Lowell Lecture

You could argue (I would!) that Howl is the most important volume of poetry to appear in the U.S. since World War II. It sold over 250,000 copies by the end of "the Sixties" (i.e. about 1974), and along with the Beat Movement in general, Allen Ginsberg had a huge influence on what we call "the Sixties" (i.e. the counter culture). On the other hand, it's a cliche of contemporary criticism that "the most important volume of poems to appear in the U.S. since W.W. II is Robert Lowell's Life Studies" -- because of its influence on contemporary poetry. RL's book is commonly cited as the first example of "confessional poetry," which since 1959 (the year Life Studies appeared) has probably been the most prevalent mode of American poetry.

The label "confessional" was first used in criticism in a review of Life Studies by M.L. Rosenthal. By it he was referring to a poetry that reveals to its readers aspects of the poet's private life that would conventionally be kept hidden, unless one were confessing to a priest (or in therapy with a psychiatrist). Ginsberg's Howl is full of such disclosures -- homosexuality, madness, drug use -- and Ginsberg actually refers to his poetic self as "confessing" (line 75). RL himself acknowledged Ginsberg's influence on the "new" poetry he began writing after being exposed to the Beat movement. But at the same time, the way Ginsberg uses the "I" in Howl is like the way Whitman uses the self in his poetry -- as a representative, exemplary self, as much imaginative as autobiographical. The premise of modern Confessional Poetry is that readers are getting "true," specific details from the poet's life.

We talked at the start of the semester about how Dickinson's poetry is rooted in her most private feelings & thoughts. One reason I wanted to end with RL & Plath & Sexton is because we began with Dickinson. I'm always amazed that accounts of Confessional Poetry hardly ever mention Dickinson's example, although the Johnson edition of her complete poems came out in the mid-1950s; Sylvia Plath read those poems, & someone like RL would at least have been aware of them. But at the same time, as we said in January, Dickinson suppresses the biographical "I" -- the literal events that occasion her feelings of loss or death or joy. In typical Confessional poetry, the reader gets an often uncomfortably detailed revelation of dramas in childhood, attacks of madness, infidelities in marriage, and so on.

Our anthology doesn't include much from Life Studies. But I tried to show how in "Skunk Hour" & "Memories of West Street" RL articulates the project we call "Confessional." "Skunk Hour" begins with a sense of cultural malaise ("the season's ill") reminiscent of Eliot's Modernist indictment of modernity, but in the second half moves right into the realm of Confessional poetry with its "confession" that "my mind's not right." RL wrote "Skunk Hour" first of the autobiographical poems in Life Studies; in the image of the skunk who sticks her head into the garbage unflinchingly the poem offers an image of what RL as poet of his past life -- the psychic "trash" that amounts to his "self" -- will try to do: by digging into that "garbage," he'll try to make it yield some kind of nourishment.

"West Street" again mentions "trash," but mainly defines that project in terms of making "connections" -- here between the earlier self who had known what he stood for, could make his "manic statement" & act on his beliefs, & the grown man with a daughter who nonetheless seems "sentenced" somehow to a sense of alienation from life. The poem ends with Lepke in West Street jail -- in begins with the poet in the house on Marlborough Street. He knows why Lepke is in jail -- but what is the poet "in" for? The poem suggests that if he can connect, can understand the relationship between his present & his past ("ought I to regret my seedtime?" "agonizing reappraisal"), it will represent a kind of pardon or reprieve. That private quest, for something akin to psychological therapy, seems the end at which most of RL's poems in Life Studies aim.

I ended by talking about RL as a reluctant confessionalist: "For the Union Dead" was published in his next book after Life Studies; there, although his childhood/adult life are used to organize the poem, the past and present he's most interested in is (as in Modernism) cultural/historical/social -- the gap between the heroic sacrifice someone like Shaw made for the republic, and the present age of "savage servility." In general, in most of his poetry before and after Life Studies, RL as poet is more interested in history & society. And by the standards of subsequent confessional poets, the accounts of private experience in Life Studies are fairly decorous (though among the poems not in our anthology are poems of madness, infidelity, etc.). But the example of RL's book, and the way it turns inward to the private self as both the subject and the project, was very influential.

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