I became interested in Robert Lowell’s poetry because of the criticism of Seamus Heaney. I had tried reading him before, while studying Sylvia Plath for my A levels, on the recommendation of a teacher who told us she had been taught by Lowell at Boston University, but had not got on with him.
This changed when I read Heaney’s essay on Lowell at the back of Preoccupations, which first appeared as a review of Day by Day in the Irish Times in 1978. I loved it immediately. There was biographical information in the form of an anecdote about Lowell swatting away Heaney’s praise for ‘Dolphin’ (‘Oh, set-piece, set-piece’). There was memorable and critical summary which seemed to take in all of literature at once: Lowell was ‘a looker before and after, a maker, a plotter, closer to Ben Jonson than to DH Lawrence’. And running through all of it there was gorgeous phrasemaking: ‘the dark swirls of the unconscious and the drift towards death’ (on Plath and Berryman); the ‘received literary language shimmering behind [the] writing’ (in a reference to Pound). ‘Keep up!’ he seemed to be saying. ‘You know you want to. You know you can.’
I did not yet own Day by Day, but knew that I wanted to. If the copy of Lowell’s Selected Poems that I had just sold to a second-hand bookseller (‘I won’t get much for this. He’s not very fashionable’) did contain poems from it, they hadn’t registered with me. I would have to start again.
The essay’s finely nuanced evaluations were both wide screen, taking in all of Lowell’s output, and microscopic, lovingly presenting and arguing in praise of the book’s most memorable lines. There are three longish quotations from poems in Day by Day (from ‘Marriage’, ‘Epilogue’ and ‘For Sheridan’) , each of them given space to breathe and to resonate. Coming across Lowell like this felt like luxury. Heaney’s guiding hand was curatorial and professorial, and in the best sense pastoral, like that English teacher, wanting you merely to share in the pleasure.
These blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like a tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
Robert Lowell, from Day by Day (Noonday, 1977)