Robert Lowell

The most influential recent poet, Robert Lowell, began traditionally but was influenced by experimental currents. Because his life and work spans the period between the older modernist masters like Ezra Pound and the contemporary writers, his career places the later experimentalists in a larger context.

Lowell fits the mold of the academic writer: white, male, Protestant by birth, well-educated, and linked with the political and social establishment. He was a descendant of the respected Boston Brahmin family that included the famous 19th-century poet James Russell Lowell and a recent president of Harvard University. Robert Lowell found an identity outside his elite background, however. He went not to Harvard but to Kenyon College in Ohio, where he rejected his Puritan ancestry and converted to Catholicism. Jailed for a year as a conscientious objector in World War II, he later publicly protested the Vietnam conflict.

Lowell's early books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (1946), which won a Pulitzer Prize, revealed great control of traditional forms and styles, strong feeling, and an intensely personal yet historical vision. The violence and specificity of the early work is overpowering in poems like "Children of Light" (1946), a harsh condemnation of the Puritans who killed Indians and whose descendants burned surplus grain instead of shipping it to hungry people. Lowell writes: "Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones / And fenced their gardens with the Redman's bones."

Lowell's next book, The Mills of the Kavanaughs (1951), contains moving dramatic monologues in which members of his family reveal their tenderness and failings. As always, his style mixes the human with the majestic. Often he uses traditional rhyme, but his colloquialism disguises it until it seems like background melody. It was experimental poetry, however, that gave Lowell his breakthrough into a creative individual idiom.

On a reading tour in the mid-1950s, Lowell heard some of the new experimental poetry for the first time. Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Gary Snyder's Myths and Texts, still unpublished, were being read and chanted, sometimes to jazz accompaniment, in coffee houses in North Beach, a section of San Francisco. Lowell felt that next to these, his own accomplished poems were too stilted, rhetorical, and encased in convention; when reading them aloud, he made spontaneous revisions toward a more colloquial diction. "My own poems seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down into a bog and death by their ponderous armor," he wrote later. "I was reciting what I no longer felt."

At this point Lowell, like many poets after him, accepted the challenge of learning from the rival tradition in America -- the school of William Carlos Williams. "It's as if no poet except Williams had really seen America or heard its language," he wrote in 1962. Henceforth, Lowell changed his writing drastically, using the "quick changes of tone, atmosphere and speed" that Lowell most appreciated in Williams.

Lowell dropped many of his obscure allusions; his rhymes became integral to the experience within the poem instead of superimposed on it. The stanzaic structure, too, collapsed; new improvisational forms arose. In Life Studies (1959), he initiated confessional poetry, a new mode in which he bared his most tormenting personal problems with great honesty and intensity. In essence, he not only discovered his individuality but celebrated it in its most difficult and private manifestations. He transformed himself into a contemporary, at home with the self, the fragmentary, and the form as process.

Lowell's transformation, a watershed for poetry after the war, opened the way for many younger writers. In For the Union Dead (1964), Notebook 1967-69 (1970), and later books, he continued his autobiographical explorations and technical innovations, drawing upon his experience of psychoanalysis. Lowell's confessional poetry has been particularly influential. Works by John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath(the last two his students), to mention only a few, are impossible to imagine without Lowell.