Robert Lowell's Alphabet Poem: Writing to Children in the Midcentury

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Despite the amount of work that exists on how confessional poets depict their relations to their parents, relatively little work has turned in the other direction, to focus on how these poets write as parents themselves.1 As Diane Middlebrook recognizes, at least four prominent confessional poets (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, W. D. Snodgrass, and Robert Lowell) had each "become parents-of daughters, as it happens-not long before writing their confessional poems"(636). Children are repeatedly subjects or interlocutors in their work, and in that of other putatively autobiographical midcentury poets; for Lowell, words to or from a daughter appear in Life Studies (1959), For the Union Dead (1964), the several books of sonnets (1970-1973), and Day by Day (1977). And Lowell also addresses a daughter in an alphabet poem he wrote in the late 1950s or early 1960s, here published and discussed for the first time.2 While clearly unfinished (it exists in one-and-a-half typescript drafts), it not only shows a seemingly lighter, slighter side of his writing, but also offers an example of an extended reflection on the ethics of writing for a specific person in his care. It supports Hannah Baker Saltmarsh's recent suggestion that we rethink the way that "Berryman, Lowell, Ginsberg, and others have come to represent masculine, political, detached confession in contrast to the plainly personal realm that Plath and Sexton occupy"(30). A "plainly personal realm"is writ large in Lowell's alphabet: this poem struggles with how to describe the adult world in a way an actual young child can access.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)510-541
Number of pages32
JournalAmerican Literary History
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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