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Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was an American poet who had a profound influence on many other writers, including both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Born into a Boston family that could trace its lineage back to the Mayflower, much of Lowell's work mythologizes New England, but his later influence in developing confessional poetry was what attracted younger poets to his work.

Robert Lowell was born to a Boston Brahmin family and described his childhood as being one of violence and bullying, where he earned the nickname "Cal," short for Caligula.

  • Robert Lowell studied at Harvard, but left, eventually earning a degree from Kenyon College.
  • During World War II he became a conscientious objector, the first of his political statements, spending several months in prison.
  • From 1950 to 1953 Robert Lowell taught at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
  • Afterwards he taught at several major American universities.
  • Lowell's teaching style was described as informal, which drew younger writers to him.

Robert Lowell has been called one of the influential poets of the 20th century, directly affecting the work of younger writers. He was the sixth Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1947 to 1948. He also became the most well-known American poet during the 1960s, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1967. Much of his work was influenced by his bipolar disorder, reflecting in his collection Life Studies. Lowell died in 1977.

Robert Lowell and Confessional Poetry

To write confessional poetry requires an active and unusual imagination, and almost without exception, the confessional poets led lives fraught with serious emotional problems. Lowell, at age 41, experienced uncontrollable manic surges and had to be institutionalized several times at McLean Hospital. Ironically, the brilliance of his poetry had earned him the coveted Pulitzer Prize before he was 41 years old, and he was one of America's most respected poets, despite all his emotional problems.

In typical confessional style, Lowell wrote about his experiences at McLean Hospital, naming other patients and poking fun at administrators and staff in the poem, "Walking in the Blue." Here are a few lines from the poem:

(This is the house for the "mentally ill"
What use is my sense of humor?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with the muscle of a seal

Here, Lowell gives the reader a quasi-humorous account of his experiences at the mental hospital, yet he is also bitterly skewering the former football player (and others as the poem moves along). He mentions others who perceive themselves as still heroic types and concludes the poem with the following line: "These victorious figures of bravado ossified young".

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