Poets of the Dangerous Way
1,11n important news is that Robert Lowell, the chef figure of the 'confessional' movement in American poetry, has begun to leave its methods behind. The poems in his Life Studies (1959) Presented Lowell himself so vulnerably and humiliatingly that only his extraordinary artistic gifts enabled him to transcend the hysteria be- "Ind them. But the transcendence made for a revolutionary achievement. It encouraged other tech Poets as Anne Sexton, John Berryman and 1,
Lae Sylvia Plath to take the same dangerous 'ad. Lowell, working sophisticatedly in a direct line from various earlier masters, including the young Eliot and Hart Crane, catapulted his own, literal self into the centre of his poems and thereby brought the familiar themes of a betrayed civilisation and alienated psyche into startling new focus.
Now, in For the Union Dead, we can see that for him at least there is a further way, closer to the 'main stream.' It seems impossible to main- tain indefinitely the violent pace of Life Studies. To do so would be to cultivate a poetry that fed on, and encouraged, suicidal madness. In- stead, beyond a certain point at least, Lowell has been working free of the intolerable burden of his self-laceration. The problem is to hold on meanwhile to what he has gained in poetic con- ception (the painfully alert sensibility alive to the pressure of its own anxieties and those of the. age) and in its embodiment in a brilliantly improvised formal technique. We can see now how invaluable his translations from poets like Montale and Pasternak have 'been for him, in their own right and also in helping him isolate certain qualities of the earlier work—the wry irony and humour, for instance—and use them in new ways. Thus the boisterous poem to his first wife, 'The Old Flame,' is really for him a gay poem in spite of its picture of the tormented couple's 'quivering and fierce' life in Maine, 'simmering like wasps/in our tent of books.' At the same time, he can project as beautifully as ever that peculiar identification of inward anguish with the public ills of the nuclear age that is the idiom of his genius: Our end dtifts nearer, the moon lifts,
radiant with terror. . . . A father's no shield for his child.
We are like a lot of wild spiders crying together, but without tears. . . .
But I would note especially the poems in which something 'quieter' is going on among them 'Water,' The Mouth of the Hudson,' The Lesson,' Law,"The Severed Head' and 'The Flaw.' In many of these everything is put into the concentrated evocation of a scene, within which is locked a tragically relevant personal and historical complex of meaning as well. Perhaps the single most original and surprising' piece is the bizarre dream-poem 'The Severed Head,' with its overtones from Crane's 'Passage' (his greatest short poem) and from the 'familiar compound ghost' episode in 'Little Gidding.' The poetic courage of these new explorations in search of greater impersonality, and the variety and excitement of the poerris as they hit us one by one, again suggest that Lowell is the American poet of this age.
Sylvia Plath, with her narrower range of tech- nical resource and objective awareness than Lowell's, and with her absolute, almost demoni- cally intense commitment by the end to the confessional mode, took what seems to me the one alternative advance position open to her. Only a few poems in her first book, The Colossus (1960), hint that she was destined to fulfil the implied suicidal programme of irreversible anguish beyond his limits. She was only thirty when, two years later, she threw he self into that last passionate burst of writing that culminated in Ariel and in her death, now forever insepar- able. We shall never be able to sort out clearly the unresolved, unbearably exposed suggestibility and agitation of these poems from the purely esthetic energy that shaped the best of them. Reading 'Daddy' or 'Fever 103°,' you would say that if a poet is sensitive enough to the age and
brave enough to face it directly it will kill him through the exacerbation of his awareness alone. Sometimes Sylvia Plath could not distinguish between herself and the facts of, say, Auschwitz or Hiroshima. She was victim, killer, and the place and process of horror all at once.
This is not the whole picture. Though Sylvia Plath may become a legend, we ought not to indulge in over-simplification. There are some lovely poems in the bock ('Poppies in October,' for instance) that are cries of joy despite a grim note or two. There is rhythmic experimentation looking to the future, in particular with an adaptation of Whitman's characteristic line; and beyond that, the sheer wild leap into absolute mastery of phrasing and the dynamics of poetic movement in the title-poem alone, despite its tragic dimension, cannot but be considered an important kind of affirmation. But there are poems too that are hard to penetrate in their morbid secretiveness, or that make a weirdly incantatory black magic against unspecified per- sons and situations, and these often seem to call for biographical rather than poetic explanation.
Under all the other motifs, however, is the confusion of terror at death with fascination by it. The visions of the speaker as already dead are so vivid that they become yearnings toward that condition. 'Death & Co.' is one of several nearly perfect embodiments of this deeply com- pulsive motif. It moves from a revclted imagery of death as a condor-like predator, a con- noisseur of the beauty of dead babies, to a disgusted yet erotic picture of him as would-be lover, and at last to a vision of the speaker's own death such as I have mentioned:
I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower, The dew makes a star, The dead bell, The dead bell.
Somebody's done for.
Thinking of this pitifully brief career, it is hard not to ask whether the cultivation of sensibility is after all worth the candle. The answer is yes, for reasons that I hope we all know—yet it seems important to raise the question anyway.