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Intimacy and Agency in Robert Lowell's Day by Day

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 50, Number 3, Fall 2009
pp. 461-495 | 10.1353/cli.0.0078

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"My thinking is talking to you," the speaker of one of Robert Lowell's late poems tells a friend ("Our Afterlife II," Collected Poems 733). In Lowell's last volume, Day by Day, poetry is conversational thinking. The imagined conversation involves intimacy; it also entails unfinished sentences, questions, and interruptions. Emerging in and through such interruptions and disjunctions, the agency of the volume's lyric "I" does not obviously appear as strength. Day by Day's achievement has been obscured by critics' persistence in reducing Lowell's poetry to oppositional extremes of strength and weakness, force and powerlessness, tyranny and victimhood, self-aggrandizement and self-destruction, a will to power and a death drive—extremes readily mapped onto the mania and depression of the poet's biography. Such polarities can account neither for Day by Day's rough-edged, flexible, "intimate" (Letters 625) style, nor for its evocation of a contingent, relational self.

Reviews of Lowell's 2003 Collected Poems agree about the stature of Life Studies. About Day by Day they differ sharply: the majority ignore the volume, or write it off as "flat … tired and listless" (Paulin 15) or at best a "delicate epilogue" (MacDonald 69), while only a very few grant it serious attention. This divide reflects that which greeted the volume's publication in 1977, between those who judged it, in no uncertain terms, a failure and those (notably Marjorie Perloff and Helen Vendler) who hailed its aesthetic success; between many pronouncements on its inevitable finality and the rare argument for its potentially "transitional" character (McClatchy 29). In 2004, Rosanna Warren gave a striking and unusual assessment: for her as a poet, Day by Day is "the inescapable book. It is where you go if you want to see where American poetry last set into major balance an art fully aware of its traditions and an experimental openness to unliterary raw material" (159). Part of the volume's paradoxical achievement, Warren writes, is that it makes an "art" of its "brokenness" (160). Louise Glück articulates what might be at stake in such brokenness and openness when she recalls her "fervent[ ] … investment" as a poet "in images of preservation and fixity," the notion that "poems were like words inscribed in rock or caught in amber": "What is left out of these images is the idea of contact, and contact, of the most intimate sort, is what poetry can accomplish" (128). In a 1975 letter, Lowell described the volume's style as "fray, shamble and conversational idiom" (Letters 642). The fraying of the poems' weave opens up conversational space.

Day by Day's unraveling, interruptive, broken style explores and enacts an agency closely bound up with "intimate … contact." Ellipses and dashes proliferate; interlocutors, addressed and quoted, interrupt the speaker; contradictions, reversals, syntactic shifts, and logical lacunae interrupt poems. These stylistic discontinuities reflect gaps that are interpersonal, between lovers, friends, generations; temporal, involving memory and anticipation; and intentional, between desire and action. The "I" comes into being in and as efforts to bridge these gaps: attempts to mend the always fraying "thread and sentence of life" ("Off Central Park," Collected Poems 755), to "keep up conversation" ("Unwanted" 831), and to "make something / imagined" ("Epilogue" 838). In a contemporary review, J. D. McClatchy offered the acute, but unelaborated, comment that in the first part of the volume Lowell characterizes himself "not … as victim or hero but as agent" (29). The formulation is precise. The "I" emerges as an agent in and through relationships with others, relationships that are mutual, responsive, composed of give and take.

As distinct from traditional models of psychic individuation that explicitly or implicitly inform many critical responses to Lowell, psychoanalytic theories of relationality and intersubjectivity speak to the kind of agency Day by Day evokes: in psychoanalyst Stephen A. Mitchell's words, "There is no 'self,' in a psychologically meaningful sense, in isolation, outside a matrix of relations with others" (33). In particular, Jessica Benjamin's work on intersubjectivity offers an alternative to viewing relationships in terms of reversible oppositions of "powerful and helpless, active and passive," subject and object, describing instead experiences of "being with" between two subjects in which both are active partners...