POETS Day! Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Today we salute the unsung heroes of POETS Day. The Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday promise of freedom, relaxation, and entertainment ushered in a few hours before the official start of the weekend would go unfulfilled were it not for those willing to work while we play. To the bartenders, Uber drivers, ticket takers, and legally registered Nevada prostitutes we offer a heartfelt thanks. You are the wind beneath our wings. Let’s not let their sacrifice be in vain. Dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization. Nearly all means are justified by the urge to prematurely escape the bonds of employment and settle in at a friendly neighborhood joint a few hours before even happy hour begins (provided you tip), lay comfortably in the grass at a local park (be sure and tell the groundskeeper how much you appreciate his work), go for a swim (fake like you’re drowning so the lifeguard can add a “Local Hero” newspaper clipping to his college applications), or God forbid, go for a light jog (thank the… jogging is antisocial.) It’s your weekend. Give a nod to those whose labors let you do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


Robert Lowell’s The Dolphin, published in 1973, won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Lowell’s second; the first being for 1947’s Lord Weary’s Castle. He was the most confessional of the Confessional Poets, a name given by critics, often over the objections of the poets, rather than a formal association. As the name would imply, the Confessional Poets, Sylvia PlathJohn Berryman, and Anne Sexton among others, delved into their personal lives as all poets will, but they went further, blurring the line between person and persona and exposing aspects regarded usually as deeply private. Despite the Pulitzer, The Dolphin will likely be remembered as the book where Lowell went too far.

The Dolphin chronicles the elision from his first marriage to his second and the birth of his son by his eventual third wife. Lowell took up with Lady Caroline Blackwood, writer and Guinness heiress, while teaching in England. His wife, writer and co-founder of The New York Times Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick and their adolescent daughter Harriet remained in New York. Lowell included letters and remembered phone conversations in the text of his poems.

Little of the text used from the letters was incorporated verbatim. The poet William Logan, writing in The New Criterion, did yeoman’s work comparing letters to The Dolphin in his article “Lowell’s Dolphin.” (He kind of ticked me off because before I read his piece I wrote in my notes “?revenge porn?” and planned on comparing what Lowell did to Hardwick by publishing her private correspondence to the modern phenomenon, but in an otherwise fantastic piece, he beat me to it: “To read the book would have been little better than finding that your ex has been posting nude pictures of you all over the web.” He’s right, but you should have heard me tell it.) He writes:

Having looked until my eyes bled, I could find scarcely twenty lines that came directly from her letters, most in a single poem, ‘Letter [Marriage, 8].’ I’m not counting others so loosely paraphrased Lowell made them his own. Some lines might, of course, have been drawn from conversations or letters now missing—or just cut from whole cloth.

By “cut from whole cloth” Logan is referring to what I see as Lowell’s greatest transgression. He puts a great many of the sonnets – the book is, save two brief poems, entirely blank verse sonnets – in part if not completely enclosed in quotations. The reader without Logan’s time to look “until my eyes bled” but who knows that Hardwick’s letters are source material would have no idea who the actual speaker is. He lets it be known that he quotes her, which he does, but then he puts into quotation his own lines spoken by her persona with no indicator to differentiate. Having stolen her writing, remember that she is an author herself, he usurps her voice and props her on his knee to mouth his mum words. It’s insidious.

Often he paraphrases, but imprecisely. In the December 16, 2019 New YorkerThomas Mallon notes the line concerning Harriet from a March 12, 1971 letter from Hardwick to Blackwood: ““She knows that she will have very little of him from now on and that he belongs to you and all of your children, since his physical presence there and absence here is the most real thing.” In the poem “Green Sore” it becomes “She knows she will seldom see him: / the physical presence or absence is the thing.”

“… I was playing records on Sunday,
arranging all my records, and I came
on some of your voice, and started to suggest
that Harriet listen: then immediately
we both shook our heads. It was like hearing
the voice of the beloved who had died.
All this is a new feeling… I got the letter
this morning, the letter you wrote me Saturday.
I thought my heart would break a thousand times,
but I would rather have read it a thousand times
than the detached unreal ones you wrote before—
you doomed to know what I have known with you,
lying with someone fighting unreality—
love vanquished by his mysterious carelessness.”

Logan said he found most of the twenty directly lifted lines in Letter [Marriage 8] so these fourteen quoted lines very likely are not the words of Elizabeth Hardwick. The implication is that they are. It’s twisted but the fraud lets him motte and bailey his guilt away. On one hand it’s truth revealed. When pressed, it’s a composite and represents the authors interpretation. Either way Hardwick is exposed.

“I know of no other instance in literature where a person is exploited in a supposedly creative act, under his own name, in his own lifetime.” Hardwick wrote to Lowell’s publisher, Robert Giroux. “Records” strikes the reader as an encapsulation of an unguarded moment because it is.

Neither are parent to parent concerns for a child off limits.

“These communications across the sea,
but for once you were almost buoyant—
phone-conversations get so screwed… I wish
I had your lovely letter in my hand
delivered to me by the stately Alex
just the minute you hung up. I’m off
to Dalton to pick up Harriet’s grades and record—
it is frightening to be a soul,
marked in the Book of Judgement once a month,
because you haven’t lived much, and are alive.
Things go on, Pained Heart, another month is gone…
She stayed up talking to us all last night,
giving three brainy women back their blast.
Age is nice… if that’s your age… thirteen.”

Again, all quotes. Hardwick wrote to Lowell:

I feel that our marriage has been a complete mistake from the beginning. We have now gone down in history as a horridly angry and hateful couple. A review is coming out in which Harriet is called “the fictional Terrible Child.” . . . She knows nothing of all this. I am near breakdown and also paranoid and frightened about what you may next have in store, such as madly using this letter.

Lowell was cautioned by those he sent pre-publication manuscripts, most notably by his lifelong friend and confidant Elizabeth Bishop. The acclaimed poet was blunt: “Aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them . . . etc. But art just isn’t worth that much.” The italics are hers.

I may think him a personal ass, but he was brilliant, among the greatest poets of his generation. You don’t have to take my word for it. The June 2, 1967 cover of Time features a cruel artist’s rendering of him complete with stylized laurels. Inside that issue it says “the best American poet of his generation.”

It seems that the great BC/AD moment in American poetry was the publication of Eliot’s The Waste Land, to the consternation of William Carlos Williams. Nothing was the same after. There have been smaller watersheds though. The 1959 release of Lowell’s Life Studies was one. The collection was a first step towards the blending of accuracy of image and “the mix of the immediate present moment with memory” he would achieve in his later works as Saskia Hamilton, editor of the 2019 release The Dolphin, Two Version, 1972-1973, phrased it. His everything-about-me-is-fair-game approach changed how poets see their craft. Again, he clearly went too far in The Dolphin because he tweaked to everything-others-shared-with-me-is-fair-game-too.

He’s a wonderful craftsman. Take the simple line from “Stairwell [Hospital 4]”, “when we stitched two summer months in one?” Not a word is an island. Subtle assonance and alliteration draw the ear along. Take this image from “Fall Weekend at Milgate 1”: “you sit making a fishspine from a chestnut leaf.” Or from “The Friend”: “self-knowledge swimming to the hook, then turning—“. He can be hard to read at times; Hart Crane complex. But like Crane, the fulness of his images and metaphors justify density.

One more poem. He didn’t need Bishop telling him what he already knew.

Draw [Doubt 1]
Robert Lowell (1917-1977)
The cardtable is black, the cards are played face down,
black-backs on a black cloth; and soon by luck
I draw a card I wished to leave unchosen,
and discard the one card I had sworn to hold.
Dreams lose their color faster than cut flowers,
but I remember the number on my card,
a figure no philosopher takes to bed….
Should revelation be sealed like private letters,
till all the beneficiaries are dead,
and our proper names become improper Lives?
Focus about me and blur inside;
on walks, things nearest to me go slow motion,
obscene streetlife rushes on the wheelrim,
steel shavings from the vacillating will.

Lowell’s indiscretion overshadows flaws in the others. Neither Hardwick nor Blackwood come off well in the biographical tidbits I came across. Harriet Lowell was a bystander, but even if she weren’t her age precluded culpable malevolence. Believe it or not, when Lowell’s eventual marriage to Blackwood fell apart he went back to New York after years abroad and moved in with a forgiving Hardwick. If there is a hero in this whole affair, it would be the poet Philip Booth, who seeing Lowell back in New York reunited, called him Odysseus.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s