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Life Studies

By Robert Lowell 

Original Publisher: Vintage Books
Current Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Dilruba Ahmed writes:

While the jury is still out on the relationship between creativity and psychosis (see this, this or this), the poetry world includes many writers who have struggled with—and in many cases, written about—mental health concerns. Among the most frequently cited examples we have Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and, of course, Robert Lowell.

In contemporary poetry workshops, students are warned not to conflate the persona of a poem with the writer behind it. In Lowell’s case, not only is he widely regarded as the original confessional poet who was among the first to draw heavily on personal experience in his work, the very structure of Life Studies asks us to blur the boundary between persona and poet. Lowell’s book is a hybrid collection—part poetry, part memoir—with one section consisting of thirty-plus pages of autobiographical prose encouraged by Lowell’s psychotherapist, prose that helped to catalyze Lowell’s shift away from formal conventions and toward looser, more plain-spoken verse.

In a poem that specifically addresses a hospitalization for psychological difficulties, “Home After Three Months Away,” Lowell paints a bleak picture of the speaker’s so-called recovery and suggests that the real work of regaining mental health begins upon the return to a life that has been irrevocably altered.

After his homecoming, Lowell’s speaker reacts to passage of time with detached observation, “Gone now the baby’s nurse / a lioness that ruled the roost / and made the Mother cry,” as well as the exclamatory, disbelieving “Three months! Three months!”  The skeptical speaker obliquely questions his recovery: “Is Richard now himself again?”

If the speaker wants to believe that he can resume normalcy, the sights and sounds around him concur, both the tenderness of a domestic scene and the unspecified voices of collusion.

Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub, each of us pats a stringy lock of hair—
they tell me nothing’s wrong.

The speaker is troubled by deeper preoccupations, however, revealing that, in the aftermath of intense treatment, the struggles of establishing any psychological well-being have just begun: “Though I am forty-one, / not forty now, the time I put away / was child’s play.” Still, Lowell’s speaker attempts to persuade himself that he can reclaim his previous life by pointing out that “…[a]fter thirteen weeks / my child still dabs her cheeks / to start me shaving.”

In this father-daughter scene, the speaker’s sense of certainty about surface appearances begins to blur.

When we dress her in sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush. 

Below, his bleak outlook casts a neglected garden as a “coffin’s length of soil.”

Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin’s length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips below.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigree
imported Dutchmen; now no one need
distinguish them from weed.

The “horizontal tulips” embody the inertia of a speaker who, “recuperating… neither spin[s] nor toil[s].” These leveled flowers rest much like the poet’s dead family members: Lowell’s mother passed away shortly before the hospitalization that gave rise to the poem, outliving his father by only four years. This remarkably dense passage also bespeaks Lowell’s break with his blue-blooded Bostonian family.

In the poem’s grim closing stanza, two end-stopped, declarative sentences emphasize the speaker’s despair and his loss of vitality. 

I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small. 

The word frizzled reminds us of the poem’s first stanza, in which “porkrinds in bowknots of gauze” hung for “three months…like soggy toast,” helping birds “weather a Boston winter.”

Lowell’s speaker remains unconvinced of his recovery and the return to his natural environment—while apparently “cured,” he has lost both his previous markers of identity and any sense of vigor. His loss of “rank and station” may also reflect a Lowell who, albeit rebellious against the conformity of Boston’s upper crust and his aristocratic family, found himself alienated and orphaned before the age of forty.

Dilruba Ahmed’s debut book of poems, Dhaka Dust (Graywolf, 2011), won the 2010 Bakeless Prize for poetry. Ahmed’s writing has appeared in Blackbird, Cream City Review, New England Review, and The Normal School. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives near Philadelphia. For more information, visit her website at www.dilrubaahmed.com. (Photo credit: Mike Drzal)

Poetry Finalists that Year: Not Announced

Poetry Judges that Year: Philip Booth, Stanley Kunitz, M.L. Rosenthal, May Sarton,
James Johnson Sweeney

The Year in Literature: Heart’s Needle by W.D. Snodgrass won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Other Information:

  • Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was born in Boston, MA.
  • When Lowell died of a heart attack in 1977, he was in a cab on his way to see ex-wife and fellow writer Elizabeth Hardwick.

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