I must admit right at the start that I feel a bit daunted writing about the poetry of Robert Lowell. I find his work to be complex, highly allusive and crafted by a keen and idiosyncratic imagination that requires a great deal of study in order to be grasped. Nevertheless, I am an admirer and a student of his work and find my own writing increasingly influenced both by his highly sophisticated and affecting vocabulary but also by his mastery of a complex craft.
Right now I find myself more drawn to Lowell than to any other poet and I think the reasons for this are historical. The best clue I have to my latest literary fixation lies in his poem (and book) “For the Union Dead” which speaks to the problem of historical amnesia and the way in which modern life seems to conspire to bury the past and rob us of an awareness of how it remains a working agent in our present. I have read “For the Union Dead” over and over because each time I do, I find that I move perhaps a trifle closer toward coming to grips with that mysterious notion of a “living past.” What is a living past? Is it simply remembering the facts of our own history, those details learned in school? Is it the ability to remember the past events of our own lives? I am not sure. Human memory is renowned for being faulty and yet memory is an essential part of the human experience because human beings like to find ways of concretizing the past whether through photo albums, historical narratives and public monuments (and of course in motion pictures). Perhaps what might help us answer such questions is a dose of what Randall Jarrell called Lowell’s “completely unscientific, but thoroughly historical mind.”
This week the highly regarded American historian Eric Foner wrote in The Nation about the roots of hatred which bore fruit in the killings in Charleston:
“Ideas about history legitimate and shape the present, and public presentations of history tell us a great deal about a society’s values. As in other Southern states, statues of Confederate generals, Klansmen, and segregationists dot the South Carolina landscape. Although a statue was erected recently in Charleston to Denmark Vesey, and historic sites like Drayton Hall plantation and the National Park Service’s Fort Sumter site have revised their presentations to deal directly with the black experience, South Carolina has no monument to the victims of slavery and hardly any to black leaders of Reconstruction or other eras. It took until 1998 for a portrait of Jonathan J. Wright, who served during Reconstruction as the first African-American justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, to join the paintings of all the state’s white justices in the court building.”
These observations can be summed up by what Foner then said: “This warped public display of history confronts South Carolinians, white and black, every day with a stark message about who rules the state.” http://www.thenation.com/article/210817/historical-roots-dylann-roofs-racism
The shape of a place impacts the people who live in that place. If your neighborhood, town or city is dotted with statues dedicated to a particular person, event or interpretation of history it is likely that you are going to assimilate that message before you begin to realize the ideological basis of that message or grasp that message itself is a rhetorical form, a craft, an artistic as well as political expression of an idea or interpretation of the past. If your community is filled with memorials to Confederate Generals then you are likely to think that the true history, the dignified account of your community’s past is embodied in the lives and statues of those who have been memorialized and are more likely to ignore those persons whom the monument builders have ignored.
I have a little bit of personal experience to draw from here, apart from being an American who grew up in the Washington D.C. area which is dotted with battlefields, monuments and museums dedicated to a version of the American past. When I was growing up there still was no National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. There was no Franklin Delano Roosevelt Monument, or WWII or even Korean War Memorial. When I was quite little the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened up on the National Mall and when I was a teenager the Holocaust Memorial Museum first opened its doors.
As a teenager (and then again in my early twenties) I had the opportunity to go to the concentration/liquidation camps Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka in Poland where more than two million Jews and other political prisoners were murdered. I met a Polish guide at Auschwitz who told me that when she was growing up the Communist Government of Poland, under the supervision of the Soviet Communist Party, taught her that Auschwitz was a Prisoner of War Camp where Red Army soldiers were persecuted and killed. No mention was made of the slaughter of Jews, Gypsies (Roma), political dissidents and LGBTQ prisoners. When she learned what really happened at Auschwitz she was already an adult and outraged by the lies she had been told.
When I returned from Poland I put together a talk about the methods of memorialization used at various concentration/liquidation camps in Eastern Europe and how each had been “memorialized.” What I found was that the places that were most intact were easiest to turn into monuments while a camp like Treblinka, which was burned to the ground in a 1943 uprising of its inmates, was harder to present as an example of the Nazi machinery of murder. People remembered Treblinka, but the camp was far from a museum illustrating in painstaking detail what happened within its gates (Auschwitz-Birkenau does this). What struck me at the time was how Auschwitz-Birkenau still had a crematoria to display to visitors while the murders at Treblinka were not detectable without a working knowledge of the place since bodies at that location were placed in earthen pits and then burned.
I am sure than most people are very familiar with the many forms of historical denial which exist out there. Holocaust denial is perhaps the most infamous but examples are legion: the Japanese Government still refuses to acknowledge its actions in China and Korea; the Turkish Government denies that a genocide took place in Armenia during the First World War; pseudo-historians continue to claim that slaves were by-and-large treated humanely under slavery in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The list of such lies and denials is lengthy and these are but a few examples.
It is not difficult to question the veracity of someone’s recollection of an event. After all, in courts of law we have different forms of evidence and “memories” can be picked apart and revealed to be full of holes. The “best” forms of evidence seems to be physical forms which provide us with “tangible” proof of an event. Of course, tying physical evidence to the causal chain of the past is painstaking work that is constantly subject to revision and re-revision as part of the professional work of history.
So, what am I driving at here? Answer: I believe we need a language that enables us to recall to ourselves the memory and the amnesia of our landscape. I think that one of Robert Lowell’s greatest and most enduring achievements is to accomplish this in his poetry and I would like to use “For the Union Dead” as my example. Without getting into a lengthy discussion of the poem (this post is already lengthy), I would like to use a few examples from the piece in order to make my point.
In his poem, Lowell writes about the monument in Boston to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first all-black regiment to fight for the Union Army. Shaw and most of his men were killed at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner outside Charleston, South Carolina in July 1863. In 1897, the monument was unveiled on Boston Common and the place of the monument forms the setting of Lowell’s poem. Many readers will be familiar with Shaw and his Regiment because they were the subject of the 1989 film “Glory” starring Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick.
Lowell notes that when the monument was unveiled “William James,” the famous Harvard philosopher and brother of novelist Henry James, “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.” He then notes that today (1964) “Their monument sticks like a fishbone/ in the city’s throat.” All around the monument the Common is being torn up to build an automobile garage and amidst the “yellow dinosaur steamshovels” that were “grunting/ as they cropped up tons of mush and grass” in order to build “their underworld garage” the statue stands “propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.”
He remarks that Shaw “has an angry wrenlike vigilance,/ a greyhound’s gentle tauntness;/ he seems to wince at pleasure,/ and suffocate for privacy.” These characteristics are, for Lowell, out-of-step with the tenor of modern life but then he hones in on the point I am trying to make:
“On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic
“The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldiers
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .
“Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”
“The ditch is nearer.”
In 1964, the spirit of Shaw’s sacrifice and the solemnity of his visage and the circumstances of his death seemed, in Lowell’s words, “out of bounds now.” Shaw does not seem at all suited to the modern temperament. But why?
His answer is:
“There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
“over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.”
In the Boston landscape of 1964, advertisements and the sound of construction equipment digging up the Common make it practically impossible to stop and gaze upon Colonel Shaw in silent contemplation of what he and the 54th Regiment did and why they did it. Who were these men? Why did they march headlong into death? And do the physical movements of modern Boston, themselves the movements of history, preclude any greater understanding or must we look on in ignorance?
(To see all of Lowell’s poem go here: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/union-dead)
Today I could not help but feel, as I watched President Obama stand before a mass of mourning yet jubilant parishioners, community residents, and compassionate citizens a feeling that I was watching the present and the past coming together to form a new and startling future. “Startling” because what I saw and heard was a different cadence and diction being spoken on National Television and being spoken not only as the most prominent voice in Charleston, but also as the voice of the United States (if only for an hour) since this eulogy was being seen around the world. It struck me as profound that this was happening in Charleston, a city whose tallest spire was, for so long, that imposing monument to that prophet of nullification, that tribune of the antebellum way of life Senator John C. Calhoun, a man who championed the Fugitive Slave Act. Today a different face, a different voice, and different feelings were being heard and heard clearest while showing the world a different side of the United States.
Charleston is an historic city, a place where you can walk among the antebellum architecture and still get a feeling for what the old South might have looked like. It is a city that seems to value the landscape of history even if that history is inevitably selective. To hear an African American president address a predominantly black audience on national television and speak about the injustice of slavery and call for taking down the Stars and Bars from atop the state capitols of the South was breathtaking in its novelty, if overdue in its delivery. It was hard not to feel at that moment that we were hearing from the American past (and present) in a new and powerful form. I felt (and feel) that perhaps we the American people just moved a step closer toward seeing more of our own social and historical shadow by having a collective experience of what Walt Whitman once called “the presence of the past.”
I would like to ruminate on this last point briefly. When I read Taylor Branch’s magisterial works on the Civil Rights Movement I was taken by his observation that for Civil Rights workers and leaders it was always difficult if not impossible to be heard in any major newspaper or on any major radio station in the country. Rallies on behalf of Civil Rights went unreported and not just in the South. It is not often remembered that one of the great rallies on behalf of Civil Rights legislation was held in Detroit, Michigan in June 1963, two months before the more famous March on Washington. The “Detroit Walk to Freedom” brought together more than 125,000 people and was, to that point, the largest Civil Rights march in American history (it barely went reported even in Detroit!). Marches often were ignored by the “white press” as were tragedies. It is also a well known fact that through the 1950s and into the 1960s white radio stations often would not play records recorded by African American musicians. For those familiar with the history of rock and roll, it was the British who began championing blues and R & B and then bringing that music back to white audiences in the United States (this was also true of the French and jazz music).
Today, if only for a moment, two pasts were colliding in Charleston: one familiar and celebrated as “official,” that of the Confederate Veteran; the other, a once maligned and frequently derided or diminished past, that of the slave and the Freedman before, during and after the Civil War (down to the present day). To be sure, the Confederate past is deserving of study and acknowledgement but that past is not and cannot be recounted without embracing the other past, the one of racial persecution and violence. In truth, these pasts are one and indivisible.
I wonder: are we now at a point where a new landscape of memory will start to emerge and not just in the South? If so, I suspect that this new landscape might be richer and more complex because of its pluralism than the one we have known to date.
I think this is why the work of Robert Lowell interests me so much now. His poetry is a model for how we might write and speak about the present and the past as part of each indivisible moment.