Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lowell's Long Summer

    I'm just about done with Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell and his circle -- haven't read any of her poetry yet -- have a couple of her books on order.  Will be disappointed if I don't like some of it.  I'm very impressed with this With Robert Lowell book, and so I've returned once again to Lowell.  A while back I ordered several (most) of his individual volumes of poetry though I already had his Collected Poems.     
    In Jonathan Galassi's introduction to Notebook 1967-68, he writes, ". . . he had written to Elizabeth Bishop back in 1959, 'My trouble seems . . . to be to bring together in me the Puritanical iron hand of constraint and the gushes of pure wildness.'  Here [in Notebook 1967-68] constraint was loosened as perhaps never before.
    "Lowell had hit on an endlessly expandable form, and it proved irresistible. . ."  
    As a penance for condemning Lowell after reading Life Studies (1959) and For the Union Dead (1964) I decided to read as extensively as possible Notebook 1967-68. 
On page 5, Long Summer (1) is a sonnet I liked upon one reading, perhaps to some extent because it refers to the sort of parties described in Spivack's book.  On the first reading I thought it pretty good.  I'll read it again:

    At dawn, the crisp goodbye of friends; at night,
    enemies reunited, who tread, unmoving,
    like circus poodles dancing on a ball --
    something inhuman always rising on us,
    punching you with embraces, holding out
    a hesitant hand, unbending as a broom;
    heaping the bright logs brighter, till we seat
    and shine as anointed with hot oil:
    straight alcohol, bright drops, dime-size and silver. . . .
    Each day more poignantly resolved to stay,
    each day more brutal, oracular and rooted,
    dehydrated, and smiling in the fire,
    unbandaging his tender, blood-baked foot,
    hurt when he kicked aside the last dead bottle.
    On a second reading I saw a few problems.  After a night of drinking, even if the course of this affair made enemies into friends, I doubt that the morning goodbye would be "crisp." 
    I'm not sure the "tread, unmoving, like circus poodles dancing on a ball" works.  The poodles wouldn't be moving relatively to the position of the earth, but can anyone read this without imagining their little legs moving furiously, or if they dance in a way that might seem most logical then they and the ball they are on will move.
    And then the "something inhuman always rising on us, punching you with embraces" seems wrong.  I've read this several times but it ought to read, it seems to me either "something inhuman always rising on you, punching you with embraces," or "something inhuman always rising on us, punching us with embraces."  And then, what is this inhuman thing rising on us?  If it rose in us I suppose it would be human, but if it is inhuman what is it, and how does it rise on us?  Can anything "rise on us"?  I don't immediately see the logic of this image.  A panther might rise up from the shadows and pounce upon us but rising upon us falls far short of that.
    In the 6th line, isn't the "hesitant hand" the same one  that "punched you with embraces?"  Punching you doesn't seem very "hesitant" to me.
    In the same line "unbending as a broom" doesn't seem to hold up.  Surely the handle of the broom won't bend much but the straw (or plastic) bristles on the floor certainly will.  No doubt "broom" is an image we are invited to figure out, but I haven't gotten it after two readings.
    Next they heap logs on the fire and sit so close to it that they glisten, it is after all summer, but not with sweat, they shine from "straight alcohol."  I don't get that.  This was a drinking party but no one drinks straight alcohol.  I also don't get "bright drops, dime size and silver. . . .  "Dime size and silver" seems awkward since dimes were made of silver.
    In the line "Each day more poignantly resolve to stay," I suppose it is the party goers or at least the ones who get to stay and don't have to provide their "crisp" goodbyes at dawn who are "more poignantly resolved to stay."  However in the next lines we are told that "each day more brutal, oracular and rooted, dehydrated . . ."  Why would anyone want to be poignantly resolved to stay if "each day" was more "brutal, oracular and rooted, dehydrated" than the previous?   To Lowell the poet the "oracular" however that came to be part of the event, would make the day worth while; so it probably isn't his guests who are "resolved to stay," or if they are it may not be for the same reason; it is Lowell himself who is getting something poetical out of it, something oracular.  I'm not sure what "rooted" means in the this sequence unless it is amplifying his resolve to stay. 
    And so, if we are right and Lowell is gaining oracular sustenance from such long summer days no wonder he is able to be "smiling into the fire," even if he does so drunkenly such that he burns his foot as he kicks aside the last dead bottle.  And, we note, he writes this after he has kicked this bottle with his bare foot and is able to sit there with his bloody foot bravely unbandaged while he stares into the fire.

    Perhaps some poems shouldn't be read more than once.  Lowell didn't like to be called a "confessional poet" even though as Galassi writes above, he strove to loosen up in his poetry, but this one seems rather more confessional than loose (depending on what Galassi means by the word "loose).  But what Lowell objected to in "confessional" poetry was going too far.  Spivack wrote, "While Lowell supported the work of Sexton and Plath, he could be very hard on a poet who violated the canons of good taste.  Denise Levertov was a poet he admired, but she fell from grace.  Cal and I were walking toward the inevitable late-afternoon cup of tea at a cafe, and puzzled, he took my elbow.  'You know,' he said, in a strained, musing way, 'Denise used to be a very good poet.  One of the best women writing in America today.  But I just heard her read in New York.  And she read her poems -- some good ones -- and then,' here Cal paused, lowering his voice, with half-concealed mischief in his eyes, 'she read a poem about her cunt!  How she didn't like it, and oh, how horrible it was, she described it in detail . . .'  His voice trailed off, only to resume in a musing way,' and then,' long, wondering pause, 'she decided she liked that cunt poem so much she read it to us a second time."  Cal was shocked, and Denise, alas, was relegated to the ranks below minor. . . ."  [the referenced Levertov poem is entitled "Hypocrite Women" and appears in Poems 1960-1967]
I don't recall any Levertov poetry but I have read some poems by Anne Sexton that I thought broke the bounds of good taste, but now, looking again at this Long Summer Lowell poem he seems to be violating current standards of good taste.  No doubt this isn't fair since all the poets back then (it seems) were heavy drinkers and not above bloodying a foot in disappointment by kicking the last (empty) bottle into a fire. 

1 comment:

Stourley Kracklite said...

I, too, enjoy the Notebook poems. Lowell lets the form fill with a loosening of intention. Perhaps an understanding on his part that time (both as one's remaining and as zeitgeist) preclude grand-standing and grandeur.
But I did come to quibble!
'Crisp' could mean 'dry.' Friends who quarreled the night before may, by morning, be not warm, but civil.
Upon departure "tread, unmoving, like circus poodles dancing on a ball." Here, 'unmoving' may be a not willing to budge emotionally. Yet their minds keep re-hashing the previous night's clashes.
"Something inhuman always rising on us, punching you with embraces" is, I agree, an odd shift from the impersonal 'we' to the impersonal 'you.' I suppose the 'we' may be read as the traditional impersonal, i.e., 'one.' The second perhaps then makes sense as a straightforward 'I.' Just a guess.
I don't think the simile of the broom needs to be descriptively accurate of it from tip of shaft to end of bristle. We can understand the word 'broom' as its handle.
"Straight alcohol" must mean liquor right from the bottle. I can imaging these revelers pouring whiskey (or more likely gin) into glasses with no mixer.
The size and color of a dime. If the point being made is that Lowell ought to have hewed to a straight metaphor, I think that could have worked.
The last five lines "each day" is not Lowell but rather the mood that the anteceding days bring.
It was a pleasure reading your thoughts.