Interviews

Robert Lowell, The Art of Poetry No. 3

Interviewed by Frederick Seidel

On one wall of Mr. Lowell’s study was a large portrait of Ezra Pound, the tired, haughty outlines of the face concentrated as in the raised outlines of a ring seal in an enlargement. Also bearded, but on another wall, over the desk, James Russell Lowell looked down from a gray old-fashioned photograph on the apex of the triangle thus formed, where his great-grandnephew sat and answered questions.

Mr. Lowell had been talking about the classes he teaches at Boston University.

Four floors below the study window, cars whined through the early spring rain on Marlborough Street toward the Boston Public Garden.

 

INTERVIEWER

What are you teaching now?

ROBERT LOWELL

I’m teaching one of these poetry-writing classes and a course in the novel. The course in the novel is called Practical Criticism. It’s a course I teach every year, but the material changes. It could be anything from Russian short stories to Baudelaire, a study of the New Critics, or just fiction. I do whatever I happen to be working on myself.

INTERVIEWER

Has your teaching over the last few years meant anything to you as a writer?

LOWELL

It’s meant a lot to me as a human being, I think. But my teaching is part-time and has neither the merits nor the burdens of real teaching. Teaching is entirely different from writing. You’re always up to it, or more or less up to it; there’s no question of its clogging, of its not coming. It’s much less subjective, and it’s a very pleasant pursuit in itself. In the kind of teaching I do, conversational classes, seminars, if the students are good, which they’ve been most of the time, it’s extremely entertaining. Now, I don’t know what it has to do with writing. You review a lot of things that you like, and you read things that you haven’t read or haven’t read closely, and read them aloud, go into them much more carefully than you would otherwise; and that must teach you a good deal. But there’s such a jump from teaching to writing.

INTERVIEWER

Well, do you think the academic life is liable to block up the writer-professor’s sensitivity to his own intuitions?

LOWELL

I think it’s impossible to give a general answer. Almost all the poets of my generation, all the best ones, teach. I only know one, Elizabeth Bishop, who doesn’t. They do it for a livelihood, but they also do it because you can’t write poetry all the time. They do it to extend themselves, and I think it’s undoubtedly been a gain to them. Now the question is whether something else might be more of a gain. Certainly the danger of teaching is that it’s much too close to what you’re doing—close and not close. You can get expert at teaching and be crude in practice. The revision, the consciousness that tinkers with the poem—that has something to do with teaching and criticism. But the impulse that starts a poem and makes it of any importance is distinct from teaching.

INTERVIEWER

And protected, you think, from whatever you bring to bear in the scrutiny of parts of poems and aspects of novels, etc.?

LOWELL

I think you have to tear it apart from that. Teaching may make the poetry even more different, less academic than it would be otherwise. 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. And you may go further afield looking for that than you would if you didn’t teach. I don’t know, really; the teaching probably makes you more cautious, more self-conscious, makes you write less. It may make you bolder when you do write.

INTERVIEWER

You think the last may be so?

LOWELL

The boldness is ambiguous. It’s not only teaching, it’s growing up in this age of criticism which we’re all so conscious of, whether we like it or don’t like it, or practice it or don’t practice it. You think three times before you put a word down, and ten times about taking it out. And that’s related to boldness; if you put words down they must do something, you’re not going to put clichés. But then it’s related to caution; you write much less.

INTERVIEWER

You yourself have written very little criticism, haven’t you? You did once contribute to a study of Hopkins.

LOWELL

Yes, and I’ve done a few omnibus reviews. I do a review or two a year.

INTERVIEWER

You did a wonderful one of Richards’s poems.

LOWELL

I felt there was an occasion for that, and I had something to say about it. Sometimes I wish I did more, but I’m very anxious in criticism not to do the standard analytical essay. I’d like my essay to be much sloppier and more intuitive. But my friends are critics, and most of them poet-critics. When I was twenty and learning to write, Allen Tate, Eliot, Blackmur, and Winters, and all those people were very much news. You waited for their essays, and when a good critical essay came out it had the excitement of a new imaginative work.

INTERVIEWER

Which is really not the case with any of the critics writing today, do you think?

LOWELL

The good critics are almost all the old ones. The most brilliant critic of my generation, I think, was Jarrell, and he in a way connects with that older generation. But he’s writing less criticism now than he used to.

INTERVIEWER

In your schooling at St. Mark’s and Harvard—we can talk about Kenyon in a minute—were there teachers or friends who had an influence on your writing, not so much by the example of their own writing as by personal supervision or direction—by suggesting certain reading, for instance?

LOWELL

Well, my school had been given a Carnegie set of art books, and I had a friend, Frank Parker, who had great talent as a painter but who’d never done it systematically. We began reading the books and histories of art, looking at reproductions, tracing the Last Supper on tracing paper, studying dynamic symmetry, learning about Cézanne, and so on. I had no practical interest in painting, but that study seemed rather close to poetry. And from there I began. I think I read Elizabeth Drew or some such book on modern poetry. It had free verse in it, and that seemed very simple to do.

INTERVIEWER

What class were you in then?

LOWELL

It was my last year. I’d wanted to be a football player very much, and got my letter but didn’t make the team. Well, that was satisfying but crushing too. I read a good deal, but had never written. So this was a recoil from that. Then I had some luck in that Richard Eberhart was teaching there.

INTERVIEWER

I’d thought he’d been a student there with you.

LOWELL

No, he was a young man about thirty. I never had him in class, but I used to go to him. He’d read aloud and we’d talk, he was very pleasant that way. He’d smoke honey-scented tobacco, and read Baudelaire and Shakespeare and Hopkins—it made the thing living—and he’d read his own poems. I wrote very badly at first, but he was encouraging and enthusiastic. That probably was decisive, that there was someone there whom I admired who was engaged in writing poetry.

INTERVIEWER

I heard that a very early draft of “The Drunken Fisherman” appeared in the St. Mark’s magazine.

LOWELL

No, it was the Kenyon college magazine that published it. The poem was very different then. I’d been reading Winters, whose model was Robert Bridges, and what I wanted was a rather distant, quiet, classical poem without any symbolism. It was in four-foot couplets as smooth as I could write them. The Kenyon Review had published a poem of mine and then they’d stopped. This was the one time they said, if you’d submitted this we’d have taken it.

INTERVIEWER

Then you were submitting other poems to the Review?

LOWELL

Yes, and that poem was rather different from anything else I did. I was also reading Hart Crane and Thomas and Tate and Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity; and each poem was more difficult than the one before, and had more ambiguities. Ransom, editing the Kenyon Review, was impressed, but didn’t want to publish them. He felt they were forbidding and clotted.

INTERVIEWER

But finally he did come through.

LOWELL

Well, after I’d graduated. I published when I was a junior, then for about three years no magazine would take anything I did. I’d get sort of pleasant letters—”One poem in this group interests us, if you can get seven more.” At that time it took me about a year to do two or three poems. Gradually I just stopped, and really sort of gave it up. I seemed to have reached a great impasse. The kind of poem I thought was interesting and would work on became so cluttered and overdone that it wasn’t really poetry.

INTERVIEWER

I was struck on reading Land of Unlikeness by the difference between the poems you rejected for Lord Weary’s Castle and the few poems and passages that you took over into the new book.

LOWELL

I think I took almost a third, but almost all of what I took was rewritten. But I wonder what struck you?

INTERVIEWER

One thing was that almost all the rejected poems seemed to me to be those that Tate, who in his introduction spoke about two kinds of poetry in the book, said were the more strictly religious and strictly symbolic poems, as against the poems he said were perhaps more powerful because more experienced or relying more on your sense of history. What you took seemed really superior to what you left behind.

LOWELL

Yes, I took out several that were paraphrases of early Christian poems, and I rejected one rather dry abstraction, then whatever seemed to me to have a messy violence. All the poems have religious imagery, I think, but the ones I took were more concrete. That’s what the book was moving toward: less symbolic imagery. And as I say, I tried to take some of the less fierce poems. There seemed to be too much twisting and disgust in the first book.

INTERVIEWER

I wondered how wide your reading had been at the time. I wondered, when I read in Tate’s introduction that the stanza in one of your poems was based on the stanza in “The Virginian Voyage,” whether someone had pointed out Drayton’s poem to you.

LOWELL

Tate and I started to make an anthology together. It was a very interesting year I spent with Tate and his wife. He’s a poet who writes in spurts, and he had about a third of a book. I was going to do a biography of Jonathan Edwards and he was going to write a novel, and our wives were going to write novels. Well, the wives just went humming away. “I’ve just finished three pages,” they’d say at the end of the day; and their books mounted up. But ours never did, though one morning Allen wrote four pages to his novel, very brilliant. We were in a little study together separated by a screen. I was heaping up books on Jonathan Edwards and taking notes, and getting more and more numb on the subject, looking at old leather-bound volumes on freedom of the will and so on, and feeling less and less a calling. And there we stuck. And then we decided to make an anthology together. We both liked rather formal, difficult poems, and we were reading particularly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the evening we’d read aloud, and we started a card catalog of what we’d make for the anthology. And then we started writing. It seems to me we took old models like Drayton’s Ode—Tate wrote a poem called “The Young Proconsuls of the Air” in that stanza. I think there’s a trick to formal poetry. Most poetry is very formal, but when a modern poet is formal he gets more attention for it than old poets did. Somehow we’ve tried to make it look difficult. For example, Shelley can just rattle off terza rima by the page, and it’s very smooth, doesn’t seem an obstruction to him—you sometimes wish it were more difficult. Well, someone does that today and in modern style it looks as though he’s wrestling with every line and may be pushed into confusion, as though he’s having a real struggle with form and content. Marks of that are in the finished poem. And I think both Tate and I felt that we wanted our formal patterns to seem a hardship and something that we couldn’t rattle off easily.

INTERVIEWER

But in Lord Weary’s Castle there were poems moving toward a sort of narrative calm, almost a prose calm—“Katherine’s Dream,” for example, or the two poems on texts by Edwards, or “The Ghost”—and then, on the other hand, poems in which the form was insisted upon and maybe shown off, and where the things that were characteristic of your poetry at that time—the kind of enjambments, the rhyming, the meters, of course—seem willed and forced, so that you have a terrific logjam of stresses, meanings, strains.

LOWELL

I know one contrast I’ve felt, and it takes different forms at different times. The ideal modern form seems to be the novel and certain short stories. Maybe Tolstoy would be the perfect example—his work is imagistic, it deals with all experience, and there seems to be no conflict of the form and content. So one thing is to get into poetry that kind of human richness in rather simple descriptive language. Then there’s another side of poetry: compression, something highly rhythmical and perhaps wrenched into a small space. I’ve always been fascinated by both these things. But getting it all on one page in a few stanzas, getting it all done in as little space as possible, revising and revising so that each word and rhythm though not perfect is pondered and wrestled with—you can’t do that in prose very well, you’d never get your book written. “Katherine’s Dream” was a real dream. I found that I shaped it a bit, and cut it, and allegorized it, but still it was a dream someone had had. It was material that ordinarily, I think, would go into prose, yet it would have had to be much longer or part of something much longer.

INTERVIEWER

I think you can either look for forms, you can do specific reading for them, or the forms can be demanded by what you want to say. And when the material in poetry seems under almost unbearable pressure you wonder whether the form hasn’t cookie-cut what the poet wanted to say. But you chose the couplet, didn’t you, and some of your freest passages are in couplets.

LOWELL

The couplet I’ve used is very much like the couplet Browning uses in “My Last Duchess,” run-on with its rhymes buried. I’ve always, when I’ve used it, tried to give the impression that I had as much freedom in choosing the rhyme word as I had in any of the other words. Yet they were almost all true rhymes, and maybe half the time there’d be a pause after the rhyme. I wanted something as fluid as prose; you wouldn’t notice the form, yet looking back you’d find that great obstacles had been climbed. And the couplet is pleasant in this way—once you’ve got your two lines to rhyme, then that’s done and you can go on to the next. You’re not stuck with the whole stanza to round out and build to a climax. A couplet can be a couplet or can be split and left as one line, or it can go on for a hundred lines; any sort of compression or expansion is possible. And that’s not so in a stanza. I think a couplet’s much less lyrical than a stanza, closer to prose. Yet it’s an honest form, its difficulties are in the open. It really is pretty hard to rhyme each line with the one that follows it.

INTERVIEWER

Did the change of style in Life Studies have something to do with working away from that compression and pressure by way of, say, the kind of prose clarity of “Katherine’s Dream”?

LOWELL

Yes. By the time I came to Life Studies I’d been writing my autobiography and also writing poems that broke meter. I’d been doing a lot of reading aloud. I went on a trip to the West Coast and read at least once a day and sometimes twice for fourteen days, and more and more I found that I was simplifying my poems. If I had a Latin quotation I’d translate it into English. If adding a couple of syllables in a line made it clearer I’d add them, and I’d make little changes just impromptu as I read. That seemed to improve the reading.

INTERVIEWER

Can you think of a place where you added a a syllable or two to an otherwise regular line?

LOWELL

It was usually articles and prepositions that I added, very slight little changes, and I didn’t change the printed text. It was just done for the moment.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you do this? Just because you thought the most important thing was to get the poem over?

LOWELL

To get it over, yes. And I began to have a certain disrespect for the tight forms. If you could make it easier by adding syllables, why not? And then when I was writing Life Studies, a good number of the poems were started in very strict meter, and I found that, more than the rhymes, the regular beat was what I didn’t want. I have a long poem in there about my father, called “Commander Lowell,” which actually is largely in couplets, but I originally wrote perfectly strict four-foot couplets. Well, with that form it’s hard not to have echoes of Marvell. That regularity just seemed to ruin the honesty of sentiment, and became rhetorical; it said, “I’m a poem”—though it was a great help when I was revising having this original skeleton. I could keep the couplets where I wanted them and drop them where I didn’t; there’d be a form to come back to.

INTERVIEWER

Had you originally intended to handle all that material in prose?

LOWELL

Yes. I found it got awfully tedious working out transitions and putting in things that didn’t seem very important but were necessary to the prose continuity. Also, I found it hard to revise. Cutting it down into small bits, I could work on it much more carefully and make fast transitions. But there’s another point about this mysterious business of prose and poetry, form and content, and the reasons for breaking forms. I don’t think there’s any very satisfactory answer. I seesaw back and forth between something highly metrical and something highly free; there isn’t any one way to write. But it seems to me we’ve gotten into a sort of Alexandrian age. Poets of my generation and particularly younger ones have gotten terribly proficient at these forms. They write a very musical, difficult poem with tremendous skill, perhaps there’s never been such skill. Yet the writing seems divorced from culture somehow. It’s become too much something specialized that can’t handle much experience. It’s become a craft, purely a craft, and there must be some breakthrough back into life. Prose is in many ways better off than poetry. It’s quite hard to think of a young poet who has the vitality, say, of Salinger or Saul Bellow. Yet prose tends to be very diffuse. The novel is really a much more difficult form than it seems; few people have the wind to write anything that long. Even a short story demands almost poetic perfection. Yet on the whole prose is less cut off from life than poetry is. Now, some of this Alexandrian poetry is very brilliant, you would not have it changed at all. But I thought it was getting increasingly stifling. I couldn’t get my experience into tight metrical forms.

INTERVIEWER

So you felt this about your own poetry, your own technique, not just about the general condition of poetry?

LOWELL

Yes, I felt that the meter plastered difficulties and mannerisms on what I was trying to say to such an extent that it terribly hampered me.

INTERVIEWER

This then explains, in part anyway, your admiration for Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. I know that you’ve said the qualities and the abundance of its descriptive language reminded you of the Russian novel more than anything else.

LOWELL

Any number of people are guilty of writing a complicated poem that has a certain amount of symbolism in it and really difficult meaning, a wonderful poem to teach. Then you unwind it and you feel that the intelligence, the experience, whatever goes into it, is skin-deep. In Elizabeth Bishop’s “Man-Moth” a whole new world is gotten out and you don’t know what will come after any one line. It’s exploring. And it’s as original as Kafka. She’s gotten a world, not just a way of writing. She seldom writes a poem that doesn’t have that exploratory quality; yet it’s very firm, it’s not like beat poetry, it’s all controlled.

INTERVIEWER

What about Snodgrass? What you were trying to do in Life Studies must have something to do with your admiration for his work.

LOWELL

He did these things before I did, though he’s younger than I am and had been my student. He may have influenced me, though people have suggested the opposite. He spent ten years at the University of Iowa, going to writing classes, being an instructor; rather unworldly, making little money, and specializing in talking to other people writing poetry, obsessed you might say with minute technical problems and rather provincial experience—and then he wrote about just that. I mean, the poems are about his child, his divorce, and Iowa City, and his child is a Dr. Spock child—all handled in expert little stanzas. I believe that’s a new kind of poetry. Other poems that are direct that way are slack and have no vibrance. His experience wouldn’t be so interesting and valid if it weren’t for the whimsy, the music, the balance, everything revised and placed and pondered. All that gives light to those poems on agonizing subjects comes from the craft.

INTERVIEWER

And yet his best poems are all on the verge of being slight and even sentimental.

LOWELL

I think a lot of the best poetry is. Laforgue—it’s hard to think of a more delightful poet, and his prose is wonderful too. Well, it’s on the verge of being sentimental, and if he hadn’t dared to be sentimental he wouldn’t have been a poet. I mean, his inspiration was that. There’s some way of distinguishing between false sentimentality, which is blowing up a subject and giving emotions that you don’t feel, and using whimsical, minute, tender, small emotions that most people don’t feel but which Laforgue and Snodgrass do. So that I’d say he had pathos and fragility—but then that’s a large subject too. He has fragility along the edges and a main artery of power going through the center.

INTERVIEWER

Some people were disappointed with Life Studies just because earlier you had written a kind of heroic poetry, an American version of heroic poetry, of which there had been none recently except your own. Is there any chance that you will go back to that?

LOWELL

I don’t think that a personal history can go on forever, unless you’re Walt Whitman and have a way with you. I feel I’ve done enough personal poetry. That doesn’t mean I won’t do more of it, but I don’t want to do more now. I feel I haven’t gotten down all my experience, or perhaps even the most important part, but I’ve said all I really have much inspiration to say, and more would just dilute. So that you need something more impersonal, and other things being equal it’s better to get your emotions out in a Macbeth than in a confession. Macbeth must have tons of Shakespeare in him. We don’t know where, nothing in Shakespeare’s life was remotely like Macbeth, yet he somehow gives the feeling of going to the core of Shakespeare. You have much more freedom that way than you do when you write an autobiographical poem.

INTERVIEWER

These poems, I gather from what you said earlier, did take as much working over as the earlier ones.

LOWELL

They were just as hard to write. They’re not always factually true. There’s a good deal of tinkering with fact. You leave out a lot, and emphasize this and not that. Your actual experience is a complete flux. I’ve invented facts and changed things, and the whole balance of the poem was something invented. So there’s a lot of artistry, I hope, in the poems. Yet there’s this thing: if a poem is autobiographical—and this is true of any kind of autobiographical writing and of historical writing—you want the reader to say, this is true. In something like Macaulay’s History of England you think you’re really getting William III. That’s as good as a good plot in a novel. And so there was always that standard of truth which you wouldn’t ordinarily have in poetry—the reader was to believe he was getting the real Robert Lowell.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask you about this business of taking over passages from earlier poems and rewriting them and putting them in new contexts. I’m thinking of the passage at the end of the “Cistercians in Germany,” in Land of Unlikeness, which you rewrote into those wonderful lines that end “At the Indian Killer’s Grave.” I know that Hart Crane rewrote early scraps a great deal and used most of the rewrites. But doesn’t doing this imply a theory of poetry that would talk much more about craft than about experience?

LOWELL

I don’t know, it’s such a miracle if you get lines that are halfway right; it’s not just a technical problem. The lines must mean a good deal to you. All your poems are in a sense one poem, and there’s always the struggle of getting something that balances and comes out right, in which all parts are good, and that has experience that you value. And so if you have a few lines that shine in a poem or are beginning to shine, and they fail and get covered over and drowned, maybe their real form is in another poem. Maybe you’ve mistaken the real inspiration in the original poem and they belong in something else entirely. I don’t think that violates experience. The “Cistercians” wasn’t very close to me, but the last lines seemed felt; I dropped the Cistercians and put a Boston graveyard in.

INTERVIEWER

But in Crane’s “Praise for an Urn,” a poem about a personal friend, there are lines which originally applied to something very different, and therefore, in one version or the other, at least can’t be called personal.

LOWELL

I think we always bring over some unexplained obscurities by shifting lines. Something that was clear in the original just seems odd and unexplained in the final poem. That can be quite bad, of course; but you always want—and I think Chekhov talks about this—the detail that you can’t explain. It’s just there. It seems right to you, but you don’t have to have it; you could have something else entirely. Now if everything’s like that you’d just have chaos, but a few unexplained difficult things—they seem to be the life-blood of variety—they may work. What may have seemed a little odd, a little difficult in the original poem, gets a little more difficult in a new way in the new poem. And that’s purely accidental, yet you may gain more than you lose—a new suggestiveness and magic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you revise a very great deal?

LOWELL

Endlessly.

INTERVIEWER

You often use an idiom or a very common phrase either for the sake of irony or to bear more meaning than it’s customarily asked to bear—do these come late in the game, do you have to look around for them?

LOWELL

They come later because they don’t prove much in themselves, and they often replace something that’s much more formal and worked-up. Some of my later poetry does have this quality that the earlier doesn’t: several lines can be almost what you’d say in conversation. And maybe talking with a friend or with my wife I’d say, “This doesn’t sound quite right,” and sort of reach in the air as I talked and change a few words. In that way the new style is easier to write; I sometimes fumble out a natural sequence of lines that will work. But a whole poem won’t come that way; my seemingly relaxed poems are just about as hard as the very worked-up ones.

INTERVIEWER

That rightness and familiarity, though, is in “Between the Porch and the Altar” in several passages which are in couplets.

LOWELL

When I am writing in meter I find the simple lines never come right away. Nothing does. I don’t believe I’ve ever written a poem in meter where I’ve kept a single one of the original lines. Usually when I was writing my old poems I’d write them out in blank verse and then put in the rhymes. And of course I’d change the rhymes a lot. The most I could hope for at first was that the rhymed version wouldn’t be much inferior to the blank verse. Then the real work would begin, to make it something much better than the original out of the difficulties of the meter.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever gone as far as Yeats and written out a prose argument and then set down the rhymes?

LOWELL

With some of the later poems I’ve written out prose versions, then cut the prose down and abbreviated it. A rapidly written prose draft of the poem doesn’t seem to do much good, too little pain has gone into it; but one really worked on is bound to have phrases that are invaluable. And it’s a nice technical problem: how can you keep phrases and get them into meter?

INTERVIEWER

Do you usually send off your work to friends before publishing it?

LOWELL

I do it less now. I always used to do it, to Jarrell and one or two other people. Last year I did a lot of reading with Stanley Kunitz.

INTERVIEWER

At the time you were writing the poems for Lord Weary’s Castle, did it make a difference to you whether the poet to whom you were sending your work was Catholic?

LOWELL

I don’t think I ever sent any poems to a Catholic. The person I was closest to then was Allen Tate, who wasn’t a Catholic at the time; and then later it became Jarrell, who wasn’t at all Catholic. My two close Catholic writer friends are prose writers, J. F. Powers and Flannery O’Connor, and they weren’t interested in the technical problems of poems.

INTERVIEWER

So you feel that the religion is the business of the poem that it’s in and not at all the business of the Church or the religious person.

LOWELL

It shouldn’t be. I mean, a religion ought to have objective validity. But by the time it gets into a poem it’s so mixed up with technical and imaginative problems that the theologian, the priest, the serious religious person isn’t of too much use. The poem is too strange for him to feel at home and make any suggestions.

INTERVIEWER

What does this make of the religious poem as a religious exercise?

LOWELL

Well, it at least makes this: that the poem tries to be a poem and not a piece of artless religious testimony. There is a drawback. It seems to me that with any poem, but maybe particularly a religious one where there are common interests, the opinion of intelligent people who are not poets ought to be useful. There’s an independence to this not getting advice from religious people and outsiders, but also there’s a narrowness. Then there is a question whether my poems are religious, or whether they just use religious imagery. I haven’t really any idea. My last poems don’t use religious imagery, they don’t use symbolism. In many ways they seem to me more religious than the early ones, which are full of symbols and references to Christ and God. I’m sure the symbols and the Catholic framework didn’t make the poems religious experiences. Yet I don’t feel my experience changed very much. It seems to me it’s clearer to me now than it was then, but it’s very much the same sort of thing that went into the religious poems—the same sort of struggle, light and darkness, the flux of experience. The morality seems much the same. But the symbolism is gone; you couldn’t possibly say what creed I believed in. I’ve wondered myself often. Yet what made the earlier poems valuable seems to be some recording of experience, and that seems to be what makes the later ones.

INTERVIEWER

So you end up saying that the poem does have some integrity and can have some beauty apart from the beliefs expressed in the poem.

LOWELL

I think it can only have integrity apart from the beliefs; that no political position, religious position, position of generosity, or what have you, can make a poem good. It’s all to the good if a poem can use politics, or theology, or gardening, or anything that has its own validity aside from poetry. But these things will never per se make a poem.

INTERVIEWER

The difficult question is whether when the beliefs expressed in a poem are obnoxious the poem as a whole can be considered to be beautiful—the problem of the Pisan Cantos.

LOWELL

The Pisan Cantos are very uneven, aren’t they? If you took what most people would agree are maybe the best hundred passages, would the beliefs in those passages be obnoxious? I think you’d get a very mixed answer. You could make quite a good case for Pound’s good humor about his imprisonment, his absence of self-pity, his observant eye, his memories of literary friends, for all kinds of generous qualities and open qualities and lyrical qualities that anyone would think were good. And even when he does something like the death of Mussolini, in the passage that opens the Pisan Cantos, people debate about it. I’ve talked to Italians who were partisans, and who said that this is the only poem on Mussolini that’s any good. Pound’s quite wily often: Mussolini hung up like an ox—his brutal appearance. I don’t know whether you could say the beliefs there are wrong or not. And there are other poems that come to mind: in Eliot, the Jew spelled with a small j in “Gerontion,” is that anti-Semitism or not? Eliot’s not anti-Semitic in any sense, but there’s certainly a dislike of Jews in those early poems. Does he gain in the fierceness of writing his Jew with a small j? He says you write what you have to write and in criticism you can say what you think you should believe in. Very ugly emotions perhaps make a poem.

INTERVIEWER

You were on the Bollingen Committee at the time the award was made to Pound. What did you think of the great ruckus?

LOWELL

I thought it was a very simple problem of voting for the best book of the year; and it seemed to me Pound’s was. I thought the Pisan Cantos was the best writing Pound had ever done, though it included some of his worst. It is a very mixed book: that was the question. But the consequences of not giving the best book of the year a prize for extraneous reasons, even terrible ones in a sense—I think that’s the death of art. Then you have Pasternak suppressed and everything becomes stifling. Particularly in a strong country like ours you’ve got to award things objectively and not let the beliefs you’d like a man to have govern your choice. It was very close after the war, and anyone must feel that the poetry award was a trifling thing compared with the concentration camps. I actually think they were very distant from Pound. He had no political effect whatsoever and was quite eccentric and impractical. Pound’s social credit, his fascism, all these various things, were a tremendous gain to him; he’d be a very Parnassian poet without them. Even if they’re bad beliefs—and some were bad, some weren’t, and some were just terrible, of course—they made him more human and more to do with life, more to do with the times. They served him. Taking what interested him in these things gave a kind of realism and life to his poetry that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.

INTERVIEWER

Did you become a translator to suit your own needs or because you wanted to get certain poems, most of them not before translated, into English? Or was it a matter of both, as I suppose it usually is, and as it was for Pound?

LOWELL

I think both. It always seemed to me that nothing very close to the poems I’ve translated existed in English; and on the other hand, there was some kind of closeness, I felt a kinship. I felt some sort of closeness to the Rilke and Rimbaud poems I’ve translated, yet they were doing things I couldn’t do. They were both a continuation of my own bias and a release from myself.

INTERVIEWER

How did you come to translate Propertius—in fact, how did you come to have such a great interest in Roman history and Latin literature?

LOWELL

At Harvard my second year I took almost entirely English courses—the easiest sort of path. I think that would have been a disaster. But before going to Kenyon I talked to Ford Madox Ford and Ransom, and Ransom said you’ve just got to take philosophy and logic, which I did. The other thing he suggested was classics. Ford was rather flippant about it, said of course you’ve got to learn classics, you’ll just cut yourself off from humanity if you don’t. I think it’s always given me some sort of yardstick for English. And then the literature was amazing, particularly the Greek; there’s nothing like Greek in English at all. Our plays aren’t formally at all like Aeschylus and Sophocles. Their whole inspiration was unbelievably different, and so different that you could hardly think of even the attempt to imitate them, great as their prestige was. That something like Antigone or Oedipus or the great Achilles moments in the Iliad would be at the core of a literature is incredible for anyone brought up in an English culture—Greek wildness and sophistication all different, the women different, everything. Latin’s of course much closer. English is a half-Latin language, and we’ve done our best to absorb the Latin literature. But a Roman poet is much less intellectual than the Englishman, much less abstract. He’s nearer nature somehow—somewhat what we feel about a Frenchman but more so still. And yet he’s very sophisticated. He has his way of doing things, though the number of forms he explored is quite limited. The amount he could take from the Greeks and yet change is an extraordinary piece of firm discipline. Also, you take almost any really good Roman poet—Juvenal, or Virgil, or Propertius, Catullus—he’s much more raw and direct than anything in English, and yet he has this blocklike formality. The Roman frankness interests me. Until recently our literature hasn’t been as raw as the Roman, translations had to have stars. And their history has a terrible human frankness that isn’t customary with us—corrosive attacks on the establishment, comments on politics and the decay of morals, all felt terribly strongly, by poets as well as historians. The English writer who reads the classics is working at one thing, and his eye is on something else that can’t be done. We will always have the Latin and Greek classics, and they’ll never be absorbed. There’s something very restful about that.

INTERVIEWER

But, more specifically, how did Latin poetry—your study of it, your translations—affect your measure of English poetry?

LOWELL

My favorite English poetry was the difficult Elizabethan plays and the Metaphysicals, then the nineteenth century, which I was aquiver about and disliked but which was closer to my writing than anything else. The Latin seemed very different from either of these. I immediately saw how Shelley wasn’t like Horace and Virgil or Aeschylus—and the Latin was a mature poetry, a realistic poetry, which didn’t have the contortions of the Metaphysicals. What a frail, bony, electric person Marvell is compared with Horace!

INTERVIEWER

What about your adaptation of Propertius?

LOWELL

I got him through Pound. When I read him in Latin I found a kind of Propertius you don’t get in Pound at all. Pound’s Propertius is a rather Ovidian figure with a great deal of Pound’s fluency and humor and irony. The actual Propertius is a very excited, tense poet, rather desperate; his line is much more like parts of Marlowe’s Faustus. And he’s of all the Roman poets the most like a desperate Christian. His experiences, his love affair with Cynthia, are absolutely rending, destroying. He’s like a fallen Christian.

INTERVIEWER

Have you done any other translations of Latin poems?

LOWELL

I did a monologue that started as a translation of Virgil and then was completely rewritten, and there are buried translations in several other poems. There’s a poem called “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage” in my last book that started as a translation of Catullus. I don’t know what traces are left, but it couldn’t have been written without the Catullus.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve translated Pasternak. Do you know Russian?

LOWELL

No, I have rewritten other English translations, and seldom even checked with Russian experts. I want to get a book of translations together. I read in the originals, except for Russian, but I have felt quite free to alter things, and I don’t know that Pasternak would look less close than the Italian, which I have studied closely. Before I publish, I want to check with a Russian expert.

INTERVIEWER

Can I get you back to Harvard for a minute? Is it true you tried out for the Harvard Advocate, did all the dirty work for your candidacy, and then were turned down?

LOWELL

I nailed a carpet down. I forget who the editor was then, but he was a man who wrote on Frost. At that time people who wrote on Frost were quite different from the ones who write on him now; they tended to be conservative, out of touch. I wasn’t a very good writer then, perhaps I should have been turned down. I was trying to write like William Carlos Williams, very simple, free verse, imagistic poems. I had a little group I was very proud of which was set up in galleys; when I left Harvard it was turned down.

INTERVIEWER

Did you know any poets at the time?

LOWELL

I had a friend, Harry Brown, who writes dialogue for movies and has been in Hollywood for years. He was a terribly promising poet. He came to Harvard with a long correspondence with Harriet Monroe and was much more advanced than anyone else. He could write in the style of Auden or Webster or Eliot or Crane. He’d never graduated from high school, and wasn’t a student, but he was the person I felt closest to. My other friends weren’t writers.

INTERVIEWER

Had you met any older poets—Frost, for instance, who must have been around?

LOWELL

I’d gone to call on Frost with a huge epic on the First Crusade, all written out in clumsy longhand on lined paper. He read a page of that and said, “You have no compression.” Then he read me a very short poem of Collins, “How Sleep the Brave,” and said, “That’s not a great poem, but it’s not too long.” He was very kindly about it. You know his point about the voice coming into poetry: he took a very unusual example of that, the opening of Hyperion; the line about the Naiad, something about her pressing a cold finger to her cold lips, which wouldn’t seem like a voice passage at all. And he said, “Now Keats comes alive here.” That was a revelation to me; what had impressed me was the big Miltonic imitation in Hyperion. I don’t know what I did with that, but I recoiled and realized that I was diffuse and monotonous.

INTERVIEWER

What decided you to leave Harvard and go to Kenyon?

LOWELL

I’d made the acquaintance of Merrill Moore, who’d been at Vanderbilt and a Fugitive. He said that I ought to study with a man who was a poet. He was very close to Ransom, and the plan was that I’d go to Vanderbilt; and I would have, but Ransom changed to Kenyon.

INTERVIEWER

I understand you left much against the wishes of your family.

LOWELL

Well, I was getting quite morose and solitary, and they sort of settled for this move. They’d rather have had me a genial social Harvard student, but at least I’d be working hard this way. It seemed to them a queer but orderly step.

INTERVIEWER

Did it help you that you had had intellectual and literary figures in your family?

LOWELL

I really didn’t know I’d had them till I went to the South. To my family, James Russell Lowell was the ambassador to England, not a writer. Amy seemed a bit peculiar to them. When I began writing I think it would have been unimaginable to take either Amy or James Russell Lowell as models.

INTERVIEWER

Was it through Ransom that you met Tate?

LOWELL

I met them at more or less the same time, but actually stayed with Tate before I knew Ransom very well.

INTERVIEWER

And Ford Madox Ford was there at some time, wasn’t he?

LOWELL

I met Ford at a cocktail party in Boston and went to dinner with him at the Athens Olympia. He was going to visit the Tates, and said, “Come and see me down there, we’re all going to Tennessee.” So I drove down. He hadn’t arrived, so I got to know the Tates quite well before his appearance.

INTERVIEWER

Staying in a pup tent.

LOWELL

It’s a terrible piece of youthful callousness. They had one Negro woman who came in and helped, but Mrs. Tate was doing all the housekeeping. She had three guests and her own family, and was doing the cooking and writing a novel. And this young man arrived, quite ardent and eccentric. I think I suggested that maybe I’d stay with them. And they said, “We really haven’t any room, you’d have to pitch a tent on the lawn.” So I went to Sears, Roebuck and got a tent and rigged it on their lawn. The Tates were too polite to tell me that what they’d said had been just a figure of speech. I stayed two months in my tent and ate with the Tates.

INTERVIEWER

And you were showing him your work all the while.

LOWELL

Oh, I became converted to formalism and changed my style from brilliant free verse, all in two months. And everything was in rhyme, and it still wasn’t any good. But that was a great incentive. I poured out poems and went to writers’ conferences.

INTERVIEWER

What about Ford?

LOWELL

I saw him out there and took dictation from him for a while. That was hell, because I didn’t know how to type. I’d take the dictation down in longhand, and he rather mumbled. I’d ask him what he’d said, and he’d say, “Oh, you have no sense of prose rhythm,” and mumble some more. I’d get most of his words, then I’d have to improvise on the typewriter.

INTERVIEWER

So for part of Ford’s opus we’re indebted to you.

LOWELL

A handful of phrases in The March of Literature, on the Provençal poets.

INTERVIEWER

That was the summer before you entered Kenyon; but most of the poems in Land of Unlikeness were written after you’d graduated, weren’t they?

LOWELL

Yes, they were almost all written in a year I spent with the Tates, though some of them were earlier poems rewritten. I think becoming a Catholic convert had a good deal to do with writing again. I was much more interested in being a Catholic than in being a writer. I read Catholic writers but had no intention of writing myself. But somehow, when I started again, I won’t say the Catholicism gave me subject matter, but it gave me some kind of form, and I could begin a poem and build it to a climax. It was quite different from what I’d been doing earlier.

INTERVIEWER

Why, then, did you choose to print your work in the small liberal magazines whose religious and political positions were very different from yours? Have you ever submitted to the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly?

LOWELL

I think I may have given something to the Atlantic on Santayana; the New Yorker I haven’t given anything. I think the New Yorker does some of the best prose in the country, in many ways much more interesting than the quarterlies and little magazines. But poems are lost in it; there’s no table of contents, and some of their poetry is light verse. There’s no particular continuity of excellence. There just seems no point in printing there. For a while the little magazines, whose religious-political positions were very different from mine, were the only magazines that would publish me, and I feel like staying with them. I like magazines like the New Statesman, the Nation, the New Republic—something a little bit off the track.

INTERVIEWER

Just because they are off the track?

LOWELL

I think so. A political position I don’t necessarily agree with which is a little bit adverse seems to me just more attractive than a time-serving, conventional position. And they tend to have good reviews, those magazines. I think you write for a small audience, an ardent critical audience. And you know Graves says that poets ought to take in each other’s washing because they’re the only responsible audience. There’s a danger to that—you get too specialized—but I pretty much agree that’s the audience you do write for. If it gets further, that’s all fine.

INTERVIEWER

There is, though, a certain inbred, in-group anemia to those magazines, at least to the literary quarterlies. For instance, it would have been almost inconceivable for Partisan Review, which is the best of them, I think, to give your last book a bad review or even a sharp review.

LOWELL

I think no magazine likes to slam one of its old contributors. Partisan has sometimes just not reviewed a book by someone they liked very much and their reviewer didn’t. I know Shapiro has been attacked in Partisan and then published there, and other people have been unfavorably reviewed and made rather a point of sending them something afterwards. You want to feel there’s a certain degree of poorer writing that wouldn’t get published in the magazine your work appears in. The good small magazine may publish a lot of rather dry stuff, but at least it’s serious, and if it’s bad it’s not bad by trying to be popular and put something over on the public. It’s a wrenched personal ineptitude that will get published rather than a public slickness. I think that has something to do with good reviews coming out in the magazine. We were talking about Partisan’s not slamming one of its contributors, but Partisan has a pretty harsh, hard standard of reviewing, and they certainly wouldn’t praise one of their contributors who’d gone to pot.

INTERVIEWER

What poets among your contemporaries do you most admire?

LOWELL

The two I’ve been closest to are Elizabeth Bishop—I spoke about her earlier—and Jarrell, and they’re different. Jarrell’s a great man of letters, a very informed man, and the best critic of my generation, the best professional poet. He’s written the best war poems, and those poems are a tremendous product of our culture, I feel. Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, as I said, are more personal, more something she did herself, and she’s not a critic but has her own tastes, which may be very idiosyncratic. I enjoy her poems more than anybody else’s. I like some of Shapiro very much, some of Roethke and Stanley Kunitz.

INTERVIEWER

What about Roethke, who tries to do just about everything you don’t try to do?

LOWELL

We’ve read to each other and argued, and may be rather alike in temperament actually, but he wants a very musical poem and always would quarrel with my ear as I’d quarrel with his eye. He has love poems and childhood poems and startling surrealistic poems, rather simple experience done with a blaze of power. He rejoices in the rhetoric and the metrics, but there’s something very disorderly working there. Sometimes it will smash a poem and sometimes it will make it. The things he knows about I feel I know nothing about, flowers and so on. What we share, I think, is the exultant moment, the blazing out. Whenever I’ve tried to do anything like his poems, I’ve felt helpless and realized his mastery.

INTERVIEWER

You were apparently a very close friend of Delmore Schwartz’s.

LOWELL

Yes, and I think that I’ve never met anyone who has somehow as much seeped into me. It’s a complicated personal thing to talk about. His reading was very varied, Marx and Freud and Russell, very catholic and not from a conservative position at all. He sort of grew up knowing those things and has a wonderful penetrating humorous way of talking about them. If he met T. S. Eliot his impressions of Eliot would be mixed up with his impressions of Freud and what he’d read about Eliot; all these things flowed back and forth in him. Most of my writer friends were more specialized and limited than Schwartz, most of them took against-the-grain positions which were also narrow. Schwartz was a revelation. He felt the poet who had experience was very much better than the poet with polish. Wordsworth would interest him much more than Keats—he wanted openness to direct experience. He said that if you got people talking in a poem you could do anything. And his own writing, Coriolanus and Shenandoah, is interesting for that.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t this much what you were saying about your own hopes for Life Studies?

LOWELL

Yes, but technically I think that Delmore and I are quite different. There have been very few poets I’ve been able to get very much from technically. Tate has been one of the closest to me. My early poems I think grew out of my admiration for his poems.

INTERVIEWER

What about poets in the past?

LOWELL

It’s hard for me to imitate someone; I’m very self-conscious about it. That’s an advantage perhaps—you don’t become too imitative—but it’s also a limitation. I tremble when I feel I’m being like someone else. If it’s Rilke or Rimbaud or Propertius, you know the language is a big bar and that if you imitate you’re doing something else. I’ve felt greater freedom that way. I think I’ve tried to write like some of the Elizabethans.

INTERVIEWER

And Crane? You said you had read a good deal of Crane.

LOWELL

Yes, but his difficult style is one I’ve never been able to do much with. He can be very obscure and yet write a much more inspired poem than I could by being obscure. There’s a relationship between Crane and Tate, and for some reason Tate was much easier for me. I could see how Tate was done, though Tate has a rhythm that I’ve never been able to imitate. He’s much more irregular than I am, and I don’t know where the rhythm comes from, but I admire it very much. Crane said somewhere that he could write five or six good lines but Tate could write twelve that would hang together, and you’d see how the twelve were built. Tate was somehow more of a model: he had a lot of wildness and he had a lot of construction. And of course I knew him and never knew Crane. I think Crane is the great poet of that generation. He got out more than anybody else. Not only is it the tremendous power there, but he somehow got New York City; he was at the center of things in the way that no other poet was. All the chaos of his life missed getting sidetracked the way other poets’ did, and he was less limited than any other poet of his generation. There was a fullness of experience; and without that, if you just had his mannerisms, and not his rather simple writing—which if done badly would be sentimental merely—or just his obscure writing, the whole thing would be merely verbal. It isn’t with Crane. The push of the whole man is there. But his style never worked for me.

INTERVIEWER

But something of Crane does seem to have gotten into your work—or maybe it’s just that sense of power thrashing about. I thought it had come from a close admiring reading of Crane.

LOWELL

Yes, some kind of wildness and power that appeals to me, I guess. But when I wrote difficult poems they weren’t meant to be difficult, though I don’t know that Crane meant his to be. I wanted to be loaded and rich, but I thought the poems were all perfectly logical. You can have a wonderful time explaining a great poem like “Voyages II,” and it all can be explained, but in the end it’s just a love poem with a great confusion of images that are emotionally clear; a prose paraphrase wouldn’t give you any impression whatever of the poem. I couldn’t do that kind of poem, I don’t think; at least I’ve never been able to.

INTERVIEWER

You said that most of the writers you’ve known have been against the grain. What did you mean?

LOWELL

When I began writing most of the great writers were quite unpopular. They hadn’t reached the universities yet, and their circulation was small. Even Eliot wasn’t very popular then. But life seemed to be there. It seemed to be one of those periods when the lid was still being blown. The great period of blowing the lid was the time of Schoenberg and Picasso and Joyce and the early Eliot, where a power came into the arts which we perhaps haven’t had since. These people were all rather traditional, yet they were stifled by what was being done, and they almost wrecked things to do their great works—even rather minor but very good writers such as Williams or Marianne Moore. Their kind of protest and queerness has hardly been repeated. They’re wonderful writers. You wouldn’t see anyone as strange as Marianne Moore again, not for a long while. Conservative and Jamesian as she is, it was a terrible, private, and strange revolutionary poetry. There isn’t the motive to do that now. Yet those were the classics, and it seems to me they were all against the grain, Marianne Moore as much as Crane. That’s where life was for the small audience. It would be a tremendous subject to say whether the feelings were against the grain too, and whether they were purifying, nihilistic, or both.

INTERVIEWER

Have you had much contact with Eliot?

LOWELL

I may have seen him a score of times in my life, and he’s always been very kind. Long before he published me he had some of my poems in his files. There’s some kind of New England connection.

INTERVIEWER

Has he helpfully criticized your work?

LOWELL

Just very general criticism. With the first book of mine Faber did he had a lot of little questions about punctuation, but he never said he liked this or disliked that. Then he said something about the last book—“These are first-rate, I mean it”—something like that that was very understated and gratifying. I feel Eliot’s less tied to form than a lot of people he’s influenced, and there’s a freedom of the twenties in his work that I find very sympathetic. Certainly he and Frost are the great New England poets. You hardly think of Stevens as New England, but you have to think of Eliot and Frost as deeply New England and puritanical. They’re a continuation and a criticism of the tradition, and they’re probably equally great poets. Frost somehow put life into a dead tradition. His kind of poetry must have seemed almost unpublishable, it was so strange and fresh when it was first written. But still it was old-fashioned poetry and really had nothing to do with modern writing—except that he is one of the greatest modern writers. Eliot was violently modern and unacceptable to the traditionalist. Now he’s spoken of as a literary dictator, but he’s handled his position with wonderful sharpness and grace, it seems to me. It’s a narrow position and it’s not one I hold particularly, but I think it’s been held with extraordinary honesty and finish and development. Eliot has done what he said Shakespeare had done: all his poems are one poem, a form of continuity that has grown and snowballed.

INTERVIEWER

I remember Jarrell in reviewing Mills of the Kavanaughs said that Frost had been doing narrative poems with ease for years, and that nobody else had been able to catch up.

LOWELL

And what Jarrell said is true: nobody except Frost can do a sort of Chaucerian narrative poem that’s organized and clear. Well, a lot of people do them, but the texture of their verse is so limp and uninspired. Frost does them with great power. Most of them were done early, in that North of Boston period. That was a miracle, because except for Robinson—and I think Frost is a very much greater poet than Robinson—no one was doing that in England or America.

INTERVIEWER

But you hadn’t simply wanted to tell a story in Mills of the Kavanaughs.

LOWELL

No, I was writing an obscure, rather Elizabethan, dramatic and melodramatic poem. I don’t know quite how to describe this business of direct experience. With Browning, for instance, for all his gifts—and there is almost nothing Browning couldn’t use—you feel there’s a glaze between what he writes and what really happened, you feel the people are made up. In Frost you feel that’s just what the farmers and so on were like. It has the virtue of a photograph but all the finish of art. That’s an extraordinary thing; almost no other poet can do that now.

INTERVIEWER

What do you suppose are the qualities that go into that ability?

LOWELL

I don’t know. Prose writers have it much more, and quite a few prose writers have it. It’s some kind of sympathy and observation of people. It’s the deep, rather tragic poems that I value most. Perhaps it’s been overdone with Frost, but there’s an abundance and geniality about those poems that isn’t tragic. With this sense of rhythm and words and composition, and getting into his lines language that is very much like the language he speaks—which is also a work of art, much better than other people’s ordinary speech and yet natural to him; he has that continuity with his ordinary self and his poetic self—he’s made what with anyone else would be just flat. A very good prose writer can do this and make something of it. You get it quite often in Faulkner. Though he’s an Elizabethan sort of character, rather unlike Frost, he can get this amazing immediacy and simplicity. When it comes to verse the form is so hard that all of that gets drained out. In a very conventional old-fashioned writer, or someone who’s trying to be realistic but also dramatic and inspired, though he may remain a good poet, most of that directness and realism goes. It’s hard for Eliot to be direct that way, though you get it in bits of The Waste Land, that marvelous Cockney section. And he can be himself; I feel Eliot’s real all through the Quartets. He can be very intelligent or very simple there, and he’s there, but there are no other people in the Quartets.

INTERVIEWER

Have many of your poems been taken from real people and real events?

LOWELL

I think, except when I’ve used myself or occasionally named actual people in poems, the characters are purely imaginary. I’ve tried to buttress them by putting images I’ve actually seen and in indirect ways getting things I’ve actually experienced into the poem. If I’m writing about a Canadian nun the poem may have a hundred little bits of things I’ve looked at, but she’s not remotely anyone I’ve ever known. And I don’t believe anybody would think my nun was quite a real person. She has a heart and she’s alive, I hope, and she has a lot of color to her and drama, and has some things that Frost’s characters don’t, but she doesn’t have their wonderful quality of life. His Witch of Coös is absolutely there. I’ve gathered from talking to him that most of the North of Boston poems came from actual people he knew shuffled and put together. But then it’s all-important that Frost’s plots are so extraordinary, so carefully worked out though it almost seems that they’re not there. Like some things in Chekhov, the art is very well hidden.

INTERVIEWER

Don’t you think a large part of it is getting the right details, symbolic or not, around which to wind the poem tight and tighter?

LOWELL

Some bit of scenery or something you’ve felt. 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 may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something that you can use as your own. A lot of poetry seems to me very good in the tradition but just doesn’t move me very much because it doesn’t have personal vibrance to it. I probably exaggerate the value of it, but it’s precious to me. Some little image, some detail you’ve noticed—you’re writing about a little country shop, just describing it, and your poem ends up with an existentialist account of your experience. But it’s the shop that started it off. You didn’t know why it meant a lot to you. Often images and often the sense of the beginning and end of a poem are all you have—some journey to be gone through between those things; you know that, but you don’t know the details. And that’s marvelous; then you feel the poem will come out. It’s a terrible struggle, because what you really feel hasn’t got the form, it’s not what you can put down in a poem. And the poem you’re equipped to write concerns nothing that you care very much about or have much to say on. Then the great moment comes when there’s enough resolution of your technical equipment, your way of constructing things, and what you can make a poem out of, to hit something you really want to say. You may not know you have it to say.


Author photograph by Gerard Malanga.