THE LETTERS OF ROBERT LOWELL
Edited by Saskia Hamilton
Farrar Straus Giroux. 852 pp. $40
A WILD PERFECTION
The Selected Letters of James Wright
Edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley with Jonathan Blunk
Farrar Straus Giroux. 633 pp. $40
Two major poets, two volumes of letters: Robert Lowell, certainly one of the best poets of his generation and the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes; James Wright, 10 years younger with a Pulitzer of his own. Similar careers, starting with graduation with honors from Kenyon College after studying with John Crowe Ransom. But they got to Kenyon in different ways. Lowell came from one of the oldest families in Boston, an exclusive prep school and two years at Harvard. Wright came from an obscure family in a dismal town on the Ohio River and went to college on the G.I. Bill.
Both married about the time of graduation, published their first major books at age 29 and wrote spontaneous, unrevised letters, primarily to other poets, with a considerable overlap in correspondents. Both deepened their talents during the wrenching revolution in poetry in the late 1950s. Both abused alcohol. And both suffered debilitating mental illnesses.
Lowell began as a follower of the difficult and impersonal modern poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and although Eliot published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" the year Lowell was born and Pound was older still, Lowell eventually corresponded with both. But when the Beats arrived like a fresh breeze through a broken window, Lowell became more open, simpler and more self-revealing in his great collection Life Studies. Allen Ginsberg and friends even came to visit him once; Lowell described the visit as perplexing, but readers will probably find it high comedy. Unfortunately, he almost never wrote detailed letters about his poetic processes, and the reasoning that led to his personal revolution remains obscure.
Meanwhile, Wright went through a revolution of his own, fully dramatized in his letters during the second half of 1959, which take up a fifth of this collection -- a wise decision on the part of the editors, Anne Wright, his second wife, and Saundra Rose Maley. His intense correspondence at that time with his contemporaries James Dickey, Robert Bly and Donald Hall convinced him that he should try to abandon his earlier models, the traditional metric forms of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson. This conversion was an epic struggle: "I am trapped by the very thing -- the traditional technique -- which I labored so hard to attain." After thinking of giving up poetry altogether, he had a breakthrough: "I have a new son, and I am in touch with poetry again -- not metrical tricks, but the fire of the daemon!"
Too often the brilliance of our best authors is credited to some kind of mental problem rather than to their genius, but how should we deal with a poet who actually had a mental illness? When Wright was asked to write about his friend Anne Sexton, he replied that her suicide was "a totally meaningless pain in the ass": "The thing to concentrate on is the poetry itself." The same, of course, should apply to Lowell and Wright.
But a collection of correspondence is a form of biography. While Lowell was strikingly able to recollect his illness in the tranquility of some of his best poetry, he wrote some of these letters while in the throes of his attacks. Here the pattern of Lowell's breakdowns is clear: He would become interested in Hitler or Napoleon, begin an affair, declare to everyone that he and his current wife had agreed on an amiable divorce and finally create bizarre public scenes; then he would be hospitalized, return to normal, apologize to his wife and friends and drop the new girlfriend. It makes for harrowing reading.
Lowell's editor, Saskia Hamilton, notes that although "many people who knew him judged his manic behavior as a moral failing," his family and friends "thought that his 'real' self was the person they knew when he was well." Nevertheless, a well Lowell was still a difficult person. He kept his prep-school nickname, Cal (for Caligula), throughout his life. He was often domineering, arrogant and controversial. This collection begins with a confident 1936 letter to Pound in Italy, asking to be taken on as an apprentice and playing his trump card, a family connection from Pound's early days: "I am 19, a freshman at Harvard, and some relation, I don't know what, to Amy Lowell." In the middle of World War II, after first trying to enlist, he became a conscientious objector; the politics seem bizarre, but his letter to President Roosevelt is a masterpiece. During the Vietnam War, he privately accepted an invitation to the White House but publicly took it back in a published letter to President Johnson. He also published outrageously inaccurate translations of famous poems and didn't seem to care: "It's a mistake to invent something [in] one's translating only if faithfulness does better." Worse, after their divorce, he quoted Elizabeth Hardwick's letters in his poems although he had promised not to: "It's oddly enough a technical problem as well as a gentleman's problem," he wrote defensively to his friend Elizabeth Bishop. "How can the story be told at all without the letters."
Obviously, Lowell was no gentleman. Still, he was courteous and certainly interesting. His long series of letters to fellow poet Bishop shows him at his best, full of interest in his correspondent and in communicating his own feelings, with cheerful gossip about other poets as a happy bonus.
Touchingly, Wright wrote to his high school teachers throughout his life. Like Lowell, he corresponded with Theodore Roethke, another manic-depressive poet, who was his professor in Seattle, and with Allen Tate and John Berryman, who taught with him in Minneapolis. Wright gushes, announcing in these letters that 50 different contemporary poets are magnificent or about to become so. A letter to the president of his college sounds like sheer toadyism: "Oh, Arnold, I am deeply moved by the beauty of the plan you've asked me to help you to fulfill." After being invited to sit in on one of Lowell's seminars, Wright wrote: "Simply being invited was something that I can regard without hesitation as one of the few genuine honors I have ever been given." Together with these rather desperate attempts to flatter his correspondents, Wright often denigrates his own work ("that damn asinine book of mine") and his own person ("I am a cynic, a bad man, a hopeless, a brute"). His letters occasionally find him in the depth of an attack, "clutching about desperately for something that might keep me coherent until I can get to the doctor," or after a sleepless night "trying to summon up my forces of language and clarity so I can talk with the doctor over in Minneapolis." But otherwise we see the results of his worst days only in retrospect: "I was so god damned miserable that the only thing I could do was translate Theodor Storm from German, have a bad love affair, get sick, go to a hospital, . . . get habitually drunk, teach very well when I could bring myself to make a class, and, naturally, get fired." Suicide was often not far from his mind.
What did the two poets think of each other? Although Lowell never mentioned Wright in the letters published here, he did invite him to teach at his Harvard poetry seminar. And Wright wrote after hearing Lowell speak, "Though he is probably the world's worst public performer, he certainly is an appealing man. His poems are magnificent." *
Charles Nicol, a reviewer for over 40 years, has just retired from Indiana State University.