What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Helen Vendler's Brilliant "Lowell's Persistence"

Robert Lowell (Photo by Steve Shapiro)

Dan Chiasson, in his “The Mania and the Muse” (The New Yorker, March 20, 2017), a review of Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire, says, “Jamison’s study tells us a lot about bipolar disorder, but it can’t quite connect the dots to Lowell’s work. Poetry doesn’t coöperate much with clinical diagnosis.” A study that does connect those dots and shows the ways Lowell represented his depression in verse is Helen Vendler’s brilliant “Lowell’s Persistence,” included in her 2015 collection The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar. Vendler notes a number of characteristics of Lowell’s depressed style, including obstructive line stoppages (“In For the Union Dead, Lowell’s stoppages reflect a mind moving sluggishly to organize its materials, as though it were an effort to find a piece of wit to join subject to object”), corrupted flashbacks (“But the seepage of compositorial depression corrupts the colors of the past, both by finding the simile of rot for the remembered hue of the rocks, and by aggressing against that false visual appearance of purple by insisting on the true and banal substratum of gray”), and immobility (“The depressed mind, even if capable of momentary relief, knows the immobile backdrop is always there unchangingly waiting: ‘water, stone, grass and sky’ ”).

Lowell’s depressive style isn’t totally negative. It has, as Vendler points out, its beautiful aspects. One is its beauty of accuracy. Another is its beauty of vividness, of the arresting image. Vendler says of Lowell’s “Florence,”

Just as the monsters are wonderfully found images for the formless, nonthinking, “decapitated,” foundering, and festering state of the depressed body, so the phrase “my heart bleeds black blood,” with its spondaic and alliterative monosyllables and its gradually thickening vowels – from the scream of “ee” to the flatness of “a” to the subvocalic clotting of “uh” – offers a feeling image (in appropriate language) for the festering, oozing decline of the depressed soul.

Vendler’s great essay expands my appreciation of Lowell’s aesthetic. She shows him to be a powerful artist of the inner life, “not flinching before its deserts of drought and paralysis.”

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