Saturday, April 7, 2007

Robert Lowell's Collected Poems

Why do we remember what we remember? Over Christmas I was talking to a psychologist friend of ours, who suggested that how we think about our lives depends on what we remember. But what if what we remember depends on what we think?

I took a class in college called Poetry Since 1945, and aside from my writing workshops, it might have been the most memorable class I ever took. It wasn't the class so much as the material, which was a revelation. I remember sitting at a wooden desk by a huge flung-open window that spring, being bowled over again and again by certain lines.

One was, "Like the sun she rises, in her flame-flamingo infants' wear."

For years I thought of that line. I couldn't remember who the poet was or any of the rest of the poem -- only that line. What was so great about it? Nothing in particular. I liked the sound of flame-flamingo and the image of it: pink flames. The line just gave me a feeling I liked, a sense of quiet urban shabbiness and a baby's oblivious optimism. I felt briefly injected into another life.

When the Internet got rolling I realized I could find this, or any poem at all, so I did: it's "Memories of West Street and Lepke," by Robert Lowell. This surprised me, because I had never thought of Lowell as one of my favorites. But Lowell's Collected Poems just came out in paperback, and even though I'm trying to move and it's a big book I bought it. And it's a delight. What Lowell was so good at was letting you know what his life was like -- what it was like to be him, to be in his head. Obviously there's much more than that. But it's what appeals to me, a confirmed non-poet.

Still, I wonder why that line, why not others? What's the logic behind the tangle of lines and stanzas that stick with us, and those that don't? Maybe, in this particular case, the image of a girl baby in pajamas awakened some almost totally stifled memory in me. "Flame-flamingo" -- after a long, gray-and-white winter bright colors are stimulating. Could that be enough?

Poetry can do a lot of things, but I like the way it works like a fishing net, trawling through forgotten parts of our brains, catching on things we maybe never noticed before.

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