Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

In Retrospect: Michael Hofmann on Robert Lowell’s “Day by Day”


It seems to me that Day By Day always had the chiaroscuro not just of a late, but of a posthumous publication. A little baggy, a little wispy, a little too much pathos, too much nakedness, and too much sentiment attaching to its reception. It was like a re-run of the much more vitally, bracingly sour For the Union Dead – the dead union here being that with Lowell's third wife, Caroline Blackwood. Both books had their poems to Lowell's first wife Jean Stafford, and to his cousin Harriet Winslow, to turtles and to St. Mark's school (“Alfred Corning Clark” and “St. Mark's, 1933”): both seem to run on wild delirium of negativity: “no one, nothing, cannot, no, never”. Both have a sort of Southern European – Homer or Angelopoulos – feeling of the human animal aging, then dying. As a result, I never read Day By Day very much (in contrast to the rest of Lowell, which I read more or less incessantly). Perhaps once every five years, half a dozen times therefore in 30 years. It remained a book I was afraid of, that depressed me, something so nakedly old, nakedly sick, nakedly miserable. “Only man is miserable”, Lowell writes somewhere – somewhere else – but there he is quoting Sophocles; here, he seems set on displaying it. In my mind I fused it with the accounts in biographies of English stately home scruff in a time-elapsed mansion one “fleeting cool Kentish summer”; and then of Lowell rattling around all alone in a Guinness family castle outside Dublin – Caroline having taken flight – during power-cuts, looking for the kitchen, or trying to manage a phone call across the Atlantic. It is the only book of Lowell's that really strikes me as – that terrible word – 'confessional', the only poems of Lowell that not only make me feel sorry for him, but that make me feel that that's the correct response. (It would never occur to me to 'feel sorry' for the author of “Waking in the Blue” or “Sailing Home from Rapallo” or “Obit” or “Redcliffe Square”.) I couldn't find it in me to be impressed or moved by the chronically over-quoted and stupidly over-praised last poem, “Epilogue”, and otherwise, it was simply teeming with an absolutely cellular fear and misery, from the slightly stagey figures that bookend it, the disinvited Ulysses with Circe, and Lycotas, in every sense away at the wars: “Age is the bilge/ we cannot shake from the mop”, “seamed with dread and smiling”, “the doctors come more thickly”, “It's not death I fear,/ but unspecified, limitless pain”, “Giovanni and Giovanna,/ who will outlive him by 20 years.” Where is the invention, the beauty, the solace in all this?

Day By Day remains to me a book in defeat, I don't think that's a function of age – my age – and I don't expect ever to feel about it any other way. Lowell's own resources are less, and those of the forces and contingencies ranked against him are greater. Lines like “Do I deserve credit/ for not having tried suicide” are both paltry and shocking, or “O that morning might come without the day.” That's not art, that's not poetry, it's a pitiful cry for help – the plain unhappiness of the man just obliterates everything else. After so many decades of writing, it's an oddly amateurish book (but then Lowell never was a 'professional poet' – it's why one has to love him, in the end). Reading it lets you in for Randall Jarrell's experience judging a poetry competition once: the raw bleeding limbs and chunks, with “this is a poem” scribbled on them. The best I can say for Day By Day is that one still hears in it – intermittently – Lowell's habitual eloquence, the formidable range of his vocabulary and responses to life, occasional moments of grace, of surprise. It is a great machine, winding down.

–Michael Hofmann is an award-winning poet, literary critic and translator. Among his recent books is “Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology.”