Writing letters was not the work Robert Lowell thought himself born to do, but what with one thing and another - good friends, a lively mind, deep troubles - he wrote a great many of them, demonstrating at considerable length 'the excitement of his intelligence and the liveliness of his prose'. These are the words of Saskia Hamilton, the poet who has undertaken the arduous and complicated task of editing this selection. She remarks in her introduction that the letters differ from the poetry in that they 'are not reshaped, dismantled and made again in the daylight of his attention': they 'have the immediacy of the first rhythm and the first thought that occurred to him - the very thing he revised away in his poems'. Lowell has a claim to be the most hectically persistent and repetitive reviser in the history of anglophone poetry; and the older he got the more compulsively he revised; but his letters he neither drafted nor amended. His more formal autobiographical writings show that he took prose seriously, and for all their unpremeditated air the letters are often excellent examples of vivid informal prose. A master of language, he was, whether or not he sought to be, expert in what Dryden called 'the other harmony'.
LRB 22 September 2005 | PDF Download