Lifesaving Poems: Robert Lowell’s ‘Epilogue’

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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.

Epilogue

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.

All’s misalliance.

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)

Lifesaving Poems

5 comments

  1. Meg Cox

    Dear Anthony, I keep thinking I should respond to your wonderful blog which I have been reading for over a year now. I should tell you how much I enjoy it, how much I learn from it, how many poems and poets I have garnered and enjoyed. I think it is a wonderful, constant, rich source of everything poetry and everybody should read it.
    So when you wrote recently of both Ann and Peter Sansom who were tutors on a recent Arvon course (I have never written so much in 5 days ever) and Michael Laskey who is one of my favourite poets, I thought I really should just say hello. Hello from a fan. I’ve read your memoir of your experience of cancer and now I have bought some of your poetry books – a proper fan.
    Please just carry on as you are, I learn so much from you.
    Thank you,
    Meg Cox

    Like

    • Anthony Wilson

      Dear Meg, thank you so much for your very kind comments and support. When I began blogging I had no idea what I was doing, least of all that others would also enjoy my choices. So I’m deeply touched that you took the time to say what Lifesaving Poems means to you. On occasion I feel as though I am writing in the dark, so this kind of affirmation is priceless. I’m hoping that one day the series will become a book. As ever with best wishes, Anthony.

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      • Meg Cox

        I think that it would make a great book. Take a bit of editing and choosing! For now I am just waiting for the books of your poetry I have ordered (I bought the memoir on Kindle), a lovely thump on the door mat. And your next choice and what you say about it. Thank you. Meg xx

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  2. Takooba

    This is like lines that never meet since the photograph to which he is referring is also part of his subjective imagination. It’s a very a-typical Lowell poem, though, and certainly vastly clearer and humbler than his general output.

    Like

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