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This article is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

Robert Lowell Behaving Badly

‘I mad, you mad for me’
Tony Roberts
‘O to break loose. All life’s grandeur
is something with a girl in summer...’

ROBERT LOWELL, ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’

SCHADENFREUDE? Do we read biographies to gloat? I thought we read from an interest in or admiration for their subject, that and to have the work live again by other means. Yet on the sleeve of Jeffrey Meyers’ Robert Lowell in Love (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), Paul Mariani, (earlier a sympathetic biographer of Lowell) describes its compelling quality in these terms: ‘Meyers has turned the pain of all into a honeycomb for us to enjoy with a guilty, cathartic kind of Schadenfreude.’ I find it hard to see Robert Lowell in Love as ‘enjoyable’, though I admit it is a page-turner. I was left wondering if Mariani’s comment is a sly criticism of what is a racy study of a man behaving badly.

When it comes to writing about a manic love life you are walking the tightrope of confessions, letters, memories, opinions, rumours, and the plunge is into the titillating stuff of celebrity gossip. There is mileage in this sort of study to the extent that it sheds light on the poetry, and a serious study – and Meyers is keen on establishing seriousness – would have to pursue the life and work, especially when its subject is a leading poet who lived the two as one. It would also have to be finely nuanced. In this book, the ironic, Falstaffian title rather gives the game away: we are in the land of appetite and confession. ...

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