Tuesday, September 8, 2015


By Trevor Kearns
Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell

If one were to look for two poets to represent two strikingly different faces of American poetry in the twentieth century, one could hardly do better than Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. The two faces in question are two aspects of The Poet, that semi-mythical figure of vapors and swoons, the dusk and the dawn, into whose ear the Muses whisper or remain devastatingly silent, when the bottle starts to call instead . . .

But of course, this figure is a romantic fiction. In truth, poetry does not emerge whole-bodied from a divine source like Athena from Zeus, but rather arrives piecemeal and with great difficulty, through a challenging process that demands a keen mastery of craft. Real poets struggle with materials as elusive as they are familiar: language, and the prosaic details of everyday life, and the prolific ephemera of our mental lives.

The romantic myth of poetic creation persists, however, and we may start to see why when we look at lives like Bishop’s and Lowell’s. The intensely private Bishop, who for nearly her entire career was known and admired mainly by other poets – she has often been described as a poet’s poet – seems to exemplify the inward-looking recluse familiar to us in figures like Wordsworth, lying on his couch and soothing his nerves by plunging into a vision of dancing flowers that would be at home in Disney’s Fantasia.

Bishop preferred a private life, out of the glare of the public’s gaze, where she could polish her work until it gleamed from within like a perfectly cut gem. Her National Book Award-winning Collected Poems barely occupies half an inch on the bookshelf; she would spend months polishing a few verses at a time, changing single words here and there or starting entirely from scratch, and keeping the latest drafts tacked to her refrigerator. The apparent simplicity and spareness of her diction belies a subtlety of structure, thought and verbal music that even today keeps her on the short list of most influential American poets.

For example, in one of her most celebrated poems, “One Art,” we see a rare glimpse of the tension between her private life, which was full of heartbreak, pain, loneliness, and loss, and the flawlessly ordered execution, so seemingly offhand, that was typical of her work. The form she uses here, the villanelle, is one of the most demanding in English verse; it began life as a kind of semi-improvised song in rural Italy, then developed into a compressed yet complicated structure that requires a strict meter and rhyme scheme as well as repetons (repeating lines, though Bishop cheats the form a bit by altering these). Such is her skill with formal verse that many first-time readers of this poem overlook the fact that it is in a form at all.

If Bishop’s poems are gems, Lowell’s are chandeliers, bursting with an immense energy that glitters through historical, social, and theological facets. And if her life was like one of the frail yet intense candles in the fire balloons of her poem “The Armadillo,” his was like a Fourth of July fireworks show. Partly that was because of his family, Boston Brahmins going back for generations, so to a certain degree, it would have been impossible for Lowell to avoid a public life of some sort.

But partly, it was also him. Driven to extremes of behavior by his bipolar disorder and alcoholism (Bishop also suffered from this addiction, but in a quieter way, as was her wont), Lowell led an emotional life that was a sprawling series of passionate train wrecks, most of which he made little effort to keep private. After his turn toward what is called “confessional poetry,” his readers were made privy to his most tortured inner moments as well. Indeed, this style of writing, in which the poet lays what seems a torn and beating heart on the page, is more closely associated with the raw spontaneity of Beats like Ginsberg than with the cool, carefully wrought tradition Bishop represents.

And thus Lowell can be seen as another face of The Poet, the one so overcome with emotion that he is overmastered by it, forced into extraordinary articulation by personal agony. This is the essence of confessional poetry, which is piercing when well done, and blunt as Jerry Springer when not. It is unfortunate this phase of Lowell’s work has come to represent the whole of his achievement, however, since before his startling Life Studies, which marks his confessional turn, he produced two volumes of poetry that dazzle with their sonic, structural, and philosophical density. And even much of his confessional work resonates with dimensions that extend into the larger world of human history.

The frankness of Lowell’s portrayal of personal misery, so powerfully conveyed by his craft, is characteristic of the confessional mode. At the time, it was considered by most of the poetry establishment to be too vulgar, slack, and direct to be considered good. But even a casual comparison of Lowell’s poems reveals the degree of craft he brought to both approaches. And for all its seeming casualness, Bishop’s work too shows us an extraordinary degree of formal skill.

The friendship that developed between these two poets, so different in temperament and yet so similar in their devotion to craft, was a gift not only to each of them, but to their readers these decades later. The polarity of their styles and concerns serves to illuminate the breadth and richness of American poetry during the postwar period. And the very human ways they suffered, in public and in private, help to both demystify popular conceptions about the making of poetry and emphasize the striking achievements Bishop and Lowell managed during their writing lives.

Trevor Kearns is a poet, writer, editor, and Associate Professor of English at Greenfield Community College in Western Massachusetts.