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 Fire – A 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, (https://lettres.unifr.ch/fileadmin/Documentation/Instituts/Litterature_generale_et_comparee/A5_Robert_Lowell_Colloque_WEB.pdf) taking place a few weeks later, it seems that the Lowell revival is very much underway.
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.
1. Robin Day Polyprop chair 1963
A polypropylene butterfly. Light
as a TV guide, strong as a delivery ramp.
With a seat in any colour of bold-blocks,
singularly moulded (optionally apertured),
secured to rod legs, it can be configured
in rows, spirals, rectilinear links, or dotted
about halls, canteens, and waiting rooms.
Its belly gum-barnacled. Its face biro-tagged
with love fusings or pop-band-blazons
or that vast, vatic, phallus implausible.
(It’s also stackable.)
Interview by Rebekah Cumpsty and Karl O’Hanlon
In A Secular Age, you take up Earl Wasserman’s concept of “a subtler language”, the way in which poetic language shifts during the “watershed” of the Romantic period to fulfil a creative rather than mimetic role: as you put it, the Romantic poets “make us aware of something in nature for which there are as yet no established words”. What historical and cultural factors make Romanticism such a turning point? Hasn’t this urge to ‘add to the stock of Available Reality’ (R. P. Blackmur) been a feature of poetry prior to Romanticism, for instance in the metamorphic power of Shakespeare?
No words to speak of,
so: fox thinks in music. Buzzy patterns,
sound stories in the present tense,
a solo instrumental or a symphony
incorporating what is noted, or is scent.
Reflections on the curious quest for sense.
On the morning of Good Friday 1916, Sir Roger Casement landed on the beaches of Banna Strand in County Kerry. He was suffering from a recurrence of malaria which he had contracted some time ago in the Congo and didn’t make it too far from the Irish shore. He was arrested by two officers from the Royal Irish Constabulary on charges of treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. In his coat pockets they found a German admiralty codebook and the ticket stub for a railway journey from Berlin to Wilhelmshaven, a U-boat port. The life of Roger Casement, whether rendered in the briefest of vignettes or the lengthiest of critical biographies, paints a portrait of a mysterious and often contradictory figure. His haunting presence, particularly in the centenary year of the Easter Rising, is the focus of a new exhibition in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (10 March–2 October).
Wendy Cope is known for being wry, perceptive and very, very witty. You would know this about her just from hearing the vocal reactions of the audience at this event in York as they laughed, murmured and sighed along with the cadences of the poems she read and anecdotes she told. Cope took centre stage after a short introduction, and spoke in a charming and engaging performance of some of her best-loved poems and new verses, too.
i.m. Christopher Middleton
Christopher Middleton, who died in Texas on the 30th of November 2015, was born in 1926. Not only did he live till almost 90, one of the last survivors of his generation, he was writing and publishing up to the last year of his life, having begun to publish his poetry in the 1940s – a record of longevity comparable with Thomas Hardy or W.B. Yeats. It’s worth dwelling for a moment on Middleton’s position relative to his generation, because doing so illustrates his consistent independence from groups and fashions. This has also shaped the critical response to his work, and we need to understand this if we are to take the measure of Middleton’s work, as it is surely high time we did.
Being born in the mid-1920s puts Middleton in the same generational bracket as Philip Larkin (1922-1985) and other poets associated with The Movement like Donald Davie (1922-1990) and Thom Gunn (1929–2003). The defining issue for this generation, as Thom Gunn put it, was the desire to avoid sounding like Dylan Thomas; in practice, this meant a return to normative language and a wry, unromantic outlook. Middleton’s early poetry, by contrast, is closer to that of the previous generation: those like John Heath-Stubbs (1918–2006) and W.S. Graham (1918–1986) who identified as romantic modernists. The mythic, Thomas-ish tone can be heard in poems such as ‘Male Torso’ from Torse 3:[i]
We are delighted to announce that we are now open for submissions for Issue 3, which will go to press in the summer. The best way to discover if your work is a fit for our magazine is to buy a copy or become a subscriber.
We're looking for poems, reviews, essays, or anything which falls under what we're calling "the unexpected": hybrid forms, odd character studies, outlandish art, words to music and libretti, collage, eldritch photography – anything outré and original, rooted in the imagination and innovative. For more information see our submission guidelines.
The deadline for all submissions is 25th February.
On a chilly January evening, poets and poetry lovers gathered in the Norman Rea Gallery at the University of York to celebrate the launch of issue II of Eborakon. Seven poets associated with or published in the journal presented readings of their work. This event was a real tribute to the way poetry can set an inspirational tone for a social occasion when read aloud to a live audience; the readings seemed to unite people and emphasise the power of language and thought. As the new co-editor of the journal, I’d like to thank everyone who came for making the event the success that it was. The lively and engaged listeners and the passion of the readers provided a great atmosphere.
To celebrate the launch of the second issue of Eborakon there will be a poetry reading and wine reception in the Norman Rea Gallery, University of York. We are delighted to announce that John Challis, Michael O'Neill, Karl O'Hanlon, Jack Thacker, and others will read from their work. The event will take place at 6.00pm on Thursday 14th January. We hope you will join us for a convivial evening of poetry and wine!
On 3rd June, Eborakon hosted a poetry reading with Melanie Challenger alongside University of York postgraduate student, Steven Roberts. Challenger also gave a talk, ‘“To sing instead of speaking”: the different demands of writing for the page or the stage’.
Below are (transcribed) excerpts from her provocative and intelligent discussion of poetry, artistic freedom, and writing for music. Challenger’s most recent collaboration with composer Mark Simpson, The Immortal, will premiere on the 4th July at the Manchester International Festival.
(click to enlarge)
We will no longer be accepting submissions for the second issue of Eborakon. Any submissions received after 30th April will not be read. Submissions will reopen in the autumn for Issue 3. In the meantime, please keep you eyes peeled for news regarding the upcoming instalment of Eborakon, which already boasts an exciting line-up of poetry, art, reviews, and more. Watch this space!
We are delighted to announce that we are now open for submissions for Issue 2, which will go to press in the summer. The best way to discover if your work is a fit for our magazine is to click here to buy a copy or become a subscriber.
We're looking for poems, reviews, essays, or anything which falls under the what we're calling "the unexpected": hybrid forms, odd character studies, outlandish art, words to music and libretti, collage, eldritch photography – anything outré and original, rooted in the imagination and innovative. For more information see our submission guidelines.
The deadline for all submissions is 30th April.
On the 28th November 2014, poets and poetry lovers alike descended on the University of York’s campus for the launch of the very first issue of Eborakon magazine. Over fifty people attended the event hosted by the Norman Rea Gallery, a student-run exhibition space located in Derwent College. Staff, students, poets and others gathered together to hear readings from a number of writers featured in the issue. After a welcoming address by co-editor Jack Thacker, the poets took to the microphone to read a selection of works from within and beyond the magazine. The readers were Roger Baxter, Steve Ely, Hugh Haughton, Kath McKay, Paul Mills, Stephen Roberts, David Troupes, JT Welsch and John Whale. It fell to Dr James Williams to provide the closing statements before the celebrations were continued at The Deramore Arms in nearby Heslington Village. The Eborakon team would like to extend their thanks to all of the poets who agreed to read their work at the event, to all of those who attended, and to everyone else who helped make the launch of Issue 1 such a success.
JT Welsch reading from Eborakon at the Launch Party in November