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Robert Lowell at 100: why his style has never been more relevant

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Lowells confessional the actions of the 1960 s recognized a sea change in American notes then he fell out of privilege. But on the eve of his centenary, his work offers an urgent political message in a time of Trump

I was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House, wrote the poet Robert Lowell, and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March, 1917. With his aristocratic background all the inherited furniture and ancestral descriptions surrounding him as small children, as he recalled in the memoir 91 Revere Street perhaps its no surprise, reading Lowell 100 years after his delivery, that he was often preoccupied with the guide of period. Thirty-one/ Nothing done, he writes in 1948. A decade later: These are the tranquillized Fifties,/ and I am forty. In the elegiac Grandparents , he stands over his late grandfathers billiards table and sees his own life-lease.

Lowell is best known for his fourth collecting, Life Studies( 1959 ). He vacated the close-fisted metrical different forms of his earlier work for free verse, facilitating him articulated his experiences and the instability of postwar America. Radiant and unsettling, Lowell examines his mothers happy matrimony, his responses to their deaths and his contests of manic depression, in a pioneering mode of confessional writing( the C-word, as Michael Hofmann threw it ). His psychological penetrations are as sharp as the locked razor of Waking in the Blue; in the superb Skunk Hour, his lucidity perforates the darknes: My recollections not right.

Listen to Robert Lowell read Skunk Hour

In an age when we narrate our lives online, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary Lowells candour seemed to his contemporaries. Not that the poems are unmediated or spontaneous: he was a strict rewriter, who modified information where it suited him and whose finished poems rarely contained a line of his first drafts. But Life Studies opened up brand-new the potential for poetic subject matter and constituted Lowell, along with his friends John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, one of the most influential poets of the mid-2 0th century. Sylvia Plath, who was taught by Lowell at Boston University, hailed his intense breakthrough into extremely serious, very personal, psychological experience which has been partly taboo.

Lowell could still make art from life. The deed poem of his collecting For the Union Dead( 1964) integrates American social change with personal loss. In 1973, he controversially deployed characters from his second partner, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, in The Dolphin. Fellow poet Bishop considered this move crass and unethical, telling him: Artwork just isnt worth that much.

Listen to Lowell read For the Union Dead

Today, Bishops popularity is soaring while Lowells has lessened. Seamus Heaney once attributed that is something that Lowells background and the orchestral gate-crash of his lyric: Lowell was a white-hot Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, a Eurocentric, egotistical exalted, writing as if he intended to be heard in a high breeze. Its not always easy to feel sympathy for the purposes of an creator with a trust fund and whose category have their own graveyard. But Lowell knew he was privileged, and the beauty and specificity with which he describes his world-wide causes infinite for the reader to reflect on these experiences. His writing may even have subtle political meanings for our times; the poet Claudia Rankine, who cites Life Studies as an influence on her groundbreaking 2015 piece Citizen: An American Lyric, interprets in Lowells book a struggle with the construction of whiteness.

Grand, intimate, eccentric, funny, vexing the expres of Lowell, who perished in 1977, is distinctly American. Perhaps as youd expect of somebody who had an ancestor on the Mayflower and was a friend of Jackie Kennedy. Nevertheless, Lowell was consistently at odds with the U.s. government, sufficing prison occasion as a conscientious objector during the second world war, repudiating an invitation to the White House in 1965 to demonstration Lyndon Johnsons foreign policy, speaking at the March on the Pentagon in 1967.

This January, while watching Donald Trumps inauguration I switched off the TV and reached for Lowells sonnet Inauguration Day: January 1953, which purifies an atmosphere of disaffection in New York as a brand-new period of old missteps begins in Washington under President Eisenhower: The Republic invokes Ike/ the mausoleum in her nature. In his centenary time, it seems Lowell still speaks to us with revamped urgency.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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