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This review is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March - April 2006.

LIFE STUDIES The Letters of Robert Lowell, edited by Saskia Hamilton (Faber) £30

The immediacy of Lowell's letters recalls the immediacy of his poems - moments captured by a particular eye, a particular I. In a letter to literary scholar John Haffenden, he muses on correspondence and remembrance, saying, 'If there's an afterlife, I think I'd spend it living and reading everything written to me. It becomes so rapidly vague, one forgets almost everything in old letters, particularly the brilliant details.' A reader of life stories and a chronicler of his own experiences, he understood that those details are what biographies and autobiographies strive for yet inevitably lack. And despite the copious supply of letters and interviews in Ian Hamilton's successful Robert Lowell: A Biography, it is in Saskia Hamilton's (no relation) collection of Lowell's letters that one listens to his voice, his head, his heart.

An endless reviser of his poetry ('I've been writing poems like a house afire, i.e. for me that means five in six weeks, fifty versions of each', to William Carlos Williams in 1957), Lowell was meticulous with words in print. But excluding the self-consciousness of early letters to mentors - the Harvard freshman's first contact with Pound in Italy, for example - there is nothing overly wrought here. Even in that first missive to Pound, he confides: 'Writing and trying to help one or two friends have been the only real things in life for me. At college, I have yearned after iron and have been choked with ...


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