Robert von Hallberg

Robert von Hallberg: On " The March II"

The variety of diction and tone in this particular poem results not just from a freedom from any one stiff loyalty but more from an even-handedness that, given the circumstances, ought to be authoritative. The first line sets the casualness of his comrades (he once wrote "heaped," but "flung" better insists on the accidental formation of the group) against the biblical measure of the truly devout, those who gather together in God's name; the irony is gentle and only self-deflating. If this confederation does not quite measure up to its most dignified tradition, neither is the base language of television advertising - "to follow their dream" - quite right either; this group meets in that vast area in between. The tone here is arch, but nowhere flip; the difference between Lowell's archness and Merrill's is crucial. However light Lowell can seem, he is never far from earnestness: "our Bastille, the Pentagon ... my cowardly, / foolhardy heart." Those oppositions locate the seriousness. He admits, with amused sophistication, to fearful quaking but also claims, all the more forcefully for the line break, courage beyond prudence; insofar as the Pentagon is the Bastille to be stormed, one must be foolhardy - or, better, ironic - just to stay with the fight. The end of the first sentence, closing the octave, is above all else convincingly goodhumored: "how weak / we were, and right." To speak of a political poem of 1967 as good-humored, urbane, and yet serious is high, rare praise.

Lowell's seriousness might possibly be questioned in the octave, but surely not in the sestet, where the poem turns and turns again, in the plainest of idioms. The trampling second wave of troops comes without warning or explanation, all the more surprising after the mincing first contingent - and also without reason. There is no suggestion of malice or of motive at all; the stunning charge is only part of the unexplained circumstances, perhaps even a goof. Lowell renders no reproach, only an urbane but plain toast to "those who held" but also to a soldier who, out of simple human kindness that knows nothing of political encampments, broke ranks and helped him regain his footing." The last turn, not altogether a surprise, is that having toasted those who held, he flees, recovering the sophisticated composure of the octave, where his cowardice was admitted in advance. The poem ends with comprehensive resolution, Lowell having given up nothing: not his irony about the composition of the demonstrators, his doubt about the possibility of success, his admission of his own weakness, or above all else his claim to a sensibility that, however urbane, includes admiration for simple virtues directly expressed - "your kind hands." The poem is richly sensitive, intelligent, and wholly conscionable, as rather few political poems, especially of 1967, are.

Robert von Hallberg: On "Inauguration Day: January 1953"

In the 1952 election, New York went solidly for Aldai Stevenson, the candidate favored by intellectuals. Robert Lowell was deeply disappointed at Stevenson's stunning loss to Eisenhower; intellectuals felt shut out of office. This poem gives a powerful sense of how it was then to stand in the cold: frosty, yes, but for a poet invigorating too; with alienation came fresh access to biting, severe statement such as a poet has to be grateful for, though perhaps only in the short run. The political stakes of the 1952 election looked especially high to intellectuals; as Lowell represents them, they were cosmic. General Grant ended his bloody wilderness campaign with the battle of Cold Harbor, the worst slaughter of the war--that is the historical reference Lowell thought appropriate to Eisenhower's election. Even for New Yorkers, though, speaking of Eisenhower as an outland candidate was stretching things some: two years earlier, he had been president of Columbia. Yet Stevenson was plainly the northeastern, urban favorite, and he lost miserably. The forces behind Eisenhower's victory, as Lowell saw them, included a tradition of warrior-presidents such as Grant but, more important, the deathly spirit of America, the mausoleum in the heart of the nation. So sweeping is Lowell's vision here that even the stars are meant to figure in this historical moment, and in an odd way. Those fixed stars are being cracked open, like atoms, to mark a world-historical moment. Lowell manages, quite surprisingly, to associate Eisenhower with nuclear fission, even though the only person ever to order the military use of nuclear weapons was the outgoing Democratic president. (Of course, Eisenhower was involved in the decision to devastate Dresden, in protest of which Lowell refused induction and served a six-month prison sentence.) Lowell's effort to magnify the political loss suffered by Democrats, especially the urban, intellectual Democrats, was so strenuous that Civil War history, astronomy, and an odd manipulation of recent military history were all made to lend resonance to the moment. Given this bird's-eye view of the culture, a single political division becomes the axis for dividing the cosmos. In 1953, when to most observers the nation was settling in for a snooze, the culture seemed in extremis to Lowell; so he reverted conspicuously to the extremist style of his War book, Lord Weary's Castle. It would be another fifteen years before the culture would seem similarly doomed to many of his contemporaries.

Robert von Hallberg: On "The Day Lady Died"

Hamburger indeed. The contours seem to have been shaved off the experience the poem reports. Poetry from New York or Ghana, Verlaine, Hesiod, Brendan Behan, or Genet (lines 14-18): the time, the place (trains named after "points in time," as they say), even the language matters little. The whole world and all of history is right there in Manhattan, on 17 July 1959, for the buying, piece by piece, of Strega, Gauloises, Picayunes (lines 21-25). Distance is reduced by the pulp press, which is dominated by the lower-middle class (the New York Post, not the Times); poetry, modernism, these international zones of experience have no special force here. AU art is brought close not by tradition, as Eliot had said, but by mass production, cheapness.

All principles for arraying emphasis and registering discriminations have been flattened. The rhyme in the third fine is only a chance thing, and the first of the poem's nineteen "and"s (in the same line) makes an arbitrary connection. And as syntax and prosody go, so does social order: O'Hara says that he will be the dinner guest of strangers that night and then recounts his efforts to find suitable gifts for Patsy and Mike, who are made to seem his hosts." This easy familiarity, O'Hara suggests--Patsy, Mike, Linda--should not be too easily sniffed at; the reference to the well-known translator of Homer invokes an ancient sanction for gift giving and the entertaining of strangers and for paratactic syntax. The power of the poem is in its inadvertent, banal approach to an earnest genre: the subject of the elegy does not even emerge until the poem is nearly complete, as though the great theme (death) can now only be talked around:

... a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of  leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT  while she whispered a song along the keyboard  to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.

Beside the example of Billie Holiday, well eroded by the time she worked with Mal Waldron (1957-1959), Partisan Review complaints about the difficulty of making art in a culture so leveled by mass culture as America was in 1959 sound disingenuous. For most of her career, her audiences were small and sometimes difficult of access. In 1947 the New York Police Department denied her a cabaret licence, as many other jazz musicians were similarly punished for drug offenses. (During her final illness, she was arrested in her New York hospital room for illegal possession of drugs.) She was a singer who knew well how difficult reaching a fit audience might be, but even in her decline, O'Hara says, she took one's breath away and this elegy is literally directed at the renovation of that cliché of mass-culture advertising, the "breath-taking performance." The poem ends with much more than the apparent universal swoon for a great torch singer. "Everyone," he says in the last line, suggesting that a poet might well take pleasure in 1959 from the fact that some art can directly reach us all, and that nearly all art, African, French, and Irish, can be had now for the asking. The Bastille had been stormed, and if it turned out to be emptier than expected only the expectations deserve criticism. New York, even the New York Post, was moving still.

From American poetry and Culture, 1945-1980. Copyright © 1985 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Robert von Hallberg: On "Daddy"

It took a long time for readers and critics to appreciate the importance of gender in Plath, and among confessional poets generally. Lowell confesses to a failure to sympathize adequately with his father. Plath, though, reveals a severity in her feelings about her father that makes questions of fairness or sympathy entirely moot. "Daddy, I have had to kill you," she states plainly. Hers is a stunningly performative poetic:

There's a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you. 


They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.


Here in the last strophe of "Daddy" literal biographical truth is obviously irrelevant. The construction of a voice -- nasty, proud, murderous -- is what matters. The second and fourth lines here recover the meanness of an angry child, and the insistent rhymes running through the poems she composed in a rush just months before her suicide repeatedly evoke the source of strong feeling in childhood. After two decades in which American and English poets concentrated their efforts on complications of tone, carefully measured ironies, Plath breaks through to the art of the fantastically overdone.

From The Cambridge History of American Literature, Volume 8, Poetry and Criticism, 1940-1995. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Copyright © Cambridge University Press.