In the opening months of the pandemic, I began listening to recordings of the poet Robert Lowell, and quickly became obsessed. As the catastrophe of mass death and global contagion hurtled onwards, as national lockdowns were instituted and personal quarantines became a seasonal necessity, flattening time to a continuum of micro-rhythms, day after day, the sound of his ‘poetry voice’ seemed to offer both solace and understanding: a rich alto, crackling and patrician, stepping briskly across its own iambic highwire, reciting the poems in an even tone that mixed bemusement with blithe sadness. “My Uncle was dying at twenty-nine”, quivers “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” (set in 1922, when Lowell was five):
His coat was a blue jay’s tail,
his trousers were solid cream from the top of the bottle.
He was animated, hierarchical,
like a gingersnap man in a clothes-press.
He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease….
My hands were warm, then, cool, on the piles
of earth and lime,
a black pile and a white pile….
Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.
The slow, rhythmic “noise” of Lowell’s delivery is haunting, layering the experiential immediacy of his lines with a pathos at once elusive and clarifying: the past, his (even then) remote uncle, are irretrievable, and yet feel “heightened from life”, as clear as summer. “You’re gone; I am learning to live in history”, as he wrote in a later piece: “What is history? What you cannot touch.”
I was soon reading the poems again, like never before – marvelling at the brilliant clutter of their notations, dashed with feeling but given poise by their stylish metrical flow. Lowell’s best work has all the tousled vividness of an unmade bed at morning, a poetry both fresh and lived in, breezily rhythmed yet redolent of the real thing. “I stand face to face with lost Love”, he said “– my breath / is life, the rough, the smooth, the bright, the drear.”
If Lowell was born to privilege and opportunity, he nevertheless had the knack of writing with a heart-felt, sometimes flinch-inducing honesty about his esteemed family and forebears (“Mayflower screwballs”, as he called them), as well as his own private experiences. “In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin”, he remembered in “Sailing Home from Rapallo”, “Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL”, while the “corpse” within, wept over by the grieving speaker, “was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.” Lowell’s was nothing if not a levelling art. “I go to bed Lord Byron”, he reflected, “and wake up bald.”
In his lifetime he occupied a central, and spot-lit, space on America’s literary scene, lavishly fêted, and at certain junctures vigorously critiqued, for his lush, sharded, formally supple accounts of personal and national crisis. From the beginning, an easy self-assurance seemed to fill the sails of his otherwise agonistic sincerity, propelling his work (and him) to new horizons of innovation and acclaim. “You feel before reading any new poem of his”, remarked the critic Randall Jarrell, a close friend, “the uneasy expectation of perhaps encountering a masterpiece.” Some years later, in an essay published in The Kenyon Review, Adrienne Rich damned what she called the “bullshit eloquence” and “unproportioned ego” of Lowell’s confessional mode: “it is presumptuous”, she charged, “to balance injury done to others with injury done to oneself”. Her former mentor had incorporated the correspondence of his soon-to-be-ex-wife, the writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick, into one of his recent collections, re-dramatizing the strife in their relationship as verse: a literary procedure Rich, among others, refused to condone.
Lowell’s was a life that bristled and hummed, and often soared, with words, words, words – though not all of them, his critics contended, were his to sing. “Yet why not say what happened?”, he asked in one famous piece:
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
His book, History, is full of such names, jostling in a capacious banquet-hall of the great, the good, and the nasty: all portrayed with a detail and zest worthy of Balzac. Margaret Fuller, the nineteenth-century war correspondent, makes an entrance, her voice a “fire-call [...] like thorns crackling under a pot”. William Carlos Williams strays “stonefoot through his town-end garden” and into the fray, “man and flower seedy with three autumn strokes, / his brown, horned eyes enlarged, an ant’s, through glasses”. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr, an atmosphere of blank hopelessness is broken by dry sobs:
At this point of civilization, this point of the world,
the only satisfactory companion we
can imagine is death – this morning, skin lumping in my throat
I lie here, heavily breathing, the soul of New York.
“A nihilist”, Lowell suggested, with a similar blend of paralysis and fury, “wants to live in the world as is, / and yet gaze the everlasting hills to rubble.” As he saw it, we (each and all) need to adapt to the circumstances we inherit, which nonetheless must change – though the cost be steep. It’s a theme that surfaces in “Middle Age”, in which the poet’s father “never climbed / Mount Sion, yet left / dinosaur / Death-steps on the crust, / where I must walk.” In “For Sheridan”, likewise, he observed:
Past fifty, we learn with surprise and a sense
of suicidal absolution
that what we intended and failed
could never have happened –
and must be done better.
Lowell’s (semi-ironic) awareness of the monumental past, its echoing grandeur, enabled him to perceive with uncommon alacrity the degradations and mendacities corroding America’s contemporary political culture. His poem, “For The Union Dead”, looks out on the Boston Common with its “Civil War relief”, only to find the democratic struggles commemorated there neglected, replaced indeed by a squalid commercialism that views even atrocity and disgrace as sellable:
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
Shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’
that survived the blast.
The heroism and sacrifice of the Union Army’s black regiments (who ‘gave up everything to serve the Republic’, as the Latin epigraph emphasises) have been failed by the early-‘60s society, its wasteland atmosphere infiltrating and enveloping the landscape of the poem. As the “old South Boston Aquarium”, “broken” and “boarded” in a “Sahara of snow”, is torn down in order to be converted to a “garage”, the “giant finned cars nose forward like fish; / a savage servility / slides by on grease.” As Derek Mahon remarked:
Lowell is saying, among other things, that America has become a nation of slaves to the system, contra naturam, that the system requires continuous institutionalized violence (Vietnam) and that older values are now out of reach… ‘savage servility’ makes the wheels go round.
Lowell’s political diagnoses were deep as well as sharp. Adapting Engels, Lenin once imagined the state, along with the coercive relationships it codified, “withering away” after the dictatorship of the proletariat had been established. In his poem, “Stalin”, Lowell (attuned to history as it actually happened) was more quizzical: alert to the “millions ploughed under with the crops they grew”, even as he acknowledged, à la “Ozymandias”, that strongmen also die. “The state, if we could see behind the wall, / is woven of perishable vegetation”, he wrote, before casting a cold eye on the titular leader, “crawling up the tree of power”:
The large stomach could only chew success. What raised him
was an unusual lust to break the icon,
joke cruelly, seriously, and be himself.
Who, in 2020, could look on this rendering of the Communist tyrant – remorseless, hubristic, bullishly vain – without seeing, also, America’s then incumbent president, Donald Trump? Lowell's is a portrait of misrule incarnate – of the devouring, insatiable “lust” for power – and the shock of recognition carries through the years.
“The wish to live is as unintentional as love”, reads the elegy for Lowell penned by Frederick Seidel, whom I first encountered at around the same time. Something between a millionaire hedonist and witness against the beast, Seidel is an intriguing writer, his seeming amorality a means of disturbing the universe. I nearly always come away from his work with the feeling of having looked in the mirror and seen a massacre quietly unfolding in the room behind me (my room, my life, and yours as well). “The poem eats anything, doesn’t care”, he shrugs, secretly studying the response of his listeners as they ingest this elegantly ravenous adage.
Seidel’s grasp of the cruelties of the world is more laconic than Lowell’s ever was, and he seems to find queasy pleasure – not just poetry – in the writhing destructions that underlie what we think of as civilisation. “A woman with a whip waits for me to wake / and fuck until I break”, rollicks one poem: “Glory glory glory glory. / Syria’s another story.” As here, for Seidel provocation is its own reward. But the rationale his poems provide for such behaviour is characteristically sophisticated and interesting: tear down the censoring blind of your culture, your nature, and you may attain an honest view of both.
2013’s “A Man About to Come”, begins: “Dinosaurs just prior to their extinction / Voted Tea Party Republican on the lovely outskirts / Of the orgasm about to flatten the planet.” An ejaculatory parable, meticulously crass, the piece notes, not without insight, that “a man can prolong – / And a political movement can prolong – / Sheer morning gladness at the brim / For only so long”. Goodbye to all that, he seems to sigh, as the grand Republic totters down its slide, with a bang and a whimper: “So long.” (Trumpism, of course, was just around the corner.)
As the Ivy League-educated inheritor of a fortune built on fossil fuels (his father’s coal mines) – and to that extent, a thorough-bred product of American capitalism – Seidel recognises the subversive force of the project he long ago embraced: that of portraying the actual drives and satisfactions, the gorgeous and terrible passions, of his own life, and with something close to what Lowell called “the grace of accuracy”. Reading his work is like lifting the lid of a filigreed gift-box, only to discover a live grenade on the inside, grinning. “What definition of beauty can exclude / The MV Agusta racing 500-3, / From the land of Donatello, with blatting megaphones?”, he purrs, catching sight of Giacomo Agostini across a huddle of spectators and fans:
Racers get killed racing.
The roped-off crowd hushed outside the open door.
I stood in awe of Ago’s ease –
In his leathers, like an animal in nature –
Inhumanly unintrospective, now smiling less
Brilliantly, but by far the brightest being in the room.
I feared finding his fear,
And looked for it,
And looked away so as not to mar the perfect.
Who else writes like this? Even when placed among American poets of comparable stature – read in the company of the late John Ashbery, say, or even Claudia Rankine – his gifts are scintillating and singular. Seidel examines the excess and violence undergirding human life (and human pleasure) more clearly and fully, with more self-damning delight, than anyone else. The fact that his own experience has been contiguous with those forces only amplifies the veracity of his perceptions. “I live a life of laziness and luxury”, reads “Frederick Seidel”, “Like a hare without a bone who sleeps in a paté.”
“I like poems that are daggers that sing”, Seidel has said (in an interview with The Paris Review):
Learning how to write has to do in part with learning how to accede yourself and your object, instead of writing what you think you ought to write. The moment comes, if it ever comes, when you have enough strength to give way, to give in to being you are, to give in to your themes and obsessions.
This is a tuned in (and tuned up) writer, his lines tautened between melody and vision, blurring the distinction between beauty and devastation. “Plop the live lobster into boiling water and let it scream. / You both turn red”, reads “Autumn Leaves”, reflecting the deadpan horror of day-to-day pleasures, which fulfil our lives but leave us altered, a process the poem itself mimics (and partly inverts): “I’m turning into something I wasn’t intending to be – / In agony after the awful metamorphosis / Into a suddenly human being.” Paradoxes abound in Seidel’s work, which prickles with each new contradiction, content at least in knowing that there’s complexity beneath the confusion:
The light roars through this new planetarium.
Most of the universe is
The dark matter we are not made of,
But we stand.
For all the cackling decadence his poems dramatise, nobody could accuse Seidel of being “unintrospective” – and this combination of elements may account for his work’s compulsive appeal.
Something similar might be said of Lowell himself, although in the final analysis, the elder doyen’s poems seem to shine more fluently with the big-eyed glint of grief that Seidel, without diminishing his intelligence and perspicacity, can’t quite bring himself to trust in the open. It’s no accident that “The Blue-Eyed Doe”, one of the most pained and visceral poems in Seidel’s corpus, is, in part, a study in repressed and refracted emotion: a dream-journey in which lost memories remain latent.
Where Waterman and Union met was the
Apartment building I’m regressing to.
My key is in the door; I am the key;
I’m opening the door. I think it’s true
Childhood is your mother, even if
Your mother is in hospital for years
And then lobotomized, like mine. A whiff
Of her perfume; behind her veil, her tears.
Time and again, as Seidel lifts the painted “veil” of acceptable and pre-conditioned response, he finds himself stilled by the knowledge (which he experiences sometimes as purest wish) that things might have been otherwise. “I’m here and disappear, the boy I was”, the poem finishes: “The son who lifts his sword above Art Hill; / Who holds it almost like a dagger but / In blessing, handle up, and not to kill”. Gusting through the work is a hidden need to mend the irreparable, but, crucially, without surrendering to delusion: his distorting myths are calibrated to reveal reality. “The roar at the top of the world”, he writes, “Is the icebergs melting in pain.”
There’s an American richness to the scalded lobster-guts Seidel serves up in literary dressing. If the implicit injunction he issues to his readers, that they know myself (in all my grotesquery), seems almost tyrannically demanding, he is no more brash or self-centred than Walt Whitman had been, whom Pablo Neruda designated as “the first authoritarian poet”: “what I shall assume, you shall assume”. Seidel’s later example arguably concentrates the meaning of Neruda’s remarks, but he remains both more disturbing and more disturbed than Whitman, that most lung-pummelling, earth-encompassing of warblers. Indeed, Seidel’s burden, and gift, may be to have lived in the historical period he has, incurably acquainted with the permanent, now-festering national scars that Whitman once hoped to heal. Nothing “talks power prouder”, he says in “Snowing”, “unless it’s that gaudy harlot, that patriot”
The junior senator from Texas, Mr Cruz,
Smiling his ghastly Joe McCarthy smarm,
With a broken-open shotgun
Draped over the crook of his arm –
Out with his friends shooting pheasant and moderate Republicans.
Congress is singing the Cruz blues [...]
“I don’t see an American dream, I see an American nightmare”, said Malcolm X, and it’s a sign of Seidel’s dynamic blend of revulsion and inquiry that he understands, intimately, the meaning of that diagnosis. “Skin color is the name. / Skin color is the game. / Skin color is to blame for Ferguson, Missouri”, reads another “ballad” of the cataclysm: “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County.” “The Tea Party”, he posits near the end of the piece above, “is a rat being digested by a mouse” – another image of aggressive oral consumption, skewing (but also encapsulating) the nature of things. “Everything is looking / For something softer than itself to eat”, he suggests elsewhere: a fact of life, in his view, both banal and horrifying.
Seidel’s poetry is a luscious feast in a hungry world. But it also glows with the feral humour and hard-eyed wisdom of a reveller no longer gripped by the illusions and sonorities to which the rest of his species (including we poets) remain in thrall. This is why we need him. “I send this teeny, tiny rescue flare into the universe / As things on planet Earth get worse”, he writes, lighting up, in the process, those vast plains and palatial interiors where the true carnage of civilisation rages away.
Saskia Hamilton, ed.,
The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle;
Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.
Randall Jarrell, No Other Book: Selected Essays.
Robert Lowell, Collected Poems.
Derek Mahon, Red Sails.
David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography.
Widening Income Inequality.
Malcolm X, Malcolm X speaks : selected speeches and statements.