Sunday, August 3, 2003
New York Elizabeth Hardwick, a birdlike woman who is an esteemed literary critic and novelist, is surrounded by walls of books as she sits in the cavernous Upper West Side apartment she once shared with her late ex-husband, poet Robert Lowell.
She is draped in black and wears bright red flats. Her silver hair is perfectly curled around her face, and she laughs frequently as she remembers the man who died on his way back to her.
Lowell divorced Hardwick in 1972, ending one of the most publicly difficult relationships in literary history. Five years later, the 60-year-old Lowell left England and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, to return to New York and Hardwick.
Anticipating his arrival, Hardwick was leaning out the window when a taxi pulled up in front of the apartment building. The building's elevator man opened the taxi door, peered inside, and yelled up to Hardwick, "Mr. Lowell is inside, but he's not moving."
Hardwick said she ran to the taxi and raced to a hospital, where Lowell was pronounced dead of heart failure. Hardwick now describes the horrifying sequence with a small smile.
"So, that was sad," she finishes, calmly.
At 87, Hardwick seems far removed from her turbulent relationship with Lowell which, due to his tendency to rewrite his life in his poetry, was presented for all the world to read. Many, including poet Adrienne Rich, condemned Lowell's use of such personal items as Hardwick's letters in his poems. But Hardwick maintains that it never bothered her, "because I got to read them first."
Given the dominance Lowell achieved in his lifetime, it must have seemed as if the whole world was peering over her shoulder, as Lowell described his severe bouts with manic depression and his extramarital affairs.
Since his death, however, Lowell's reputation, once unparalleled in American poetry, has fallen on hard times.
"It's less that people have a poor opinion of Lowell. It's more that he tends to be ignored," says poet Richard Tillinghast, who was a graduate student of Lowell's at Harvard University from 1962 to 1968 and is the author of "Robert Lowell's Life and Work."
Tillinghast describes Lowell as one of the great poets of the 20th century, along with T.S. Eliot and Lowell's close friend, Elizabeth Bishop. But Lowell has been somewhat denigrated since his death. Much has been made of his failed marriages and illness, and his intense, larger-than-life personality -- often at the sake of close readings of his work.
Such a backlash is natural, according to Tillinghast and Hardwick, who both believe Lowell's reputation is due to rebound. Tillinghast points to recent interest in Lowell as a political poet as evidence of an impending resurgence.
Lowell's rise will be aided by the publication of the massive "Robert Lowell: Collected Poems." Edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, the book is close to 1,200 pages long, including almost 200 pages of notes and 11 of Lowell's poetry volumes, plus "Land of Unlikeness," which Lowell refused to reprint after its 1944 publication.
More than 15 years in the making, the collection has been a Herculean task. A poet who says he is neither an editor nor a scholar, Bidart found the process exhausting. But he felt the collection was something he owed Lowell.
Bidart, a Harvard graduate student in the 1960s, developed a friendship with Lowell in 1966, when the poet was hospitalized after a breakdown due to manic depression. By 1970, Bidart was periodically living with Lowell, serving as reader and editor.
A prolific writer, the perfectionist Lowell was also an obsessive rewriter, often publishing multiple versions of the same poem as new possibilities occurred to him. Bidart and his researchers had to examine every version of each poem to note important differences and determine which should serve as the main text. This alone took several years. Then came the notes, an essential component of the collection. Lowell's poems are often dense, and for those unfamiliar with his subject matter, the allusions can be dizzying.
Lowell's "Commander Lowell" is one of a series of autobiographical poems in the 1959 "Life Studies," a watershed volume that dramatically reshaped modern poetry in both form and content. The National Book Award winner ushered in a school of "confessional" free verse poetry that remains dominant today.
This change is ironic, given Lowell's disgust for the implications of helpless emotiveness and lack of craft in the term confessional writing, not to mention his mastery over meter and rhyme.
"He's much more of a classical poet than a lyricist," says Hardwick, Lowell's former wife. "He wrote in blank verse and also just in unrhymed verse, but he really was a metrician of the classic sort. He was very learned."
'Changed the game'
Born in 1917 to one of Boston's oldest, most prominent families, Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV's lineage includes poets James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell. His heritage shaped him even as he rebelled against it.
Set on a career in poetry from an early age, Lowell spent two years at Harvard before bucking family tradition to study with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College in Ohio.
"Harvard was really not as important in his life as Kenyon," Hardwick says. "Kenyon was the beginning of the closest friendships of his life, with poets Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor and, particularly, the great poet Mr. Ransome."
After graduating in 1940, Lowell studied with Robert Penn Warren at Louisiana State University. That year, he converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism and married writer Jean Stafford.
Lowell published "Land of Unlikeness" in 1944, followed in 1946 by the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lord Weary's Castle." He received a second Pulitzer in 1973, for "The Dolphin," and a 1977 National Book Award Critics Circle Award for his final collection, "Day by Day."
As his literary stature grew, he made headlines for his political stances against war and for civil rights.
In 1965, Lowell, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1947-48, publicly refused President Johnson's invitation to a White House Arts Festival to protest the Vietnam War. His defiance was recalled earlier this year, when two other former poets laureate, Rita Dove and Stanley Kunitz, declined first lady Laura Bush's invitation to a Feb. 12 White House forum on "Poetry and the American Voice."
Like most great innovators, Lowell sometimes doubted the value of his contribution to poetry. But he understood that he had opened the door to a new world of poetic possibilities.
As Bidart remembers, "He once said to me, I don't know the value of what I've written, but I know that I've changed the game."