Today marks the 94th birthday of Robert Lowell, one of the most influential poets, both personally and artistically, of the mid-20th century. He was difficult, brilliant, lascivious with female students. He was tormented by bipolar disorder for years before effective treatment was developed; his breakdowns were epic and legendary. (Robert Giroux reports him as saying, when lithium became available, “It’s terrible, Bob, to think that all I’ve suffered, and all the suffering I’ve caused, might have arisen from the lack of a little salt in my brain.") He was a Conscientious Objector during World War II (the "good" war) and spent a year in prison. He was one of the pioneers of the poetry workshop, and the list of his students is long and impressive: Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, George Starbuck, and many others. Almost all of them wrote about the experience of having him as a teacher, and it became, as Sage Stossel writes, "a mark of distinction to present at one of Lowell's infamous breakdowns." They wrote about that, too, and because they were all exceptional writers, we have descriptions of his mania and his misery in vivid and evocative detail. His marriages and their messy breakups; anecdotes like his pitching a tent and spending the summer in Allen Tate's front yard; his odd and moving friendship with Elizabeth Bishop (could two people be more temperamentally different?); his famously disarranged person and wild hair - all are part of the Lowell narrative as we know it today. But he was also a poet of great power and skill. During his lifetime, his poetry moved from tightly-constructed, meticulously crafted formal verse into something entirely new at the time: what we now call confessional poetry, raw, open, exposed - but in Lowell's case, still equally crafted and shaped by the poet's brilliance.
Here is perhaps Lowell's most famous poem - widely anthologized and studied (I've taught it myself), it does what great poems do: it lives on past the circumstance of its making and claims relevance in our time, too.
"For the Union Dead"
"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam."
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
e has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die--
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year--
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .
Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."
The ditch is nearer.
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. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessèd break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.