Going to the Source

Robert Lowell: A Biography By fan Hamilton Random House: $19.95.527 pp.

What Happens To inspiration when the author is seemingly flapped by a well-established rigid family and a love hate relationship with the city of his birth Destonomy love affairs sap or sustain his creativity? Can poets make their contemporaries sound obsolete by pioneering new styles or force each other to adopt new techniques. What happens to a poet when he sees hits mentors and friends dying, their deaths so close together as to seem more than a coincidence. Most important, what is the relationship between genius and insanity does one cause the other.

Such questions haunt Ian Hamilton's extensive biography of poet Robert Lowell, who confronted all of these dilemmas Born into the wealthy, heritage-ridden Lowell family, he was the only son of a weak-willed father and a domineering mother who made sure he went to the right schools--St Mark's prep. then Harvard. Until his freshman year at college. Lowell had shown only ordinary signs of rebellion against a stifling Boston social order. During that year he became romantically involved with Anne Dick, a 24-year-old cousin of one of his friends, beginning what would be a lifetime of stormy, shifting romantic involvements, sometimes fueling his poetry, other times sapping his creative energy. When Lowell announced his intention to marry Dick, his alarmed parents arranged to have him spend the summer in Tennessee with a friend of the family. Lowell had already been interested in poetry, but the people he met in Tennessee--Allen Tate and the celebrated John Crowe Ransom--cemented his involvement with the art.

Lowell did not return to Harvard. Instead he followed Ransom to Kenyon College, where he formed lasting friendships with Peter Taylor and Randall Jarrell. From that point onward, his life becomes a turbulent, often sensational tale. He married writer Jean Stafford; after a miserable six years they split. For the remainder of his days. Lowell fell in and out of love with various women--his 20-year marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick was stable only in its endurance.

The poet was a manic-depressive, and his mental illness wreaked havoc on his poetry, to say nothing of his love affairs. He went through periods of creative barrenness that sometimes lasted up to a year. It was when he became manic, or "high" as his friends described it, that he would have to spend time in mental institutions--then he was irrational, a danger to his friends and lovers. Except for Stafford, the women he married--Hardwick and, late in his life, Lady Caroline Blackwood--demonstrated an almost supernatural capacity to stick with Lowell through his bouts with mental illness. It was only when Lowell became involved with Blackwood that his marriage to Hardwick ended.

BUT HAMILTON'S BIOGRAPHY is no sensationalized account of the tumultuous life of a man whose fame is taken for granted. The biographer makes no speculations as to why women found Lowell so fascinating. His mission is instead to prove Lowell's place in American poetry. Hamilton's hindsight-fueled comments on Lowell's volumes fit neatly into the episodes of the poet's life. It is this juxtaposition of events and critical analysis which brilliantly destroys the view of ideal art as isolated from history--by making the history helpful, if not indispensable, to understanding and appreciating the art.

It is easier to understand Lowell's break with strict meter when Hamilton includes an excerpt from his Life Studies and describes the conflict many mid-20th century poets faced. The dissolution of conventional poetic form and style following World War I was perhaps the single greatest phenomenon in modern literature. It posed a critical problem for poets like Lowell: whether to jump into the newly opened vista by discarding form, carrying T.S. Eliot's innovations one more step, or to make poetry more powerful by struggling with a fixed meter. Lowell, who had trained himself to write in regular meter, finally loosed up his style with Life Studies. But

rhyme and meter were for him very close to being the "natural speech" that William Carlos Williams and his followers were always calling for. The iambic pentameter was not an external, imposed literary method; after three books, it had become compulsive utterance. And it was probably harder for Lowell to discard rhymes than to invent them. Williams, he felt, was unique, but "dangerous and difficult to imitate."

The freeing of form continued, until Lowell had freed his writing even from the conventions of approach which prohibited the use of personal detail as subject matter. The Dolphin (1973) drew heavily from his breakup with Hardwick and aroused critical furor. Lifelong friends of Lowell's--Elizabeth Bishop included--advised him not to publish the manuscript. He went ahead anyway and wound up pioneering a new poetry; it was confessional, elevated to art and updated by the new approaches to the 20th century.

The debate over the validity of drawing on private experiences as source material for poetry continues: Hamilton illustrates its endurance by raising an interesting comparison between Lowell and his student Sylvia Plath. Plath's line "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through" in her 1962 poem "Daddy," Hamilton suggests, was inspired by Lowell's long poem The Mills of the Kavanaughs, with its line "You are a bastard, Michael, aren't you? Nein." In fact, Lowell was largely responsible for the freedom and Plath and other modern poets enjoyed to include material from their private lives in their art.

The major events of Lowell's life--his imprisonment for conscientious objection, his routine hospitalizations and separations from lovers, his feelings of doom in reaction to the deaths of T.S. Eliot, Randall Jarell, John Berryman, and other friends, his opposition to the Vietnam War--are interesting but tangential to Hamilton's defense of Lowell's place in modern poetry. In the end, questions such as insanity and its relationship to love and genius are left unanswered. Hamilton simply leaves us with a wealth of well-presented source material to use in thinking about these questions. It is an important gift.