I want to ask you about Robert Lowell: as an influence on your work, that is, and only then as what he later became - a 'Life', the subject of your first full-length biography. You did and do admire him greatly as a poet, yet in his poetic practice didn't he trample all over the distinctions, the reticences and borderlines, you set so much store by in your own verse?
Yes. I suppose that is where the whole idea of confessional poetry came from. There are two factors with Lowell: one is that his family is a famous one, he had a famous name. So to have a Lowell write derisively about his father as Lowell the poet did -
I suspect that some of the grandness of the Lowell name was almost a kind of Lowell invention. Or ploy, at least. I know that the Lowells spoke only to the Cabots and the Cabots spoke only to God; but he did get maximum literary mileage out of the connection, nevertheless.
I think that it was in other people's minds that he was an American aristocrat; certainly when he became a conscientious objector, a huge fuss was made in the press of the fact that he was a Lowell, not merely a poet. There was some of that too with the publication of Life Studies, because it's a very Boston-based book. The real lapses of taste, the indiscretions, came with his letters later and when he versified Lizzie Hardwick's letters. That seemed to me too much.
LRB 21 February 2002 | PDF Download