Monday, December 4, 2017

A Modern Mixed Bag

My reaction to Robert Lowell's Life Studies and For the Union Dead is decidedly mixed, which seems appropriate for a book that's assembled from very disparate works, one of which -- Life Studies -- won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1960.

Parts 1 and 2 of Life Studies contain autobiographical essays, largely focused on family circumstances and business associates of Lowell's father, providing a child's perspective filtered through an adult sensibility. The essays are imbued with early 1900's Boston propriety and status-consciousness, at times reminiscent of Edith Wharton, and they are also quite amusing. Artful details such as his father's monogrammed garbage cans lend flashes of insight to Lowell's stories of his oh-so-proper-but-not-quite-top-drawer childhood.

I thoroughly enjoyed the essays, which read as you would expect essays by a poet to read, with precise and sometimes lyrical word choices. Perhaps that makes their contrast with the poems in the latter two sections and in For the Union Dead all the more notable. The essays are witty but restrained, whereas the poems are thoroughly modern, right down to impressionistic imagery that requires the reader to tease out the meaning.

Sometimes Lowell's choices are obscure enough to be jarring, as when he describes a seal swimming "like a poodle" in the ocean (a poodle? I had to read that line twice to be sure). Lowell clearly knows how to marshal the language, however; even his strange juxtapositions have a certain power, even when it's difficult to tell exactly what he's talking about. He walks the line between formal poetry and free verse, and writes revealingly about his struggles with mental illness.

Considering the social structures in place then, being modern in 1959 is quite a feat!


After the heat and push of Commander Billy, it was pleasant to sit in the shade of the Atkinsons. Cousin Ledyard wasn't exactly an admiral: he had been promoted to this rank during the World War and had soon reverted back to his old rank of captain. In 1926 he was approaching retirement age and was still a captain. He was in charge of a big, stately, comfortable, but anomalous warship, which seldom sailed further than hailing distance from its Charlestown drydock. He was himself stately and anomalous.

Note: The book counts toward the Birth Year Reading Challenge, the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, and is the B (Boston) book in the Where Are You Reading? challenge. It also adds another read book to my National Book Award for Poetry winners list. I'm so efficient!  

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