Sunday, November 13, 2005

"To Margaret Fuller Drowned"

I think I mentioned a couple of months ago that I purchased the 1970 version of Robert Lowell's Notebook. There were various editoins of the text (from 1967 to 1970) and with each one Lowell expanded/revised. He published a pair of full edtion in 1969:
This text differs from the first edition in May 1969 and the second in July. About a hundred of the old poems have been changed, some noticeably. More than ninety new poems have been added. These have not been placed as a single section or epilogue. They were scattered where they caught, intended to fulflesh my poem, not sprawl into chronicle. I am loath to display a litter of variants, and hold up a still target for the critic who knows that most second thoughts, when visible, are worse thoughts. I am sorry to ask anyone to buy this poem twice. I couldn't stop writing, and have handled my published book as if it were a manuscript." (264)
Lowell then goes on to list a sequence of dates stating that "Dates fade faster than we do....I list a few that figure either directly or obliquely in my text..." (265). The list includes the various wars, riots, protests, assassinations, uprisings, and the death of Che Guevara. The Vietnam War bookends this list, with a desperate -- coming at the end of the list of years: "1970, --" (265). It would be, of course 5 more yeas before the Vietnam War ended. Lowell himself only had seven more years before he died in the back seat of a New York cab of a heart attack.
I am interested in Lowell's work not so much because his poetry appeals to me (at times I think it belaboured and too dense to enjoy) because of the odd development of this text; how it is several texts, in fact, in one. What Lowell apologizes for is what makes it intriguing to me. I've been looking for various editions of it to get the full textual sense of it and how the events of the time seem to shape these poems. This is interesting to me because Lowell has been ascribed simply as a poet of the interior monologue (that is he writes simply about himself and his own story.) Lowell, obviously, did not see his poem Notebook that way. To him it seems to incorporate the period and seems to have some political/cultural import.
The various "sonnets" (the entire Notebook is broken into 14 line poems of mostly blank verse) all seem to need a key that Lowell doesn't necessarily supply, but they are also intriguingly compelling in their comment on American culture:

Earth of our pot I smashed dogs me four flights--
you are your biographer's best American woman,
in a white nightgown, hair fallen long
at the foot of the foremast, Margaret Fuller
forty, Angelo thirty, Angelino one--
drowned with brief anguish, together, and your fire-call
Your voice was like thorns crackling under a ot
you knew the Church loads and infects as all dead forms,
however brave and lovely in their life;
progress is not by renunciation.
'Ourselves,' you wrote, 'are all we know of heaven.
With the intellect, I always can
and always shall make out, but that's not half--
the life, the life, O my God, will life never be sweet?'
In my notes on "Margaret Fuller Drowned" I note that I was particularly concerned with the number of times that Fuller's voice was mentioned. She offers a clarion call, as it were, but also seems to be screaming while being drowned. Fuller, of course, was from that idealist/transcendental school that saw man as part divine and certainly perfectable (thus all the utopian colonies of the time--see Blythesdale Romance or even a biography of Fuller herself). Lowell seems to be projecting Fuller and her transcendental idealism into the future, but also into a stark reality that was also there. Despite their best intentions and their highest expectations, transcendentalists were on the verge of watching American blow a part in bloody civil war.
Progess is not by renunciation? Progress is not by renunciation. Hmm. Perhaps that is the comment Lowell is making. The world is a knowable place and you can make sense of it.
Can you Margaret? Did you while you were drowning with your Angelo and Angelino? Is this the dirt from the pot that sticks to (dogs) the poets feet four flights?

I've had this idea of a story where the ghost of Robert Lowell haunts a perfectly unsuspecting person (one who has never heard of him) or something like that. It should be worth a laugh or two.


  1. Did you read that series of letters Lowell wrote to E. Bishop, published a few months ago in The New Yorker? It gave a very strong sense of him, I thought. Maybe a year ago, I read a review of Lowell's letters (maybe?) in which the reviewer asserted that Lowell might have been the last poet who truly believed the power of poetry to change the world. Something to think about.

  2. No I didn't see that. I'll look for it. I was talking to Mid-B about Lowell the other morning. He does seem to fit in the tradition you define.