Suffering and liberation: the personal poetics of Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Matthew J. McNees (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Keith Cushman

Abstract: This dissertation examines Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg's personal poetry. While both poets attend to the random details of daily life, thereby establishing common ground as autobiographical writers, they differ markedly in their perspectives about the value of those details. Lowell possesses a stark, often nihilistic view, attesting to the irredeemable suffering of humanity; Ginsberg ascribes to a self-confident, sometimes larger-than-life persona, believing that complete freedom from fear is possible for everyone. My approach is roughly chronological, beginning when both poets committed themselves to personal, autobiographical poetry during the 1950s. The temporal frame of the study, with a few exceptions, spans from the early 1950s through the l970s. I give due attention to each poet's "breakthrough" work in the 1950s--like Ginsberg's Howl and Lowell's Life Studies--but I also place both poets on a larger continuum that began before they wrote their breakthrough works and lasted beyond their initial success. I explain Lowell and Ginsberg's place in the broader literary history of the modern poets that immediately preceded them. Each found the tenets of modern poetry limiting to his personal approach and found it necessary to resuscitate the value of individual, personal subjectivity, something that countered the prevailing notions of objective poetry as put forth most notably by T. S. Eliot. Lowell's commitment to personal poetry came after he had already established his reputation in the 1940s, so his break into personal poetry was highly self-conscious; Ginsberg committed to it early and he never wavered in his approach. Most importantly, I bring the two poets together historically. Throughout, I make clear that their poetry embodies certain changes that occur simultaneously in American society and culture. In chapter 4, I examine a set of poems they wrote in relation to the Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s. Their opinions and strategies in these poems are consistent with their general views on humanity and emerge in relation to larger social views of the time. In addition, I bookend my study with two historical moments: the first and the last times that the poets were together. My prologue discusses their first meeting, in 1959, when they two were just beginning to gain their reputations as influential autobiographical poets: Ginsberg had just made a great splash with Howl in a volume that came to represent beat poetry, and Lowell was making his own bold statement with Life Studies in a volume that came to define confessional poetry. At this time, they criticized each other and thought more about their perceived differences in style and perspective than they did about the common ground they shared as personal poets. My epilogue discusses the only reading that the two poets ever gave together, in 1977, a time when they seemed less and less polar opposites to each other and more and more, as Lowell quipped at the time, "opposite ends of William Carlos Williams." In essence, my study is itself an extension of this claim. This study therefore mirrors the way that these two poets committed themselves to and pursued a personal aesthetic. They began by rigorously examining themselves as the subjects of their poems and they ended with the same strategy. As Ginsberg wrote in Howl, "the absolute heart of the poem" should be "butchered out of their own bodies"; as Lowell reflected in his "Epilogue," "why not say what happened?" This study explores what happened along the road, so to speak, with particular emphasis on the contrast between Lowell's belief that humankind's condition is turmoil and Ginsberg's that we can ultimately liberate ourselves from pain. The manner in which Lowell and Ginsberg treated the individual subject, one they usually assumed to be themselves, led to their own particular explorations of pain and liberation. As Lowell delved more deeply into his own turmoil, he came to write about the pain associated with sight: he seemed to see a world as it plainly presents itself in everyday reality, yet he suffered more and more as a result of his inability to accurately explain what he saw. As Ginsberg sought out ways to liberate himself and others, he made an example of himself as one who could remove what he believed to be social masks forced upon all human beings. He therefore wrote many poems aimed to alleviate basic fears about society and its norms, fears that he thought everybody experienced and must overcome. These authors' unconventional dedication to personal poetry asks that we constantly reconsider how suffering and liberation can play vital roles as we negotiate our own identity and move between our own private and public selves, broadening the scope of discourses that define the role of the individual in literature.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2011
America, Ginsberg, Lowell, Poetry, Postwar, Twentieth-Century
Ginsberg, Allen, $d 1926-1997 $x Criticism and interpretation
Lowell, Robert, $d 1917-1977 $x Criticism and interpretation

Email this document to