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Notes on Life Studies

July 24, 2021

Life Studies, by Robert Lowell, is recommended reading on my course.

  • I’ve known of Robert Lowell for a long time, though I don’t recall reading any before. I might have read Skunk Hour in an anthology but, if I had, I’d forgotten the nature of it. I knew it was about some middle-aged man snooping around the cars of courting couples, but that was all.
  • Life Studies is his most famous work. I didn’t care for it. Sorry, Robert.
  • His poems were hard work, and didn’t offer any real insight once I’d gone to the trouble of trying to understand them.
  • I understand that his poetry was part of an important movement in American poetry. The writing was a step away from the more formal, form-based poetry that came before it. In that sense, it lay the groundwork for many poets that came later, such as Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, etc. (I might have my chronologies wrong, but never mind).
  • His work, so far as I understand it, is championed because of its autobiographical nature. Fair enough. I still didn’t care for it.
  • There were lots of poems which had a historical perspective. They didn’t add up to much.
  • The middle section of the book is a long prose poem.
  • His prose is turgid.
  • The story he told was uninteresting.
  • I should be more analytical about what wasn’t working, but I’ve no interest in analysing his work. I’d rather read something else that interests me. The lesson I take away is, you can talk about big, interesting, vital topics, but you have to use language in a way that excites or interests the reader. Otherwise, they aren’t going to bother. Why should they, when there are a million books out there that are waiting to be read.

Which leads me to the following thoughts:

  • You can edit life out of your text, or you can edit life into it.
  • Personally, the first draft is just something I want to get down on paper, so I can say it exists.
  • After that, that’s when the real work begins. I’ll take that first draft and work it again and again until it forms the shape I want it to form. In that sense, I work like a sculptor of clay, starting with a basic shape that kind of resembles the thing I’m after, and I keep working on it, getting it a little bit closer on every iteration.
  • A good editor, like a good translator, can enhance your work. It’s hard to edit your own material, but still, you’re the one who knows what you want it to be once it’s done. You can’t delegate that.
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