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GENERATIONS "I": The Future of Autobiographical Foetry/David Wojahn "When I speak of keeping the human image, I am speaking of keeping, not selves, but the value of selves." —AUen Grossman from The Sighted Singer ROBERT LOWELL, CIRCA 1962 or '63, is looking at the camera with the sort of fixed intensity that's displayed in so many of his photos. He's wearing the black owlish hornrims which were the uniform of the myopic early sixties, a time when the rose-colored granny glasses of the Byrds' Roger McGuinn and John Lennon's oval wirerims, shading acid-dUated pupils, were still unknown. In this particular photo Lowell looks uncharacteristically calm, his hair neatly brushed; there's none of the eerUy dishevelled gawkiness of his more famous photos, no Einstein-wild hair, no sense that he possesses a body always shambling and awkward, too large to fit the rooms that contain it. When the photo was taken he had recently released Life Studies, possibly the most influential book of American poetry published Ui the last half-century. I don't know the name of the photographer , for the photo was rescued by a friend of mine one day whUe she worked as a secretary at Harvard, and was asked to clean out and throw away some files. On the back, Ui faded pencfl, are the words Mr. Robert Lowell. The photo came m the mail a few months ago, a gift from my friend, and now occupies a space on the wall above my desk, along with various other icons—Akhmatova, Louise Brooks, Bob Dylan, Stanley Spencer, Frank O'Hara, MUes Davis. And of course the family photos: my father Ui his corporal's stripes circa 1944, my mother waving from the Perisphere at the '39 World's Fair, and the photo which would eventually find its way to thejacket of my wife's posthumously pubUshed book of poetry. In profile, drop earrings and a scarf puUed halfway back and turban-tike, she looks uncannily Uke Akhmatova; profile to profile, they face each other as I look from them to the leafless March trees beyond and back to Robert LoweU. The tiving have no place here, it seems. The mothers and beloveds dead. And the fathers. When my father posed for the photo before me—somewhere halfway 96 . The Missouri Review up the boot of Italy—it was nine years before my birth. And when Lowell looked up from his podium at the Woodbury Poetry Room, facing some now unknown photographer's flash while reading, perhaps , his new poem "For the Union Dead," I was nine years old. It would be another decade before I would hear of Lowell or read his work. Clearly LoweU is the other dead father, as he is for so many of the poets of the last two or three generations; he has bestowed upon us a complex and troubling legacy. He is both model and pariah, and his tics and mannerisms have been incorporated into our psyches so fully that we scarcely are aware of their presence. Without Life Studies, the careers of as diverse a list of poets as Plath, Sexton, Merill, Levine, Heaney, Bidart, Pinsky, Glück, Hass, CK. Williams, Sharon Olds, Frederick Seidel and Charles Wright would be impossible to imagine. One could also make a case for Lowell's considerable but less obvious influence upon writers such as Jorie Graham, Paul Muldoon, Carolyn Forche and Allen Grossman. Lowell's impact on these writers manifests itself Ui many ways—in a prosody which mixes various elements of traditional and free verse, in a sense of pubUc history's intricate connections to personal history, and even in the use of imagery. The most crucial aspect of Lowell's influence has been his creation of a particularly influential form of autobiographical lyric. The self in the world, and the self in relationship to its past are Lowell's principal concerns after Life Studies, and most of the significant movements m contemporary poetry can be seen as deriving from Lowell's approach to such concerns. The intensely introspective lyrics of neo-surreaUsts such as Merwin and Wright owe something to Lowell's attentiveness to...


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