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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Number 33: Robert Lowell "Dolphin"


My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,

a captive as Racine, the man of craft,

drawn through his maze of iron composition

by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.

When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body

caught in its hangman's-knot of sinking lines,

the glassy bowing and scraping of my will. . . .

I have sat and listened to too many

words of the collaborating muse,

and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,

not avoiding injury to others,

not avoiding injury to myself--

to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction, 

an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting

my eyes have seen what my hand did.

Hap Notes: This heartbreaking confessional poem was written towards the end of the tempestuous life of Robert Lowell (1917-1977.) Lowell 's life was difficult and his poetry is even more so. The critic Randall Jarrell and Lowell coined the term "willfully obscure" to define Lowell's poetry (I think Lowell actually said it) and the description fits him the best of any readable poet you will encounter.

Lowell's life was marked with two things: his genius and his mental illness (manic depression-they call it bi-polar disorder now) and they both contribute to the myth of this arguably most influential poet of the last half of the 20th century. His failed marriages (3), his manic attacks, his deep depressions and his poetry were all equally sensational in their day and it's hard to clear off the personal stuff when his poetry is so darn confessional- a genre he pretty much invented. His poetic stylings changed over his career from stiffly formal to the poem we see above- finely wrought and seemingly casual.

The diagnosis of manic depression in this era gets applied to people who are a little too free with their credit cards one day and somewhat morose several days later. That ain't Lowell. This extremely well-read and cultured man had tumultuous attacks that ended up with him in a locked room in a mental institution with no belt or shoelaces so he could not harm himself. He got shock treatment and pumped full of Thorazine before Lithium came onto the market as a popular cure (found to work for the illness in 1949 it was approved for treatment by the FDA in 1970.) After the "cures" he noted that he felt "frizzled, stale and small." He told us that in his poetry. His confessional poetry is moving because he genuinely had something to confess. He made quite a mess of things when he was manic- he was more contentious than usual, thought he was the Virgin Mary or John the Baptist etc., insulted friends and colleagues, flirted with nurses and made plans to run away with them. He was animated and charming and fevered.

He was placed in psychiatric hospitals at least a dozen times over the course of 40 years but in spite of that his children speak of him as a loving father. Former students (he taught writing and literature at Harvard) recall his encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history. He wrestled with every word he wrote. No word, no comma, no phrase, no preposition is there casually.

Let's get to the poem first- just a cursory amount of stuff to get you started. "Dolphin" was an affectionate name he used for his third wife, Guiness heiress Lady Caroline Blackwood. Racine was a favorite writer of Lowell's and "man of craft" and "iron composition" certainly refers to Racine's invention and use of the dodecasyllabic alexandrine (which is a fancy way of saying a 12 syllable meter) and his sharply difficult craftsmanship. A "hang-man's knot" in addition to the usual reference is also a fisherman's knot. There's some fishy stuff in this poem- do you see it?- aside from the eelnet (the fyke net pictured above- see the tapered cone shape of it?) Also fishing oriented is the "craft" and "bowing." Doesn't "eel fighting" sound like awful and terrible work? When he says the book is "half-fiction" what do you suppose that means the other half is, eh? (This caused some trouble because he used actual quotes from loved ones' letters in the poems in this book, The Dolphin- which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974).

It's interesting to note that Racine's pattern of tragedy in his plays is that the characters know about their fatal flaw but can do nothing to change it. Lowell published a verse translation of Racine's Phaedra. Phaedra is a good play- helps if you've read it when looking at the poem but you could just read a summation of it somewhere and get a grip on it. Critics have said that the "Dolphin" is also Lowell's way of symbolizing his love of the universe in the form of his mate.

The poem is heartbreaking because Lowell is asking us all, not just his family and friends, for a bit of forgiveness for his history of storms and horrors. Biographer Ian Hamilton said he didn't think Lowell's poetry was worth the messes he made. But, I defy you to find a more well-wrought poem than "Waking Early Sunday Morning" (which we won't ever do here because there's a book's worth of stuff in it and it's long and we're going for short here.) Even if you don't understand every nuance of Lowell you come away with the feeling that something deep, troubling and important happened in the poem. (And Ian Hamilton was a bloody twit sometimes- just sayin'.)

Much of Lowell's poetry has to do with his Boston ancestry. You know the old verse by Samuel C. Bushnell? "Here's to the city of Boston/ The home of the bean and the cod/ Where the Cabots speak only to Lowells/ And the Lowells speak only to God." He was one of those Lowells; a distinguished family that included writers Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell.

I have a vested interest in Lowell for a variety of reasons. I've been reading Lowell since I was 16 and I always knew there was something I vibrated to that bordered on mystical. When I was diagnosed manic depressive it took me several years to make the connection to Lowell- I can't say I was thinking about him much then. My illness is not as severe as his, I just faced a few boring suicide attempts, a few disrupted neighbors (all that glass breaking) and some scared-out-of-their-wits roommates. This isn't about me, though, it's about Lowell. But I understand the sad damage control that goes with these wearying attacks. And the miserable idiot stupor after it's all over. Lowell's poetry comforted me. (Eat that, Ian Hamilton. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way.)

Lowell died of a heart attack in a cab in New York City. He was going to visit his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick. The lithium was working for him, after so many years of hurricane-like breakdowns. In his hands, he held a portrait of Lady Caroline Blackwood. They had to break his arms to release the portrait.

Here's a couple of good Lowell quotes: "I’m sure that writing isn’t a craft, that is, something for which you learn the skills and go on turning out. It must come from some deep impulse, deep inspiration. That can’t be taught, it can’t be what you use in teaching."

"Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering."

You can find more Lowell here:

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