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This review is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.

TAKING LOWELL LITERALLY ROBERT LOWELL, Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter with the editorial assistance of DeSales Harrison (Faber) £40.00

The publication of a poet's `Collected' is justifiably an occasion for a celebratory reassessment of the work that has merited collection. So it has proven with the publication of the much-delayed Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. Most of the reviews, the best of which is Adam Kirsch's in the TLS, are careful recapitulations of Lowell's writing, especially his shift to a more personal or confessional verse in mid-career, and a judgement of where Lowell stands canonically. As to the latter question, in the judgement of most critics Lowell seems to have slipped in comparison to contemporaries such as Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. The consensus is that even if Lowell's `confessional' verse was shocking when he introduced it into his writing, he is still too monumental, and even ponderous, a writer to appeal to a generation uninterested in and even distrustful of public life; he is, as Kirsch, suggests, too illegibly bronze.

The irony, of course, is that Lowell's history poems were never not personal: they were carefully mediated dissections of New England's myths in which the author's own marginal position in the Wasp aristocracy - his palpable sense of personal and societal declension - infused his reconstructions of past time. He wrote of the great Puritan, `You stood on stilts in the air,/but you fell from your parish./All winding is by a winding stair.' And he foresaw his own fate at the end of the great poem `Waking in the Blue:' `I strut...'


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