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Tag: Robert Lowell

David Stephen Calonne: A biographer of skill, humour and insight

“There is absolutely no plan to it,” Charles Bukowski once claimed speaking about the process of writing, “it’s just me, the typewriter and the chair”. In reality, this was not strictly true says David Stephen Calonne in his new critical study. “Writing was for him,” explains Calonne, “a kind of ritual accompanied by four necessary accessories; alcohol, classical music, the sound of the typewriter, tobacco.” Toward the end of Bukowski’s life the list was extended by the addition of cats – the “smart/spontaneous, self-/absorbed, naturally poised and awesomely/beautiful” creatures – who not only lay at his feet while he wrote but also often made into the writing. They teach us humans, Bukowski observed in a poem called Exactly Right, a “grand lesson in persevering”. A worthy lesson indeed but one Bukowski didn’t need tutelage-in having spent years at his typewriter trying to make it. And when he did finally make it, he made it all the way to the prestigious Huntington Library in San Marino, California, where his literary archive is now kept alongside William Shakespeare, Galileo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Langston Hughes, Jack London et al. “To many it is a matter of some pleasurable amusement,” says Calonne at the end of the book, “that Bukowski’s literary legacy is now housed in this cathedral of culture which is located not far from his own preferred temple – the San Anita race track where he spent so many happy days and evenings.” This would no doubt be a source of some amusement to Bukowski himself, who has also recently made it to the literary (web) pages of The Daily Telegraph.

In this slight but expansive 170-odd page book Calonne covers every aspect and angle of Bukowski’s life, from his childhood to his old age, from his friendships to his relationships, from his work to his leisure,  providing a wonderfully complete overview of this enigmatic barroom-bard whose life, at least in theory, seems full of contradictions. Bukowski wanted literary success but hated fame; was brutish but frangible, forthright but guarded, sensitive but apodictically chauvinistic. And yet, toward the end when age had finally bestowed its wisdom and the bravado had dissipated somewhat, Bukowski unclenched revealing his “tender emotional nakedness,” which began to mark his work. To illustrate this ostensible shift Calonne quotes from Bluebird, a poem which very clearly bridges the gap between Bukowski’s “outer image and his wounded heart”. It is all there in the artless sincerity, when Bukowski says: “there’s a bluebird in my heart that/wants to get out/but I’m too tough for him/I say, stay in there, I’m not going/to let anybody see/you.” But – perhaps faced with his own mortality – Bukowski knew that he had to let us see him, this bluebird, which he had kept hidden for so long. Subsequently, his late style was defined by an “increased attention to death, to his literary heroes, to his cats, to a new metaphysical, stripped-down and often tender lyricism”. Calonne also notes that during this particular time Bukowski kept heed of world news and current affairs, commemorating events such as the 1992 LA riots in his work.

Never a political writer, however, Bukowski preferred to concentrate on what he knew best, drinking, women, the racetrack, love. In one of his two essays on poetry, Basic Training, he says he always endeavoured to hurl himself towards his “personal god: SIMPLICITY”. But it was sheer determinism that proved to be the sulphur in his blood, the superhuman resilience to incalculable personal and professional rejections. Bukowski would often say that it was, in fact, his father who made him a writer because he first became interested in literature as a means of escape from the harrowing reality of his early domestic life. “His literary style was forged in the crucible of his youthful anguish,” writes Calonne, “as he would learn to handle words as if they were fists, pounding back at the injustices he had endured.” This bravura would eventually evolve into “his characteristic sarcasm, tough guy persona and his combination of courtly style with rough house antics”. Calonne adds that Bukowski’s way of coping was by “rebelling, revolting against everything, with a bit of charming humour thrown into the mix.” Again, this would become a defining trait, running through his uberous canon, adding to it a touch of impertinence and wisecracking which is distinctly his own.

Bukowski started out with poetry, short fiction, essays and reviews but by the 1970s his champion and friend John Martin suggested he tackle a novel. “Bukowski took immediate action,” writes Calonne, “he sat before his typewriter each evening precisely at the time he used to begin work at the Post Office: 6:18”. A mere 19 days later he had finished a book, which was published on 8th February 1971. Post Office has been translated into over 15 languages and remains one of Bukowski’s most popular works. This is partly because it has wide-ranging themes, depicting everyday working class life in a distinctively “scatological, sexual and colloquial style,” which Bukowski fashioned after one of his literary heroes, Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It is also a work that clearly sprung from the vantage point of experience. “The book telescopes various periods of Bukowski’s life,” Calonne explains, “returning to the early 1950s, when he worked as a mail carrier; snarling dogs, sexual encounters with lonely women; the struggle to memorise postal codes.” It is not entirely clear, the biographer suggests, whether Martin approached Bukowski to write full time or vice versa but the leap toward a literary career came just at the right time as Bukowski’s absenteeism from work and association with underground newspapers had not gone unnoticed by his employers at the Post Office. In many respects, Bukowski’s writing was more auspicious or at least more constant than his personal life. Here too, Calonne has every angle covered, chronicling his subject’s romantic inconcinnities with objective sympathy.

Calonne’s book is meticulously researched and assembled from select excerpts of Bukowski’s saporous letters, poems, novels and other elements of autobiography he left behind. The biographer has extensive knowledge of his subject and beyond, which he uses to construct multiple interpretative frameworks to present Bukowski’s work, his dualistic German/American identity and his place in today’s literary landscape. Unrefined, voluble and ventripotent, with  “beer-maddened” breath, coarse canescent hair, speck-brown eyes and a face like a cribriform plate, due to severe adolescent acne, Bukowski was never a typical man of letters. But by his fortieth year, says Calonne, he “had found his genius and marked out his literary territory,” and thus “the terror of existence” became him subject Literature for Bukowski was always directly related to “his own experience of living” and in a way it led to his innovative and idiosyncratic style. “It is a miswriting of literary history, for example,” says Calonne, “that the ‘Confessional poets’ –  Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton – are given sole credit for the invention of a new mode of self-revelation, which dealt with the most intimate, hidden and painful aspect of the psyche, when actually Bukowski was doing this form the outset.” Calonne is clearly passionate about his subject and it shows as the book comes wonderfully together to illustrate a man’s life through the biographer’s lens of skill, humour and insight.

Publisher: Reaktion Books 
Publication Date: August 2012
Paperback: 224 pages, 30 illustrations
ISBN: 9781780230238

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Seminal Lines

Two walking cobwebs, almost bodiless,
crossed paths here once, kept house, and lay in beds.
Your fingertips once touched my fingertips
and set us tingling through a thousand threads.
Poor pulsing Fete Champetre! The summer slips
between our fingers into nothingness.

We too lean forward, as the heat waves roll
over our bodies, grown insensible,
ready to dwindle off into the soul,
two motes or eye flaws, the invisible…
Hope of the hopeless launched and cast adrift
on the great flaw that gives the final gift.

Dear Figure curving like a question mark,
how will you hear my answer in the dark?

The Flaw — Robert Lowell

Hart Crane: A visionary poet and “a nephew to confusions”

Hart Crane’s tombstone bares a succinct epitaph, which reads: “Lost at sea.” This is both true in a figurative and literal sense, as most of his life Crane felt at odds with the world; and on 27th April 1932, aged 32, while on-board the steamship SS Orizaba heading back to New York from Veracruz, Crane jumped overboard into the glacious Gulf of Mexico waters.  His body – never recovered – rests somewhere in the bathypelagic depths of the ocean, his marble headstone in his native Garrettsville, Ohio. Crane left behind a slender oeuvre and a miscellany of uncollected essays, verses, reviews and translations. His first poetic offering, White Buildings (1926), was received with genuflections from both his friends and some of the most notable cultural arbiters of 1920s America, including Waldo Frank, Malcolm Cowley, Yvor Winters and Allen Tate. Crane’s premature death has made his legacy into a romantic apologue, disregarding the grody and macabre details of his life. In truth, Crane was chronically manic, creatively congested, often stupendously drunk, prone to episodes of bellicose frenzy and deeply troubled by his homosexuality. He spent his life scrambling for money and love, the latter mostly in cheap one night hotels with brutish sailors and stevedores. He drank in Village speakeasies and Brooklyn waterfront dives to ameliorate the guilt of his sexual misadventures. And sometimes, in between “rings of tumult” and the “immaculate sigh of stars” he wrote poetry. In time, however, his writing became secondary to the protracted, yet unrelenting, process of self-annihilation.

Harold Hart Crane was born on July 21st 1899 to an affluent Cleveland sweets manufacturer. He dropped out of school in his teens and cajoled his parents into sending him to New York, where he hoped to make it as a writer. Ambitious to unsurpassable degree, aged 17 Crane assuredly declared that he would “be one of the foremost poets in America”. Described by his friend Edward Dahlberg as a stocky, virile male with a Jovean square face, mizzling, foggy eyes, gun-metal grey hair and a smouldering, amorous mouth,” Crane soon made an impression on the New York literary set and  was published in some of the leading underground journals of the day.  I first discovered Crane through Robert Lowell who proclaimed him to be the “best writer of his generation”. Intrigued by Lowell’s veneration I picked up a copy of Crane’s Complete Poems & Selected Letters & Prose in a small indie bookshop. The hardback edition comprises most of the poet’s output, including his thoughts on Modern Poetry and the role of the poet, which he says “must be, as always, self-discipline towards a formal integration of experience.” By this virtue, a great deal of Crane’s work is therefore intelligible only to Crane himself. But reading his verses I remembered something T.S. Eliot once said, namely that “what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to the author”.  This interpretative framework has always, if sometimes unwittingly, shaped my relationship with poetry but never more so when reading Crane.

After the publication of White Buildings, Crane began work on his second collection, The Bridge (1930), inspired by the famous Brooklyn monument which he saw every day from his boarding-house window. He laboured on the poems for the next several years, sustaining himself on occasional goodwill of eleemosynary acquaintances. Yet, beleaguered by chronic paucity and the inability to bring the collection to a close Crane left for Paris. His stint in the French capital was cut short after he got himself into a bar brawl and thus had to return to New York. There he eventually finished the collection, which pays homage to the modern city through inspired evocations of tyrannically imposing structures and the onset of industrialisation. The last poem in the collection called Atlantis epitomises the overall feel of The Bridge, particularly in the fourth stanza when Crane says: “Sheerly the eyes, like seagulls stung with rime—/Slit and propelled by glistening fins of light—/Pick biting way up towering looms that press /Sidelong with flight of blade on tendon blade/—Tomorrows into yesteryear—and link/What cipher-script of time no traveller reads/But who, through smoking pyres of love and death/Searches the timeless laugh of mythic spears.” The reception of the book – which shows influence from various poets such as Eliot, Walt Whitman and Percy Bysshe Shelley – was an encouraging and momentous one, as many praised its prosperous marrying of both 19th and 20th century poetic tradition. Unfortunately, by this time Crane’s “bright logic” and creative prowess was waning. His erratic behaviour, unremitting need for attention and money repelled many of those who had uncompromisingly stood by him. And yet, despite the odds Crane managed to earn himself a name among his contemporaries as a visionary poet of the Machine Age, who sought to discover a “complete synthesis of human values” in new forms.

Contrary to critical opinion, some of my favourite Crane poems are those written early on in his career. One such example is Exile, where the poet laments a separation saying: “My hands have not touched pleasure since your hands, –/No, — nor my lips freed laughter since ‘farewell’/And with the day, distance again expands/Voiceless between us, as an uncoiled shell.” Another is Voyages, from his first collection, which already shows Crane’s knack for externalising the emotional and combining the modern with the archaic (Take this Sea, whose diapason knells/On scrolls of silver snowy sentences/The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends/As her demeanours motion well or ill/All but the pieties of lovers’ hands), and Carmen de Boheme , which is beautifully observational especially in the following lines: “Sinuously winding through the room/On smokey tongues of sweetened cigarettes/Plaintive yet proud the cello tones resume/The andante of smooth hopes and lost regrets /Bright peacocks drink from flame-pots by the wall/Just as absinthe-sipping women shiver through/With shimmering blue from the bowl in Circe’s hall/Their brown eyes blacken, and the blue drop hue.” While Interior is simple yet striking (“Wide from the world, a stolen hour/We claim, and none may know/How love blooms like a tardy flower/Here in the day’s after-glow”) as is Postscript (“Though now but marble are the marble urns/Though fountains droop in waning light and pain/Glitters on the edges of wet ferns/I should not dare to let you in again/Mine is a world foregone though not yet ended -/An imagined garden grey with sundered boughs/And broken branches, wistful and unmended/And mist that is more constant than your vows”). The book, containing all of Cranes’ verses, charts his creative development offering the reader a chance to fully appreciate Crane’s evolving futuristic lyricism segueing into robust iconographic images of urban modernity.

A lot of Crane’s strengths lie in his prescience and wild-eyed prophesying about mankind’s progress. His weaknesses stem from these same strengths, which at times seem out-dated. A general overview of the poet’s troubled existence and his work seems to suggest that he was lost at sea in life as well as in death. And yet, Crane managed to leave an infinitesimal, but important, mark as someone who was a visionary and as he himself once said nephew to confusions” both in regard to his personal life and his overall artistic vision. The latter made clear in Crane’s essays and reviews gathered in the book. In one particular instance, writing of fellow poet Maxwell Bodenheim and his collection of poetry, Minna and Myself, Crane notes: “I think that many of these poems will endure though they will probably not be widely popular for the principal reason that they are too distinguished – too peculiar.” A fair and accurate estimation and one which coincidentally also applies to Crane himself.

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: “Together till life’s end”

It must be almost five years ago that I read Robert Lowell’s letters, and ever since then I have been meaning to read his complete correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop. I was given Words in Air several years ago for my birthday and only just recently finished the colossal tome. It is now impossible, at least for me, to think of one poet  without the other, or write about them in that vein, as their friendship, which lasted three decades, survived wars, revolutions, failed marriages, breakdowns and supernumerary love affairs and influenced both their lives and their work more than any of the other tribulations. The two were bound by an ineffaceable connection fortified by a “love that was more than love”, which Lowell once surmised in a letter by saying: “You and I are simply one”. Albeit their love never took form in a physical sense, Bishop was the only constant female fixture throughout Lowell’s life, and for his part, he envisaged the two of them together, “till life’s end”.

Many have viewed Bishop’s life and career, independently of Lowell, through her longstanding relationship with Lota Soares, her “secret problem” with drink, and “the smallest of oeuvres”, a mere 70 poems which saw her status elevated to one of the greatest “20th-century poets” on par with the likes of “T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden”. Even more ascribed this framework of interpretation to Lowell, whose canon burgeoned with fervid alacrity and gathered readership with every volume while Bishop’s remained exclusive compendious and obscure. But for me the two poets have almost always been intrinsically linked together, not only through a lifetime of letters and personal histories but also by an incomparable “conjunction of the minds,” parallel and infinite. Bishop was an alcoholic, Lowell a manic depressive; both were consumed by their craft and an unshakable “dry loneliness,” often finding solace in one another and the thought of freeing themselves from the manacles of social-reality and people’s “universal good-will” by fleeing to Paris or Italy to spend their “declining years”.

The two wrote to one another with great verbal finesse and enthusiasm, whether about their mutual friends, commenting on the deeds and misdeeds of Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Ezra Pound, Allan Tate, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and many others; their work and intertwining artistic endeavours; their lives tinctured by disorder and early sorrows, and everything from the profound to the everyday. Lowell always had the capacity to incite antagonism in orthodox strongholds but was a brilliant, indefatigable, talker and incredibly amusing despite his obdurate frankness. His letters are full of incisive wit, elation, ecstasy, disillusionment, despair, sympathies and admonitions, genuinely vernal raptures, occasional bouts of malice and capricious episodic ellipses, transections, changes of tempo and grammatical errors. Lowell begins one letter with the following: “I was just making my bed (if you could call it “making”) when I became aware of a dull burning smell. ‘God, I must have left a cigarette burning.’ I rush into my other room; no cigarette. Absentmindedly I feel in my pocket. There, a lighted cigarette in holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!” To which Bishop replies in her customary linguistic lambency and unique vernacular of jocularity: “I am mailing you a SAFE if not particularly aesthetic ashtray – I got two of them a while ago. They’re the only ones I’ve ever found that will really hold the cigarette while you write or scratch your head, and yet if you forget it, the cigarette automatically goes out…I was going to give one to Lloyd Frankenberg for Christmas, but they didn’t come in time and now you’re going to get it instead.”

Elizabeth Bishop was introduced to Robert Lowell in January 1947, at dinner party in New York hosted by Randall Jarrell. An exceptionally reticent woman with a, “round face and very thick, unruly, greying hair,” Bishop felt immediately at ease in Lowell’s company and the “backward and forward flow” of supererogatory correspondence commenced immediately, ending only with Lowell’s death in the late 70s. When Bishop wrote the innate shyness which beset her in public was cast aside and thus Lowell was one of very few people cordially inaugurated into this very private woman’s inner life and imagination. Shortly before his passing Lowell wrote to Bishop, “you [have] always been my favourite poet and favourite friend,” and the feeling was wholly mutual. Reminiscing about Lowell looking a “bit rumpled and unkept” with a “large smear of ink across his chin,” Bishop simply concluded that she “loved him at first sight”. In the early years of their friendship the two passed through a shifting and ambiguous phase of mutual attraction, which never developed into anything other than a near proposal of marriage on Lowell’s part during a “long swimming and sunning Stonington [Maine] day” in 1948 when Bishop disclosed to Lowell otherwise uncharted key aspects of her early life.

Almost a decade later, after a manic “harsh frenzy”, Lowell recalls that day, saying: “…our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. Yet I wanted it all to have the right build-up. Well, I didn’t say anything then…I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said…I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things…Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I had used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Neither Bishop nor Lowell mentioned the matter again, but their correspondence moved forward year by year. Lowell would send fresh batches of poems in wait of critique from his “unerring Muse,” but the letters were equally and mutually influential in both their individual artistic development and their personal lives. They emerge in a swirl of vividly-recorded quotidian experiences, full of impromptu snapshots drawn from the casual, peculiar, maudlin and happy domestic moments. Such moments punctuate the letters throughout, their tone often wry and witty but always and consistently sympathetic and longing, and of a literary genre in themselves. The interchange records an unfolding intimacy, a colloquial brilliance and a wealth of literary and social history of the American poetry scene and its outstandingly talented mid-century generation. But above all, they unveil a remarkable connection between two lives inexorably linked together till death, which came to Lowell in a form of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977 and two years later for Bishop who died of a cerebral aneurysm. Their legacy remains characterised by two people who wrote exclusively to and for one another until the “imperfect end”.

Randall Jarrell: A very tender and gracious terror

I never realised what a treasure trove an Oxfam bookshelf can be until I snagged myself a brand new copy of Randall Jarrell’s Letters for the exiguous sum of £4. The letters, thoughtfully selected, edited and annotated by Jarrell’s second wife Mary, span three decades and chronicle the life of a man whose “work-and-amusement” revolved around literature. In writing to Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, John Crowe Ransom, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and other contemporaries Jarrell speaks habitually of the vertiginous peaks and dells of professional life, most often through a sustained colloquial effulgence that allowed his imagination to roam discursively not only over matters of literary interest but also on issues of social and historical importance.

The general consensus about Jarrell is that he was a better, more emphatic and puissant, critic than poet. I am inclined to agree and although his academic brilliance, intellectual dexterity and critical acumen were largely unmatched, his poetry has often been described as “derivative” and “technically lacking”. Admittedly, his verse does not appeal to my aesthetic sensibilities (perhaps with one or two exceptions), but this cannot be said of his collective missives, studded and spiced with humorous musings, clever cogitations and spiffy apophthegms, often vacillating in tone and resulting in a quaint mixture of swagger, reticence, irreverence, coyness and superiority. If there is one aspect that defines Jarrell’s epistolary prose, however, it is his tendency to dash-off quick philippic sentences that strike the reader like a riding-crop. While this device repeatedly buoys the witty, jokey and affectionate argot of his letters, it also comes to the fore in his professional undertakings – most notably his critiques which saw him soar as an important, if formidable, arbitrator of American cultural climate from the 1930s onwards.

Perhaps it is no surprise then that Jarrell was feared among a smattering of garreteers, who ducked like frightened mergansers each time he poised his fountain-pen, much like a rifle, in their direction, since his astringently veracious outbursts went some way to making-and-unmaking reputations. I think it is important to point out, however, that this critic did not discriminate in favour of his friends, nor mind their lepidopterous egos, accosting them in print whenever he felt necessary. Ironically, he did not enjoy this vital sideline, once quoting George Bernard Shaw’s remark about the critic’s fate in reference to himself: “His hand is against every man and every man’s hand is against him.” Endowed with infallible taste and a daunting acuity, he often quipped about his subjects but avowed that he would never sacrifice a poet for the sake of a witticism (while the word “never” may not be entirely accurate, the statement is essentially true). “It would be a hard heart,” Jarrell once said “and a dull head that could condemn, except with a sort of sacred awe.” Yet condemn he did, quite frequently if without much pleasure, and thereby earned himself a reputation as a “terror”.

The letters give us the man behind the polemic, behind the poems and the public-face which he himself at times detested. As such they are a priceless offering providing an extraordinary plenitude of biographical, archival and personal information which plays a vital part in revealing the polarity between Jarrell’s private and professional persona. And so it seems that Lowell, who once described Jarrell as “very tender and gracious” but also as someone whose “frankness” was often thought “more unsettling than the drunken exploits of some divine enfant terrible, such as Dylan Thomas,” was right because in the end, irrespective of how you look at it, the truth is always the same: “People ask you for criticism but they only want praise”.

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