Robert Lowell and Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, 3rd-5th March 2017

On 31st May 1976, the US poet Robert Lowell received an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin. On that occasion, two other Americans were also honored: the novelist Saul Bellow and the astronaut Neil Armstrong. Given his proximity to the major social and political happenings of post-war America, it is no surprise that Lowell should have had a moon-landings poem. The ‘beautiful, mist-drunken hunter’s moon’ of his sonnet ‘History’ may be better-remembered by his readers, but the various manifestations of his ‘Moon-Landings’ are no less striking, epitomizing the mythic, political, and personal strains that come together throughout his oeuvre. I don’t know if Armstrong ever read it, and if he did, whether he was able to recognize the site of his iconic step in Lowell’s figurations of ‘a strange white goddess imprisoned in her ash’, a ‘gadabout with heart of chalk’ or – reflecting Lowell’s struggle with mental illness throughout his life – a ‘lunatic’s pill with poisonous side-effects / … / ‘our hallucinator, the disenchantress’. But – even though Bellow might seem the likelier candidate to keep Lowell company – the poem seems to confirm the appropriateness of Lowell and Armstrong having their degrees conferred in the same ceremony. 


It was also appropriate, then, that Trinity College Dublin should be the host of a symposium on Lowell and Ireland to commemorate the poet’s centenary. The three-day event, from 3rd-5th March, brought together international scholars and poets intent on further teasing out the connections to Ireland and Irish culture in Lowell’s life and art: commonalities with immediate Irish contemporaries (Louis MacNeice and Denis Devlin); political associations (his elegies for the Irish-American Robert Kennedy); the final year of his life, spent living in Ireland with Caroline Blackwood at Castletown House, Celbridge; and his reception in Northern Ireland (notably his influence on younger poets, with papers on Seamus Heaney and Leontia Flynn, along with a personal account of reading Lowell in Bangor, County Down, by Gerald Dawe). The symposium culminated in a poetry reading at Castletown House by Dawe, Paul Muldoon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Julie O’Callaghan (who read the transcript of Heaney’s introduction of Lowell at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, which she had recorded with Dennis O’Driscoll in 1975). Marie Heaney, who made contributions throughout the conference, spoke movingly of her and her husband’s friendship with Lowell to bring proceedings to a close.


While Lowell’s associations with Irishness gave the symposium its impetus, individual papers often picked up on elements of his style and interests that went far beyond this immediate context and that suggested ways of rehabilitating a poet who, to some extent, has fallen out of favour since his death. By pairing Lowell with MacNeice and Devlin, Calista McRae and Karl O’Hanlon each challenged the tendency only to read Lowell in relation to his immediate ‘middle generation’ contemporaries and through a now largely discredited paradigm of ‘confessionalism’. Through close attention to individual word choices, McRae justified her perhaps surprising pairing by deftly illustrating her poets’ shared interests in colour, scales (both musical and fishy), floating pronouns and Sunday mornings. O’Hanlon, meanwhile, argued for Allen Tate as the linchpin between early Lowell and Devlin, and for T. S. Eliot, ‘mediated by Tate’, as the figure most responsible for linking Irish modernism and mid-century American formal poetry. He suggested that there may be more work to do on Lowell’s intellectual adoption of Catholicism, which he had once dismissed as ‘the religion of serving girls’, particularly in relation to Devlin’s own explorations of Catholic thought.


The second panel examined Lowell’s Irish-American connections from a range of perspectives. Michael O’Loughlin gave an account of Lowell’s final days at Castletown House, describing his own work on a documentary commissioned by RTE that, in the end, never aired. Lucy Collins, meanwhile, described the archive of John L. (Jack) Sweeney and Máire MacNeill Sweeney, now housed at University College Dublin. Jack Sweeney had been the curator of Harvard Library’s Poetry Room; while no specific correspondence with Lowell features in the archive, he is mentioned with striking regularity by Sweeney’s other correspondents, suggesting his importance to a broad transatlantic network. Grzegorz Kosc rounded the panel off with an account of Lowell’s finances; taking his cue from Pound’s critiques of the relation of art to capital, Kosc cast new light on Lowell’s financial dependence – despite his aristocratic heritage – on his wives producing novels that sold and suggested that Lowell and Blackwood’s decision to move to Ireland may have been influenced by tax rates.


Stephen Gould Axelrod delivered the H. O. White Memorial Lecture 2017. Titled ‘Robert Lowell in a Dark Time’, Axelrod structured his talk around photos of Lowell from different stages of his life, drawing throughout on Lowell’s unpublished prose memoirs (which he is currently editing with Kosc). Central to Axelrod’s thesis was Lowell’s subversion of the binary between public and private, polis and oikia. The lecture gave prominence to Lowell’s ‘disabled psyche’ and his political engagements, praising Kay Redfield Jamison’s new biography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on FireA Study of Genius, Mania and Character, and highlighting Lowell’s political activism and then disillusionment following the assassination of Robert Kennedy – a death that prompted his rejection of the myth of political poetry. In the following day’s panel on Lowell and Kennedy, Alex Runchman and Diederik Oostdijk offered further readings of Lowell’s elegies to the New York Senator, Runchman looking at how the poems pick up on speeches given by Kennedy himself on the death of Martin Luther King, and Oostdijk examining affinities between them and speeches that Lowell himself gave after Kennedy’s death.


On the Saturday morning, Gerald Dawe spoke of his debt to Lowell and the intoxication of encountering his vocabulary and image-making as a young man in Belfast: the unexpectedness, for example, of Lowell’s describing the oilskins of two mounted cops as ‘yellow as forsythia’. Eve Cobain traced the allusions in Leontia Flynn’s double sonnet to Lowell, broadening her discussion to look at the importance of Catullus to Lowell, Flynn, and other contemporary Northern Irish poets. Stephen Grace also addressed Lowell as a sonneteer, outlining what Heaney may have learned from his enjambments and his habit of leaving single words hanging at the end of lines. Grace’s paper framed both poets in eco-critical terms, opening a further new perspective for Lowell studies. Michael Hinds, meanwhile, focused on a single History sonnet, ‘Identification in Belfast’, comparing Lowell’s poeticizing of a harrowing first-hand account favourably with Roger McGough’s more sentimental use of the same incident and arguing that Lowell’s revisions in the poem are more ethically scrupulous than Kenneth Goldsmith’s recent ‘uncreative’ appropriations of similar material (such as the autopsy report on Michael Brown, shot by police in Ferguson, St Louis, in August 2014).


The final panel opened the conversation up beyond the symposium’s Irish theme, with Ellen Dillon offering an analysis of how one critic, Charles Altieri, has read Lowell across his career, and concluding by noting how some of the theoretical questions raised by Altieri’s changing stances seem to find a trace in ‘the new materialsm’ of contemporary Irish poet Catherine Walsh. Finally, Frank Kearnful turned the focus to Germany, teasing out the nuances of Lowell’s ‘imitation’ of Rilke’s ‘Taube, die draußen blieb’, which he compared favourably to Stephen Mitchell’s (noting, along the way, the difficulty of knowing whether to translate ‘taube’ as ‘pigeon’ or ‘dove’).


Each of the papers suggested new ways of reading Lowell, while the Castletown poetry reading made clear that Lowell is still a live presence for practicing writers, not just for critics. Credit must go to Philip Coleman and his organizing committee for running the even so smoothly. With a further symposium on Lowell and Europe, organized by Thomas Austenfeld, ( taking place a few weeks later, it seems that the Lowell revival is very much underway.


Alex Runchman


Alex Runchman is Lecturer with special interest in English for Academic Purposes at University College Dublin. His monograph, Delmore Schwartz: A Critical Reassessment, was published by Palgrave in 2014.