Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The individual nature of “startle”

I finished Tillinghast’s Damaged Grandeur, Robert Lowell’s Life and Work.  My previous impression of Lowell was based on my reading of Lord Weary’s Castle, half of Life Studies, and Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell, a biography.  Tillinghast would say that my impression of Lowell was typical.  Lowell’s reputation dwindled.  Tillinghast read Paul Mariani’s Lost Puritan, a Life of Robert Lowell, 1994.  His own book was published a year.  He thinks Mariani’s biography provides a much fairer representation of Lowell.   

I opened Mariani’s book this morning and read, “In the fall of 1963 while I was at Colgate, studying for my English Master’s, one of my professors suggested I might want to look at something written after Emerson, Coleridge, and Hopkins.  Since I was a practicing Catholic, and so rather an anomaly on campus, he thought I might read the poems of Robert Lowell, especially something called ‘Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.’  I can still remember standing in the stacks of the library one dreary rainy afternoon soon afterwards and, as I read that poem, felling as if the top of my head were coming off.”

In 1962 I was working in Santa Monica on the Skybolt Program which was cancelled by Robert McNamara.  I transferred to Long Beach to work on the DC-8 and there met Lee Griffith, one of several who wasn’t going to persevere, get a PhD in English and teach literature some place.  He had an MA from Duke and had a powerful interest in poetry – more in the study of it however whereas mine was in the writing.  He introduced me to Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle; so I might have read “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” about the same time that Mariani did.  I don’t recall that the top of my head felt as though it was coming off, but I was impressed.  Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary’s Castle and I thought it well earned.  It wasn’t that volume but what followed that caused my opinion of Lowell to plummet.  Mariani’s opinion apparently never plummeted; so I’ll be interested in learning how he managed to keep it up.

I can’t be sure I wasn’t a bit “startled” when I first read “Quaker Graveyard” but doubt that it was to the extent of Mariani’s startlement; which causes me to observe that Mariani would almost assuredly not feel the top of his head come off each time he read this poem but also, others coming to it with different backgrounds might feel nothing more than a little prickling of the scalp.  Given that this is, or could be, true, if this was all there was, there could never be a Harold Bloom, never be a greater “criterion” against which to evaluate individual poems.  I paused over the word “criterion” because poetry must never be held to one, it seems to me.   I don’t think Bloom has created one although as Tillinghast wrote, he may at times be rather fonder of the relationship between poets than the poems themselves.  Still the “effect” of reading a given poem must somehow be the determiner as to whether the poem will be deemed great or not.  I don’t really object to that although I’ve noticed that, as often as not, I don’t agree with Bloom’s evaluations.  So perhaps my equivalent of “startle” (although I don’t like but can’t think of an acceptable replacement word) is what I use, and perhaps the evaluation of poetry will always be an individual thing.  And then perhaps only when enough prestigious critics individually evaluate and then pronounce a poem or a poet great will it and he be more widely considered so.

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