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This article is taken from PN Review 8, Volume 5 Number 4, July - September 1979.

Robert Lowell and the Literature Industry Donald Hall

WHEN Theodore Roethke died at fifty-five in 1963, he left in galley The Far Field, his best work. When Yeats died his posthumous Last Poems revealed that he had regained, between the ages of seventy and seventy-four, the powers he had appeared to lose in his middle sixties. I had hoped that Robert Lowell, after the disastrous collections of recent years, would emerge into old age with energy and genius as Yeats had done. But when Lowell died last September, he had just published Day by Day, a volume as slack and meretricious as Notebook and History which preceded it. The great poet died thirteen years earlier, with the publication of For the Union Dead.

One would not know it, from the book reviews or from the academy. The Literature Industry manufactures truisms like slogans. For years, as we have known that Ford had a better idea, or that Winston tastes good like a cigarette should, we have known that Robert Lowell was our greatest living poet. No matter how self-indulgent his latest self-imitation, the New York Times Book Review would agree to its genius. I suspect that this inflation-made windier now by his death-helped precipitate the appalling decline in Lowell's achievement.

Inflation is the Literature Industry's product. If the Faulkner dies, the Industry shouts: Long live the Faulkner!;-and Saul Bellow becomes a major novelist. To speak of an Industry is to risk suggestions of paranoia. I do not see a network of Smersh agents ...


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