Monday, June 11, 2007

Notes on Lowell


Those 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 the 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

i've been reading and re-reading this poem from the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, which i've gathered was the last poem from the poet's last book, Day by Day (1977).

when i first read it, i found its discursiveness bothersome, if not outright disturbing. the sense conveyed by the initial lines points to the persona's conflictedness with the "imagined, not recalled," as if the persona's immediate problem will naturally propel the poem onward, guided by the speaker's seeming want to risk the imagined. The italicized lines further heighten this dilemma, an interesting claim governed by the "noise of my own (the speaker's) voice" and probably a loose allusion to an artist's (who will be named later in the poem) supposed use of the so-called camera obscura in catching the perfect light.

the succeeding lines then attempt to elucidate on the tone's ambivalence by insisting that everything caught by the poet's eye is "heightened from life/yet paralyzed by fact" and "all's misalliance". the sentiment is unclear at this point, and further made vague by the next line which begins with "Yet". and while "what happened" is tied up to "the grace of accuracy," the organic allusion to the eye of the artist (here revealed to be Vermeer) giving to the sun's illumination is not a matter of fact, but of figure of speech--since the poet chose to connect the light as " his girl solid with yearning".

Milkmaid Vermeer c. 1660

the closing four lines relish in another grand insistence, but it becomes clear here the position the speaker (or Lowell's himself?) takes on the subject matter. "We are poor, passing facts," the line reads, embracing finally the claim that while "structures, plot, and rhyme" can be done way with, it is the real or the factual that in the end must endure, that "fact" warns us of the need to give "each figure..his living name."

perhaps this was Lowell's way of solidifying his staunch position and final word (he died shortly after this collection was published) on his championing of the aesthetics of authenticity and accuracy. the poem may be seen as an ekphrasis of sorts, but only in the barest sense. the grand design is still--according to Washington Post critic Sunil Iyengar--to "embrace fidelity as his (Lowell's) ruling aesthetic."

the interesting paradox here is how quickly the poem's speaker relinquishes the light of the imagined while at the same time as quickly promising that it may be the main concern of the poem. the speaker does not problematize the form; it talks about the dichotomy between the remembered and the imagined.

but then the poem's concern dramatically shifts to a discourse on what's seen and the trust that whatever this visible "snapshot" thing is, is still "paralyzed by fact", further claimed as "all's misalliance". and because everything that's factual passes,
the task is to name, well, for example, a rose not by any other name.

at one point, Lowell was the most celebrated poet in the US, a towering figure in confessional poetry. now, he is one of the more maligned poets whose works have been largely dismissed. the question is, how do we read Lowell (the "audacious maker," says Frank Bidart) and how do we negotiate with his heightened sense of self nowadays?

and does he deserve to be just another "poor, passing fact" in poetry?