Robert Lowell is, for me, the inescapable elder poet, and Day by Day is the inescapable book. It is where you go if you want to see where American poetry last set into major balance an art fully aware of its traditions and an experimental openness to unliterary raw material. Leaving behind the ruck and rubble of Notebook and History, it steps beyond the Cyclopean masonry blocks of the unrhymed sonnets of The Dolphin and ventures into irregular but adamantine shapes of feeling and thought. The smashed sonnets may suggest the smashed life or lives the book loosely recounts: aging friends, dead friends, dead parents, are summoned; a marriage is chronicled in its dilapidations; mental breakdown sends the suffering speaker once again to a hospital. From these wreckages and from the wreck of stricter verse form, Lowell has saved the aphoristic essentials, and broken through to poetic renewal in the very recognition of failure. Sacrifice, truly executed, earns recompense, and these poems do.
Lowell at his best was always a master of compression. Day by Day takes those compacted experiences and makes a technique of them, a newly flexible lineation, more versatile and conversational rhythms, always in tension against the implied spiritual order of the pentameter. Because the matter of these poems appears diaristic, experiential, even haphazard, their crystallizing into such sharp shape strikes a paradoxical bargain between the particular and the general, as between the fluid and the hard-edged. At the deepest level, it’s the age-old lyric bargain, renegotiated, between the flow of time and the arrested eternity of fixed form. Lowell registers this contrast as the very process of our consciousness of dying: “My eyes flicker, the immortal/ is scraped unconsenting from the mortal.” (“Endings”). Note the swift work done by the comma, consummating this recognition in a run-on sentence; note also that the classic discovery here takes place in the classic English meter, iambic pentameter.
Yet the strength in Day by Day lies in its refusal to take refuge in, to rely upon, classic forms, in verse or in truism and consolation. “It’s an illusion death or technique/ can wring the truth from us like water,” “In the Ward” bleakly asserts; and it goes on to expel what we might imagine to be an earlier phase of Lowell’ s art, when a tendency to bombast can be felt, at times, as an imposition of will upon the threatening formlessness of sorrow and fear. “What helpless paperishness,/ if vocation/ is only shouting what we will,” the poem continues. These poems have incorporated damage, guilt, and psychic disintegration, and have won their shapes from them, not over them. Another bargain struck anew, and renewed, in Day by Day is the commerce between the personal and the impersonal. Such a transaction, in itself, is nothing new in Lowell, who by virtue of birthright and education always felt himself to be somehow heraldically related to the experience of the nation. But Day by Day accentuates both the vulnerable singularity of the “I” and the “I’s” absorption into communal pattern. Both recognitions occur in stark syntactic economy. The “I” questions itself in a poised repetition, a seesaw of doubt, in “To Mother”: “It has taken me the time since you died/ to discover you are as human as I am…/ if I am.” With equal clarity, the “I” in “Death of a Critic” affirms, “The age burns in me.” When this book rises to majesty - and I believe it does - it is when the intensity of private experience has exerted such pressure upon poetic form that the “I” no longer subsists as a personal element at all, but contracts to diamantine hardness and generality. “Folly comes from something - /the present, yes,/ we are in it;/ it’s the infection/ of things gone…” (“We Took Our Paradise”).
These poems have rescued humility from their damages, and a directness which is prose’s best gift to poetry. The book itself makes an offering of its brokenness, an art of its uglification. If we look for an ars poetica to describe this art of lucid and subtle crudity, an art of truth which apparently sacrifices much in the way of inherited lyric beauty, we have to look no further than “Thanks-Offering for Recovery,” which presents a Brazilian ex voto head:
It is all childcraft, especially
its shallow, chiseled ears,
crudely healed scars lumped out
to listen to itself, perhaps, not knowing
it was made to be given up.
I would take you to church,
if any church would take you…
This winter, I thought
I was created to be given away.
In their lack of ornamentation, these lines may indeed seem to be crudely healed scars; but a second look ascertains the extraordinary image for self-consciousness in the carving’ s ears “lumped out/ to listen to itself,” and notes the elegance of the chiasm binding the paradox of giving and receiving in “I would take you to church,/ if any church would take you.”
No one would want Robert Lowell’s life, with its repetitive manic breakdowns, its family destructions, its incarcerations in jail and mad-houses (spaces that curiously resemble the patrician institutions of his class, the soccer courts and dormitories of prep school). But out of his turmoil, Lowell drew an art of excruciating insight into our violences past and present, private and public. Out of shared historical consciousness, he precipitated a poetry of solitude, and rediscovered, in his own way, the truth of Horace’s Torquatus Ode, IV, 7:
Non, Torquatus, genus, non te facundia, non te