The events of Lowell’s actual biography made him give up a sense that his life would be either healthy or straightforward. His imagination enabled him to create work that still matters to us, none of whose lives seem, at this point, to be easily recognizable as either. His poems about mental illness anticipate a twenty-first-century culture in which having a diagnosis has become as overstated and necessary as having a college degree. In the best of these, illness refuses to pigeonhole itself as a disability or dramatize itself as a privilege of the artist. “Notice,” from Day by Day, passes into the twenty-first century familiar to anyone who’s ever mistaken a medical professional for someone who can tell you the meaning of life:The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm—
how can we help you?”
“These days of only poems and depression—
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”A poem like this doesn’t only anticipate a world in which no “normal” exists, either in psychological condition or in life plan: it imagines a world in which the idea of “the normal” has been almost forgotten. Nowhere is this understanding more moving than in Lowell’s treatment of his complicated family life, in Notebook, For Lizzie and Harriet, and especially The Dolphin, with his last two marriages braided together in time with children and stepchildren and across an ocean. Don’t we all wish we—or someone—could have planned our lives better? Lowell admits that feeling and lets it go. He stands vividly in the midst of experience, when all we’d thought we’d known demands to be known again. The final lines of “Notice” remind us how bravely Lowell stood in his own discomfort: “Then home—I can walk it blindfold. / But we must notice— / we are designed for the moment.”
This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2017 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2017 by the Academy of American Poets. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/fragility-and-repetition-poetry-robert-lowell
The First World War ... 1914–18. In those years, more than 15 million men of the major nation-states massacred each other in the interests of their respective capitalisms.
(—in, Introducing Heidegger, A Graphic Guide, by Jeff Collins)There’s more at issue here than the posturing rhetoric suggests.