The Journey of a Maker

Frank Bidart, editor of Robert Lowell's Collected Poems, talks about Lowell's unending search for art's different possibilities

Robert Lowell: Collected Poems
edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
1,200 pages, $45.00

Robert Lowell's Collected Poems, almost twelve hundred pages, has recently been published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, twenty-five years after the poet's death. It's an extraordinary book because it gives us an extraordinary writer's work, but it's also an ingenious book, a brilliant contraption for understanding Lowell's achievement. I don't know another book like it: in one volume, the editors have collected all of Lowell's poems and all the significant variants, along with generous appendices, and, perhaps most crucially, 150 pages of notes that open Lowell's densely referential poems to the common reader.

The notes are a kind of biography of Lowell's mind, and it helps that they were written by someone who knew that mind intimately: his friend and this volume's editor (with David Gewanter), the poet Frank Bidart. Bidart was Lowell's amanuensis, his sounding board, and, as becomes clear at several moments in the notes, his Boswell. The scholarship here is impressive (scholarship in its widest sense, which captures Lowell's full range of reference, from Big Joe Turner to Tacitus), but it's the passionate engagement with a mind, above and beyond scholarly rigor, that sets these notes apart.

Collecting a poet is an act of inclusion, but it's also an enactment of preference: a preference for this poet and not another, for this version of a poem or line over other versions. Bidart is unflinching about his preferences. There's a polemical introduction that places Lowell in the tradition of twentieth-century "makers"—artists whose drive to transform materials, and to transform the very way materials are transformed, was paramount. This is an original point about Lowell, who too often is dismissed as a "confessional" writer, a memoirist, a ledger-keeper of juicy personal bits. No one who reads Lowell today for titillation will be satisfied. Bidart argues convincingly that art, not candor, makes a poem, and that Lowell's seeming candor was always intensely artful. Lowell must therefore be read for his poetic genius, not his capacity to shock.

I sat down with Bidart in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurant. He and I are friends, but this night was unlike other nights, and not merely because of the presence of the tape recorder. The book is the culmination of many years of work for Bidart, work that began, meaningfully, when he and Lowell first met in 1966. On this night you sensed what joy it must be to have finished this book, but also what sadness, as Bidart is again, as at Lowell's death, thrust outside the circle of his friend's influence.

Your book puts some distance between Lowell and the idea of "confessional poetry." Lowell has always been considered a central figure in confessional poetry. What, for you, is inadequate about the term? There are so many things wrong with the term "confessional" that it's hard to know where to begin. The central thing wrong with it is that it doesn't acknowledge that poems are shaped works of art, a series of choices—a fiction. It implies that the poem is a kind of helpless outpouring, and proceeds from guilt towards expiation—

And that the poem is rather beside the point—

That the art is beside the point. That was never true of Lowell. First of all the poems are fictions that present at times invented material, or material taken from other peoples' lives. They're constructs. They're constructs in the service of telling the truth, but they do what art has always done—that is, lie to tell the truth. Lowell kept stretching the ways that a poem can be made.

Made means more than "made up"?

It can include "made up." The imagination of new ways that the elements of a poem can be put together.

It doesn't quite mean "crafted," though.

If craft means merely a kind of workmanlike making, that doesn't describe Lowell

What was Lowell's own response to being called "confessional"?

He hated the term. He always rebelled against it. It's a term that puts you in a little box, dismisses you. It implies, "I can see around this person's particular enterprise." There are traditionally very honorific meanings to the term, as in Augustine's Confessions—the rehearsal of the crucial events in the making of one's soul. But that's not what people mean when they talk about confessional poetry.

Lowell's seriousness, his appetite to ingest, to swallow the world, constantly forced him to re-imagine ways of making a poem. He'd invent one way, very powerfully, and then, as in Life Studies, totally re-imagine it. His work continued to change. Near the Ocean is another re-imagination, as are the sonnets, as is Day by Day. Very few poets are capable of again and again inventing how to make a poem from the bottom up. He's a little like Stravinsky—part of the interest in the career is seeing the changes, the logic in the changes, so that one feels implicated in the journey that this maker is on, as he moves through different possibilities for his art.

Part of the logic of making, then, is remaking. Yeats says, "It is myself that I remake." Did he ever take this process of remaking too far? Was there ever a recklessness about remaking? Did you ever feel that you were correcting Lowell's own excesses in editing this book?

No. Lowell often said, Though you may gain something in revision, you also lose something. So it's in the nature of things not to satisfy in every detail when you revise. In general, I think he revised very well.

One of the singular things about this book is that you print not only the "finished"—whatever that might mean—versions of poems, but also other, earlier ones. How are we to treat such alternate versions? Wouldn't Lowell want us to attend to the finished and final version of his poems?

I don't think he had a sense of "finished." Ever. He liked to quote Auden that a poem is not finished but abandoned. As I said, there are often wonderful things lost on the way to making a "final" version. Therefore the notes.

If you'd been editing another poet, say Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, you might not have chosen to include these provisional versions?

That's true. With Bishop, in fact, there are not many examples of published variants.

So once the canvas was on the wall, she never pulled it down to change it.

Very, very rarely. She'd often keep a poem for a long time before she thought of it as finished—she worked on "The Moose" for fifteen or twenty years. There's an exception to this: "The End of March," as it first appeared in The New Yorker, had a somewhat different ending from the one she finally arrived at. I bring this up, I admit, because I helped save the ending. Between the time she sent the poem to The New Yorker and when they published it, she revised the last stanza. She dictated the new lines to me over the phone, and I thought they definitely were better. When the poem appeared in The New Yorker, she realized that she had never sent them the revision. The galleys of Geography III were set from a copy of the magazine. Seeing the galleys, I reminded her that she had changed the final lines. She had forgotten; in some sense, when she at last finished any poem, her mind moved past it. I gave it back to her, and it's the ending that appears in the final book.

In some cases here you do go against Lowell's expressed wishes. For example, you reprint Lowell's first book, Land of Unlikeness—a book he wrote when he was in his mid-twenties, and never allowed to be reprinted. In your mind, is there anything personally anguishing or ethically strange about doing so?

I think he would not now mind. He didn't want it to appear as his "first book," in effect with his imprimatur. So we printed it in an appendix. It would be rather odd—pretentious—of an author to publish his own first book in an appendix.

But I am certain he thought it an absolute inevitability that, if the future took him seriously, the book would be reprinted. If a writer matters to you, you want to see by what journey he or she came to make the things you love. In the Collected, there are a few cases where the version in the main text is not Lowell's final one—a stanza break in one poem, a few words here and there—but the "final" version is reprinted in the notes.

Did he ever speak to you about editing his poems, eventually?

No. But he once said to me something wonderful that at least tangentially bears on the issue. We were discussing the Thompson biography of Frost, which he thought of as loathsome, meanspirited. He turned to me and said, "I don't care what you write about me after I'm dead, as long as it's serious."

He was a man of breathtaking candor in life, and as long as what one said to him was serious, you could say anything. I once asked him something, and immediately said that I was worried that what I had asked was too personal. He said, "We are personal."

You were integrally involved in the production of Lowell's last four books. Can you talk about what it was like to "edit" him when he was alive?

I didn't "edit" him if that means making decisions. I was simply a sounding board. He invited opinions from many people. It was, of course, one of the fundamental, transformative events of my life that he took my opinions seriously. Not that he always agreed with me, but he found them useful. My involvement with the physical production of the books, from Notebook on, was different in each case. Day by Day, his last book, I saw through the press. The 1973 sonnet books (For Lizzie and Harriet, History, and The Dolphin) were set in England. The English printers at that time were careless. I was sent a set of galleys, which I corrected; but of course in his set he made many, many changes. The final books were full of grotesque errors—repeated lines; some poems were just hash. But Day by Day was set in America, and I was in constant contact with the publishers. I saw several sets of galleys. He did not read galleys carefully, for accuracy—he just could not—but always made a lot of revisions. To get these revisions incorporated accurately one had to obsessively check and recheck galleys. Not one of his arts.

It's somewhat rare for a writer to make substantive changes to a book that late in production, isn't it?

I think he did it much more than most writers. But not more than Proust.

Do you do that?

No. I did, with the notes for the Collected, make many revisions in the galleys—I think I drove Farrar, Straus completely crazy. I was making revisions until the very last minute. I am not a scholar, never wanted to be a scholar; but I am, you could say, obsessive about details. Oh, not obsessive—serious.

I want to talk about Lowell's difficulty. If you come to Lowell naively, or perhaps come to him trained on another kind of contemporary poem, he might seem quite difficult—there's a lot of allusion and scholarly reference, for example. One of the things your book makes possible is to hear what Lowell heard. For example, there's a poem in Day by Day ("Morning after Dining with a Friend") where, as your notes make clear, these very colloquial-seeming, unprepossessing lines are actually a nested quote—a quote of Eliot, from Four Quartets, quoting Mallarme. When you have this immensely embedded, immensely nested intelligence—within"books," within texts, what's the common reader to do?

That's the reason we did this book with such extensive notes. The notes by no means say everything there is to say; what I hope to do is give a kind of bare minimum that allows you to read the poems as poems. But I don't really think of Lowell as a difficult poet. We live now in a time when the referentiality of words has been brought into question, and therefore seemingly can't be the ground of speech; when so many poems become merely about linguistic matters, and not about the world. Words themselves have become almost a closed-system. That's not Lowell at all. He's constantly questioning the relationship between words and things, to be sure; but there's also this constant pressure exerted by the world. There's so much "world" in Lowell, world that cannot be put by. I think there's more "world" in Lowell than in practically any other American poet.

It strikes me that many of Lowell's poems are staged as problems of intelligibility: the world is out there, but seeing it is a little hard. His glasses have fallen off, or (as in "For the Union Dead") the windows are boarded up. How to inhabit a common world is one big issue for Lowell—when the deficiencies of private life keep us from even seeing it clearly.

In Lowell there's very much a sense of a common world that we inevitably share, whatever our differences. In one of his best political poems, "Fall 1961," there's a moment, "All autumn, the chafe and jar/ of nuclear war;/ we have talked our extinction to death." One of the extraordinary things about those lines is that he can generalize with a kind of focused authority about a collective political experience. And I have to say, I give him assent at that point.

What underwrites that authority? Because some would say it's unearned, or presumptuous, or the consequence of his privilege.

I don't believe that. You know, Elizabeth Bishop, who is a great poet and perhaps the friend that Lowell most loved, is quite wrong on this issue. She implies in a famous letter to him that all he needs to do is "put down the names"—of his famous ancestors and relatives—and the poem has a kind of authority. But that's just not true. Naming family members who have names with historical resonance is simply one of the parameters Lowell faced in trying to write a poem—as much an aesthetic problem as an aesthetic opportunity. The fact is there are lots and lots of people named Lowell in the world who do not make good poems.

In fact, we might be more dismissive of poems that depend on namedropping. The bar seems almost higher if poems do that kind of thing.

Yes. In no way does naming famous ancestors solve the problem of making a poem with any power or generality at its base.

I'd like to change gears. Some people would say that Lowell's reputation has had a falling off, perhaps even a large falling off, since his death. Is there something inevitable about that, as though any poet so famous in his life will suffer a correction after his death? Or is it something about his poems within our current literary climate? And is it likely to change?

Well, there's no question there's been a falling off. The same thing happened to Eliot after his death. Any poet who's had a kind of hegemony suffers this after death, or perhaps even during his life. The question is, is it permanent? I don't think so; too many people have said to me that they think Lowell is a major writer, that there's something unjust about his having disappeared from, say, the MFA map.

So particularly among young poets, you feel he's not an available model.

Among the youngest of them, he's not. They just haven't been taught him the way they would have been taught him when he was alive.

Of course the corollary is, often poets who are not terrifically popular during their lives become more so after their deaths. In some ways the more famous poet now is Bishop—which wasn't true in her lifetime and Lowell's. Bishop was a kind of coterie poet, a "poet's poet," wasn't she?

One of the terrible ironies about the history of taste is that these reversals can happen so brutally and totally. During their lifetimes, Lowell got much more attention. They published their first books in the same year; he won the Pulitzer Prize. He helped her get prizes, and so on, throughout her life. He always said that she was his favorite contemporary. But she was very much a caviar taste. Ashbery, O'Hara, Merrill—poets—adored her work. Only in the last few years of her life did things begin to change in a large public way.

The size of Lowell's reputation had not only to do with the distinction of the work—which, to my eyes, is enormous, he's clearly a great poet—but also with the history of the art, and even his political stances (his refusal to attend President Johnson's Arts Festival at the White House, related to his opposition to the Vietnam War). He was a seminal figure in the movement toward writing about family. Even James Merrill's work changed after Life Studies. Family became simply one of the possible themes for one's poetry after Life Studies, part of the available subject matter.

So for many reasons, an audience was created that could see the virtues of Lowell's work. Bishop did not have those things working for her. But after her death, she suddenly had equivalent things. She was overshadowed, undervalued in her lifetime; later there was the desire to right that wrong. Her last book is perhaps her best book. (It's my favorite, though one doesn't have to choose: perhaps no writer has so few poems that don't quite work.) It's her most obviously intimate book. The advent of many other things—gender politics, the emphasis on women's writing, "queer theory"—helped people want to hear the radical freshness at the center of her work, hear its ambition that is unannounced but huge. But why large numbers of people can take in what before they couldn't take in remains a mystery.

It's as though poetry has to intersect somehow with politics. One of the ways it becomes broadly intelligible is for it to cross politics somehow.

Literary politics, at least. One forgets now the enormous power of first reading and seeing O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. The play clearly is based on O'Neill's family, on material commonly thought of as "shameful." O'Neill would not allow it to be published or performed while he was alive. In any case, within a fairly short time, too many bad poems called "confessional" dominated the magazines, and the fashion passed out of fashion.

It sounds like what you're saying is that there was a moment—in the late-fifties, say—when it was possible to write about family life. A kind of blip, and then it's over, and poetry moves on, and one had better move on with it.

No, just that "confessional poetry" as a separate nameable and blameable style ended. After very different books, Louise Glück can write a book about the death of her father, called Ararat, and not be accused of being a confessional poet.

There's an oblique angle there. Even in Lowell's own work, when later in his career he's not "doing" family straight—he's doing it as myth, for example, as in "Ulysses and Circe."

Robert Hass can write a poem called "My Mother's Nipples"—that's not myth, not an oblique angle, but it's not "confessional" either. Readers take it simply as one of the images or issues he'd kept out of his work that now makes it in.

You were working on your own poems, writing your first two books, while helping Lowell put his last books together. Were you often in the room with him as he was composing?

Yeah. Sure.

Reading over drafts as he made them?

Yes. And responding.

Immediately? To something he'd just done, there in the room?

Yes. Or done the night before, say.

And you were very candid with him.

Yes. I would have been useless had I not been candid.

Were you afraid?

No... No. He made one not afraid. He craved an honest response. He used to say that the best reader is someone who is crazy about your work, but doesn't like all of it. That described me.

Was your value to him premised on the idea that you were a poet as well? Was he aware of your poems?

Oh, yes, extremely aware.

Was he a good reader of others' work?

A very complicated question. Very complicated! He could make great, incisive suggestions. But he was aware that most of his suggestions I didn't take; it was a joke between us. Couldn't take. The prosody of my poems was too different from his own. It was very important to me that he respected my poems. But I did not expect him to love them, or understand my prosody. I think I did understand his prosody. My guess is that something like this is common between different generations of poets. Nothing is more fundamental in a writer than prosody. The syntax of making, the pulse beneath or within the lines, the way lines and sentences and poems cohere. Or don't.

As a young poet, you must have been aware of things in Lowell to use, and things one must not use.

I just knew it would be death to imitate him.

Or anyone...

Well, I wasn't saying, "I must not imitate this." What I was saying was a little different: I was saying to myself, "I know I will not imitate this."

Because your selves were just wired differently?

Whatever Lowell was doing he was doing—I didn't want to write the poems that he already was writing. Whatever I had to say (and I couldn't say exactly what that was, but I felt that it was there) was different. I didn't know what I next or later would end up making, but in some brute way I knew it would be different.

What should young poets learn from Lowell that they haven't yet learned?

Oh, God. What they should do is read Lowell. One should follow one's appetites. Where does one's mind want to go. If there's food there, one will want it. If not, not. Every writer must face that test. Every generation has to decide for itself if, I don't know, Dante's really any good. They're told he is; is he? Can you learn from him?

There's no ought here. It happens. Keats learned the most profound things from Shakespeare. Nobody could have told him that he must do that. He tried others, and learned much from others. The one he returned to, learned most from, was Shakespeare. There's nothing to fear here. The Odes aren't Shakespeare. Even Shakespeare couldn't have written them.