Memories of West Street and Lepke #
This poem is a reflection and self-assessment of Robert Lowell’s past - jail sentence, his present - a professor at Boston Univerisity and the future of his young daughter. While self-deprecating, the tone is detached, objective with ironic dignity. He refuses to wallow in maudlin self-pity. His problems are a reflection of his times – the tranquillised fifties. His affluent heritage is contrasted with his past protests and his present predicaments.
In 1942, 25 years old, Robert Lowell attempted to enlist in the US Army and Navy, but was rejected on medical grounds. Two years later he was drafted but refused to serve due to his objections to the allied bombings of civilians. His outrage to the bombing may have stemmed from his conversion to Catholicism, (to which he was violently attracted to and repelled by) rejecting the strictures of his Boston Calvinist upbringing.
He was sentenced to a year and a day, of which he served five months in West Street Prison, Manhattan.
In 1954, Lowell also spent three weeks in the locked ward of Payne Whitney Clinic in New York City. In recovery, at the suggestion of his psychiatrist, Lowell began his writing, marked by “images and ironic or amusing particulars.” Particulars were not symbols; Lowell had found a way to write about himself openly and candidly that did not require him to shunt every detail into cosmic significance. He had found a tone that implied pity, acceptance, and nostalgia, mild emotions that could be sustained across the arc of a narrative. Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character.
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 tranquillized 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 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….
Lowell’s confessional poetry is self investigative without becoming self-indulgent. His refreshing candour displays an honesty rare in writers.
Images in West Street and Lepke #
The images convey his attitudes in oblique techniques. Lowell wants us to think hard about his verse. “What better immortality is there for poetry than this: continually to be vibrating in our minds?”
“Hog” a whole house registers a surprise of his present success, contrasting with the scavenger, a Republican family man, reduced by low wages. Why would someone so desperate vote Republican? His daughter’s flame-flamingo infant wear, suggests a bright future, also contrasted with the tranquillised fifties, decadent, conformist and loss of idealism.
He recalls his youth (seedtime) - idealistic, passionate, but futile protests, as a fire breathing Catholic Conscious Objector (C.O.) spent in the “bull pen” (jail) for telling off the state and president.
The school soccer court represents the confined enclosure of the jail.
Perhaps the most startling image is that of Lepke’s shock treatment and lobotomy. Together with the thugs, Bioff and Brown’s savage attacks, this introduces the mindless brutality of the inmates.
Though Lowell identifies with Lepke’s disconnection as to his own severance from his past goals and family tradition, he still has the capacity to reappraise his predicament and perhaps redeem the time for himself and his daughter. This reference could foreshadow Lowell’s own manic-depressive illness (now known as bipolar disorder), and his stay (one of many) in mental hospitals.
Language in West Street and Lepke #
Lowell rejects tradition rhyme and strictures of form and rhythm to gain fluidity and honesty.
There is a mixture of both the colloquial: hog, pimps, blew their tops, and the formal: hardly passionate, tranquillised, seedtime, manic, agonised, reappraisal, metaphysical.
Jargons include: CO, JW, hospital tuck, lobotomised
Loaded or emotive language: scavenging filth, flame flamingo, manic, sooty, bleaching, khaki yammered
Themes of West Street and Lepke #
Ideals and Rebellion
Lowell reflects about a time when he had dreams, the ambition to realise them by taking a moral stand. Now that he is older, he is more passive, stymied by society and forced to conform and become more compliant. His manic protest appeared insignificant, ineffectual and futile. It failed to make any impact.
Affluence has destroyed Lowell’s drive, hopes and dreams. Ironically, it is the Lowell of Marlborough Street that is “out of times”.
Even prison is a conformist culture. The negro youth signifies his apathy by turning to drugs with curlicues/of marijuana in his hair.
Through juxtaposition, Lowell delineates our similarities and differences.
Abramowitz, a fly-weight pacifist, vegetarian, tries to convert Bioff and Brown,/ the Hollywood pimps, ….they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
The inevitable result of any non-conformism that opposes the norm; precisely the intolerant mindset that led to WWII, Lowell was opposed to.
The JW or Jehovah Witnesses have their own form of conformity.
Jails too have their hierarchical status as Czar Lepke enjoys his status via his own cell, a radio, dresser and flags. He has been pacified into a “sheep calm” through electric shock treatment and a lobotomy.
Lowell feels he to has lost connections – loss of motivation, direction, identity and hope.
His pretentions of intellectualism – the eagerness of his discussions with Abramowitz, are under cut by the descriptive verb “yammered”.
The sharp irony of the poem is that Lowell protested against the gratuitous violence against innocent citizens bombed by allied bombs, yet he is put in jail with murderers.