of Helen Vendler discussing Lowell, one of Troy Jollimore talking about “Skunk Hour,” and one focused on “July in Washington” and politics. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux recently published Words in the Air, the complete letters between Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. (Readers interested in the relationship between these two major twentieth-century poets can read Helen Vendler’s incisive review of the volume in The New York Review of Books.) Lowell’s Paris Review interview, conducted by Frederick Seidel, is available online.

Happy Birthday, Robert Lowell!

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Categories: Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature
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