Lowell’s early writing was warmly received, and his second book, Lord Weary’s Castle, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, when Lowell was just thirty. During World War II Lowell was a conscientious objector and was imprisoned for his belief. He continued his opposition to war during the Vietnam war. Throughout his life he struggled with depression, and was repeatedly hospitalized. His collection of poetry, Life Studies, published in 1959, spoke directly to his personal experience. Lowell served as the Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1962 until his death in 1977.
Memories of West Street and Lepke
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is “a young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .
History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had–
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his baby crying all night like a new machine.
the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter’s moon ascends–
a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull’s no-nose–
O there’s a terrifying innocence in my face
drenched with the silver salvage of the morn-frost.