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Loving Lowell

Having just finished reading Lord Weary’s Castle, Robert Lowell’s second book of poetry, a collection consisting mainly of revisions of his first book (apparently Lowell, like Walt Whitman, constantly whittled away at all of his work all of the time), I came across these lines from “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”:

The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
the fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
the death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
the gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
and hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags
and rips the sperm-whale’s midriff into rags,
gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather.

and so, I think I may have found another poet I can love.

I decided to seek out Lowell’s poetry after reading an interview with Christine Schutt, wherein she shares that when she is feeling “language impoverished” she turns to poetry by the likes of Robert Lowell and Emily Dickinson, and also other contemporary poets, which reminded me of something William Gass wrote in his essay “In Defense of the Book”: “I have only to reach out, as I frequently do, to cant a copy of Urne Buriall from its shelf, often after a day of lousy local prose, and to open it at random, as though it were the Bible, and I was seeking guidance, just to hear again the real rich thing speak forth as fresh as if it were a fountain…”

So I ask each of you: What books do you reach out for after a day of lousy local prose? Which writers do you read when you feel language impoverished?

John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

13 thoughts on “Loving Lowell

  1. Sorrentino, Coleman Dowell, McCarthy, Paul West, George Konrad.

    (actually interested to hear what the latter has to say about the toxic disaster outside Budapest, a lot like something that he might imagine).

  2. Hey Tim,

    Those are some heavyweights. Do you find yourself flipping through pages of those writers’ books, letting your eyes land on passages, and then lingering there? or do you choose stories and read them from start to finish? or maybe some other variation or combination?

    Sorry to say that I don’t know Konrad’s work, and I’d love to hear more about him. I just took a look at “The City Builder,” and the first page looks like an onrush of language, full of repetitions, of the word “sleeping,” for instance, and at least one rhyme of that word with “creeping.”

    1. Hey, John,

      I don’t think I’ve read that Gass essay–I’m curious to hear what he means by “lousy local prose.” I mean, I can guess, knowing Gass, but “local” seems like a very deliberate word, even beyond being almost a conjugation of “lousy.” We are conditioned these days to think of local as being superior–fresher, less packaged–the locavore is the more conscious eater/consumer, and here Gass appears to be equating it with provincial or small in scope, perhaps literal prose, utilitarian prose, or inconsequential like the local newspaper, like in The Tunnel when he describes the guy at the wedding who scratches an itch and plays no role in history (versus the one who gets the bride sick with a hug). So the opposite would be that which taps into bigger, more encompassing issues or concerns, or traditions, I suppose. But that which you define as local I suppose could vary–for instance, if you think a lot of contemporary writing is pedestrian (overly concerned with the domestic lives and affairs of members of certain social classes), then you might seek something that branches away from that, which would automatically feel larger.

      In answer to your questions, I think I tend to go to these books for sustenance of some sort so I will read out of context, a few pages here or there, as long as I am hooked and drawn by the hook–those writers I read almost exclusively to be swallowed up in their styles but a little goes a long way and I almost read in that way that you can be sated quickly by glutting on something very rich. Sometimes it is enough to be reassured that they exist, not in an abstract way–page or two can suffice as a reminder that oh yeah, this is possible.

      Konrad’s The City Builder is my favorite work of his, though I’m also a fan of the rather different The Case Worker. But it’s been a while since I read it. There is such liberation in language and such barrenness in what that language is envisioning–it’s really a marvelous dissonance. I wonder what it would be like to reread the whole thing now…the “onrush of language” you describe is exactly what I had in mind when I thought about how he would depict the aluminum disaster on the Danube.

  3. “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” is an awesome poem. I’m glad you brought it up, John. In perhaps the most ambitious class of the semester, I’ll be teaching “Quaker Graveyard” along with Hopkins’ “The Wreck of the Deutschland” next month to wrap up a unit on the ode. I feel a bit like Harold Bloom in saying so but the shore ode is really a sublime genre…

    I think the opening of Pound’s Cantos has a similar Anglo-Saxon / accentual intensity as the Lowell:

    And then went down to the ship,
    Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
    We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
    Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
    Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
    Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
    Crice’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
    Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller…

    But Pound repressed his lyric gifts in the service of political rhetoric. I always go to Spenser and Milton and Shelley…as far as more contemporary poets…Andrew Joron, Gustaf Sobin, Nathaniel Mackey, Leslie Scalapino…

    1. Your class sounds incredible, Michael. Can I sit in? You know of my love for Hopkins. I’d love to hear you talk about those two poems.

      And thanks for your mini-list of contemporary fellow travelers, of which I only know one, namely, Nathaniel Mackey (I saw him read at the last &Now conference), and heard of another Leslie Scalapino. I just searched around for stuff by Joron and found this page:
      http://www.greeninteger.com/green_integer_review/issue_3/Andrew-Joron.htm

      Lovely, lovely work!

  4. You’re welcome to sit in if you’re willing to make the trek to Rutgers!

    You can (kind of) follow along here: http://eng21911.wordpress.com/

    But you seriously might want to make the trip to New Brunswick on November 4th: Andrew Joron and Will Alexander are coming in from the west coast to read. I’ve been helping John Yau and Evie Shockley organize a panel and reading on neo-surrealism. Some of the details aren’t yet set but it should be a really fantastic event.

  5. That event sounds incredible, Michael. I think I have you to thank for introducing me to Will Alexander’s work as well. Definitely keep me posted as the details solidify.

    I’ll check out the link to your class.

  6. Yes, poetry often and again: Bishop, Merwin, Gluck, Rilke, D.A. Powell.

    Lutz, Saunders, Gass – “You could see her bones like shadows of trees, shadows without leaves.”

  7. If your local library has the Voices and Visions DVD’s or VHS of Robert Lowell, you should check it out. There are about 13 in the series including Whitman and Bishop, and the one of Lowell is my favorite: he reads most of his big poems, and the NEA gave them so much money they include footage of burials at sea from the navy, a dilapidated prison, and much much more.

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