JUXTAPOSITIONS Robert Lowell “Epilogue”


THE CONTRAST of inspiration and “techne” allows one to make the point. The technical model: this is an imposing of a form on pregiven matter—the form being more universal, the matter more particular. This technical, demiurgic model is implied in some versions of imitation: the artist imitates the idea that is the pregiven universal, now technically imposed on the also pregiven materiality. . . . Desire to bring beauty to be moves the deployment of “techne,” but this desire is more than technical. More than the “geometrie” of form, it is finesse for the beauty of the originated cosmos that moves the maker. Considered from the side of this finesse, the universal is not a form imposed “ab extra” but an immanent gift communicated to the immanent beauty of the world created. “Techne” is enfolded in a finesse, ultimately inspired by a love for the beautiful.

William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, p. 83

The incoherence of the idea of the poet’s voice is hard to free from the monumental achievement of Robert Lowell. He created a sound that for many illustrates what we mean by poetry, good and bad. Lowell became in his time an allusion in our sense of art.

Desmond’s philosophic text and Lowell’s poem share a world of ideas, and for many that’s the problem with Lowell. Too many intellectual strands make up the text, whose surfaces slide by. But Lowell was famously a problem for himself. With good reason. Read all about it, but return to the poem, for it very nearly comprehends what is happening to us when we read a poem. One measure of Lowell’s success is that we as poetry readers have come to accept his voice as our own.

Lowell and Desmond start with the conflict between technique and subject matter. The desire for beauty is more than technical. Desmond’s characteristic allusions to Platonic myth (the Demiurge) prompt faint tinkling bells in our collective memory, but the situation is existential for a poet like Lowell, who comes to resent the set of good manners he learned as a young ambitious poet. Indeed, he comes to blame them for his judgment of his life: “All’s misalliance.”

Lowell’s poem, fine-tuned by a lifetime’s finesse, turns, at the moment of the heart’s despair, to a simple horribly reductive plea: “Yet why not say what happened?” The answer to this despairing question is implicit in Desmond’s retelling of the myth of creativity. One must accept the terms of the gift to get the gift. The gift is not about the poet. It is communicated to “the intimate beauty of the world created.” That’s why we call the poem a happening, not as in Lowell a record of what happened.

By the end of the poem the poet has disappeared. The poet’s voice has become the voice of the poem. Technique is “enfolded in a finesse.” For many poets, this is too much to ask. It is so difficult to countenance. Eliot’s “impersonality” proved too much for the ageing eagle who was as fascinated and tethered to the sound of his own voice as Lowell.

Lowell’s domestication of Plato’s myth concludes with the image of a photograph album full of faces you struggle to identify. But as we’ve seen the narrative of lyric comes to rest not with a problem of naming but with an acknowledgment of otherness, an image not of erotic failure or success but of transcendent wholeness (agape) that opens beyond the limits of the finite self. In Lowell’s image from Vermeer the sunlight creeps toward “his girl solid with yearning.” Oh really? Look again. Vermeer has other things in mind.

Lowell’s gift of gab —- “We are poor passing facts, / warned by that”: half right. We ARE, metaxically thinking, “poor passing facts” and in our finitude we learn our limits in no uncertain terms. Like the word “warned,” the vernacular phrase “no uncertain terms” is a figure which may disfigure the moment of happening which is the poem. But if the reader hears the voice of the poem, terms established by the end of the poem transcend us by transfiguring the present. This was something Lowell had problems with, great poet though he was.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at tom.develyn@comcast.net. D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at http://tdevelyn.com and other sites.

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