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October 31, 1963 Guggenhiem Museum From the Academy Audio Archive

About this poet

On March 1, 1917, Robert Lowell was born into one of Boston's oldest and most prominent families. He attended Harvard College for two years before transferring to Kenyon College, where he studied poetry under John Crowe Ransom and received an undergraduate degree in 1940. He took graduate courses at Louisiana State University where he studied with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks.

His first and second books, Land of Unlikeness (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944) and Lord Weary's Castle (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 at the age of thirty, were influenced by his conversion from Episcopalianism to Catholicism and explored the dark side of America's Puritan legacy. Under the influence of Allen Tate and the New Critics, he wrote rigorously formal poetry that drew praise for its exceptionally powerful handling of meter and rhyme. Lowell was politically involved—he became a conscientious objector during the Second World War and was imprisoned as a result, and actively protested against the war in Vietnam—and his personal life was full of marital and psychological turmoil. He suffered from severe episodes of manic depression, for which he was repeatedly hospitalized.

Partly in response to his frequent breakdowns, and partly due to the influence of such younger poets as W. D. Snodgrass and Allen Ginsberg, Lowell in the mid-1950s began to write more directly from personal experience, and loosened his adherence to traditional meter and form. The result was a watershed collection, Life Studies (Faber and Faber, 1959), which forever changed the landscape of modern poetry, much as Eliot's The Waste Land had three decades before. Considered by many to be the most important poet in English of the second half of the twentieth century, Lowell continued to develop his work with sometimes uneven results, all along defining the restless center of American poetry, until his sudden death on September 12, 1977, from a heart attack at age sixty. Robert Lowell served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1962 until his death.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Day by Day (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977)
Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1976)
The Dolphin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
For Lizzie and Harriet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973)
Notebooks, 1967-1968 (1969)
The Voyage and Other Versions of Poems by Baudelaire (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1968)
Near the Ocean (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967)
Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1965)
For the Union Dead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1964)
Imitations (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961)
Life Studies (Faber and Faber, 1959)
The Mills of the Kavanaughs (Harcourt, Brace, 1951)
Poems, 1938-1949 (Faber and Faber, 1950)
Lord Weary‘s Castle (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946)
Land of Unlikeness (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1944)

Prose

The Collected Prose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987)

Anthology

Prometheus Bound (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969)
Phaedra and Figaro (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1961)

Drama

The Old Glory (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1965)


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Skunk Hour

Robert Lowell, 1917 - 1977
For Elizabeth Bishop


Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop.  Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she's in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season's ill--
we've lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue.  His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy 
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet's filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler's bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he'd rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill's skull,
I watched for love-cars.  Lights turned down, 
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind's not right.

A car radio bleats,
'Love, O careless Love . . . .' I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
I myself am hell,
nobody's here--

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air--
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.

From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell's poetry collection Life Studies is considered by many to have changed the landscape of modern poetry.

by this poet

poem
My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman's-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will
poem

 

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poem
History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had--
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
his baby