Thursday, May 19, 2011

'Epilogue' by Robert Lowell (1977)


                  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 the 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 paralysed 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 the 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.


In one way the fact that there is only one Lowell poem in this selection is grossly unrepresentative. I came to Lowell at a point when I wasn’t sure what a poem should be, and I suppose in his work I saw how form was not the same as conformity or whatever other notions I was carrying around in my head at the time. After the impressionistic and entirely self-referential poems I was writing, this was something of a revelation, and I think the choice of poems I have made her is the legacy of reading Lowell’s work, in one sense.

So, I could say a lot more about him but in a way it seems apt to give him the last word with a poem that was one of the last he wrote, if not the last. Lowell’s reputation has seemed to decrease by increments on this side of the Atlantic in the decades since his death. Partly, I think this is as a result of his label of 'confessional' poet and perhaps also the father of Boston confessionalism. Really though, it was W.D. Snodgrass who got there first with his poems about marital breakdown in Heart’s Needle, but Lowell touched on the far more taboo subject in his writing about mental breakdown. It’s strange to think now why such subjects were so controversial only a generation ago, though perhaps they are even today in our more ‘open’ society.

I think people are right, in a sense, to be suspicious of confessionalism and the way it spawned a whole cottage industry of angst-ridden pseudo-poetry (poetry as therapy, almost). At the same time, the forthrightness of expression all poets are allowed now wouldn’t be possible without it. We have become so used to being able to write on any subject that we take it for granted.

In his introduction to the Selected Poems (amazing really that a collected only came out this side of the Atlantic in 2003) Jonathan Raban argues that Lowell was really a poet of candour rather than of confession (as I'm sure others who came after him could also claim). For me, what makes Lowell as such a poet is that he had the sense to see his mania for what it was (and the grandiose schemes it sometimes produced such as rewriting Dante) and wrote about his madness after the fact. I think he bestows such poems with a dignity and restraint not always observed in his own work or others - what he calls here “the grace of accuracy”. A large part of that is found in the formal elegance he brings to bear on poems such as ‘Skunk Hour’, ‘Waking in the Blue’ or ‘Home After Three Months Away’ (“I keep no rank or station./ Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.”)

‘Epilogue’ is his own self-defense, I suppose. He seems to want to break away from the pressure of autobiography but hears only “the noise of my own voice”, the word “noise” here suggesting his own frustration that he cannot escape himself. The poem is a debate that turns on the question, “Yet, why not say what happened?” It is a struggle between the real and the desire to escape it – or at least to write beyond your own experience. Again, those last lines are what distinguishes him from being a poet of pure confession. He is also, I think, compassionate here – aware not just of the nature of his own suffering but of suffering in general:

                                    We are poor passing facts,
                                    warned by this to give
                                    each figure in the photograph
                                    his living name.

I think it was apt that Lowell should end his career with these lines as he would pass – very soon after writing them – into one of the figures in the photograph he describes, though perhaps as much a “poor passing myth” as a “poor passing fact”.

Here is Lowell reading 'Epilogue'

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