Here’s a tantalizing might-have-been. At some point in the early 1960s, Leonard Bernstein asked Robert Lowell to write the text for what would eventually become Bernstein’s Symphony no. 3, Kaddish. Lowell mentioned it in a Christmas Eve 1962 letter to Elizabeth Bishop:
I’ve had the worse experience, 1 of grinding out like a machine things I’ll never use. Ten sonnets of Nerval, that vanish to nothing in English, words for a symphony for the dead, that Leonard Bernstein wanted me to try and have so far produced a bilge of declamation.
In the end, of course, Bernstein rather infamously wrote his own text for the symphony. How and when Lowell’s part in the project came to an end isn’t clear—but Lowell’s “Three Poems for Kaddish” did eventually turn up, posthumously, in a 1979 issue of Ploughshares. They were reprinted in the 2003 edition of Lowell’s Collected Poems.
Like Bernstein, Lowell uses his text to address God directly, but in place of Bernstein’s defiance is a wry empathy: twice, Lowell calls the almighty “poor little Father.” Lowell seems to imply a division into seasons (suggesting that there may have been a planned fourth poem). The first is summer, images of light and heat hinting at environmental and nuclear holocausts.
[W]e think the sun draws nearer day by day.
[W]e bake our hearts out on the sands.
We worship thee, Oh bathers’ sun,
and in our terror ask if Solomon
in all his beauty was arrayed like thee.
Because we were forgetful of God’s ways,
will he rejoice and watch our planet run
like a black coffin round the sun
with frigid repetitions of his praise?
Then an allusion to Psalm 137: “How can I sing a new song,/ rolled stem and blossom/ in this strange land?/ Can God destroy us in the act of praise?”
The second poem shifts to spring, in the form of the Deluge of Noah:
Was God sure
that our extinction was our only cure?
Men saw the heavens’ open windows pour
destruction on the land for forty days;
from sun to sun, they filled the earth with praise,
but now we know the Lord of Hosts is poor.
Look in our fallible and foolish glass,
your own face stares at you like withered grass!
This sets up the third poem, where winter descends like an ice age. While fisherman cut holes in the frozen river, Lowell hears echoes of “the saber-tooth and mastodon… they rule with shaggy, crushing stubbornness.” The impersonal machinery of technology gives way to the savage machinery of nature.
… The clock-
maker has no surprises for the clock.
Our hands have turned creation on its head.
Oh Father, do not bite your lip and frown;
it hardly matters now if we made God,
or God made us. Both suffer and exist.
A Bernstein-Lowell collaboration, in theory, seems like a dream: both volatile forces, voracious reworkers of the culture, creators of uncomfortably personal art whose “confessional” personas were as carefully constructed and invented as any of their works. There’s a possibility that Bernstein decided the stage wasn’t big enough for both of them. But comparing Lowell’s poems with Bernstein’s own texts, there’s also a sense that Bernstein may have found Lowell’s contributions too polished, too “traditional” in their intricate rhyme and meter. Maybe the poems weren’t raw enough or brazen enough—Bernstein’s speaker seems a rebellious child, finally grown up enough to challenge the father as an equal. Lowell, who had ample experience as the rebellious child, instead opted to portray a God brought down to our level, afflicted with an all-too-human disappointment. (Our Father, who wert in heaven, welcome to the club.)
For me, the really interesting wild-card in this story is Allen Ginsberg. Because I think parts of Lowell’s Kaddish seem to be consciously or subconsciously picking up on themes from Ginsberg’s Kaddish. Ginsberg wrote his Kaddish, a long poem on the death of his mother Naomi, between 1957 and 1959. Ginsberg frames the recitation of his mother’s life with visions of sunlight:
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon….
Toward the Key in the window—and the great Key lays its head of light on top of Manhattan, and over the floor, and lays down on the sidewalk—in a single vast beam, moving, as I walk down First toward the Yiddish Theater—and the place of poverty
We learn later that the sunlight “key” is from a letter Ginsburg’s mother wrote to him, which he quotes: “The key is in the window, the key is the sunlight at the window—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight at the window.” Ginsberg contrasts this with his mother dying in the hospital:
But that the key should be left behind—at the window—the key in the sunlight—to the living—that can take
that slice of light in hand—and turn the door—and look back see
Creation glistening backwards to the same grave, size of universe,
size of the tick of the hospital’s clock on the archway over the white door—
This is all similar to the sun imagery in the first of Lowell’s poems, especially when he says:
I think our little span has reached its end,
that henceforth only ruin will regard
the breathless planets and the sun descend
aeons around an earth whose crust is hard.
Lowell’s Psalm 137 allusion, the futility of his song, also has a counterpart in Ginsberg:
Tho I am not there for this Prophecy, I am unmarried, I’m hymnless, I’m Heavenless, headless in blisshood I would still adore
Thee, Heaven, after Death, only One blessed in Nothingness, not light or darkness, Dayless Eternity—
Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now given to Nothing—to praise Thee—But Death
Lowell knew Ginsberg. In 1959, Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso visited Lowell at his house. Lowell didn’t think much of the whole movement; after the visit, he would write to Bishop:
They are phony in [a] way because they have made a lot of publicity out of very little talent. But in another way, they are pathetic and doomed. How can you make a go for long by reciting so-so verse to half-jeering swarms of college students? However, they are trying, I guess to write poetry.
But Lowell liked Kaddish. After the visit, he wrote to Ginsberg:
Well, I enjoy Kaddish much more. It’s really melodious, nostalgic, moving, liturgical. Maybe it ought to be shorter—the manner sometimes almost writes itself—probably there’s too much Whitman. And I do find it a bit too conventional, eloquent and liturgical. Well, it’s well done, felt and a good poem.
Presented with Bernstein’s scheme, did Lowell see an opportunity to rewrite Ginsberg’s Kaddish in his own manner? Certainly the results are wildly different, Ginsberg’s stream-of-consciousness reminiscences a long way from Lowell’s lofty detachment. But many of Lowell’s poems, in their early drafts, are at least a little closer to Ginsberg’s style. Lowell often would write blank verse at first, imposing rhyme and meter as he revised. And as he rewrote, personal, autobiographical details often became more abstract, more universal. Interestingly, the formality of Lowell’s Kaddish poems is closer to his early 1940s style than the rhythmically looser experimentation of his successful, controversial breakthrough 1959 volume, Life Studies. It might seem contradictory for Lowell to call Ginsberg’s eloquence conventional—but not in the light of Lowell’s own style, where he tends to utilize the strictest formal discipline for the most shocking and disjointed of his visions.
If Bernstein really was after a more “far-out” text for the symphony, it would be a little bit of irony that, if Lowell was indeed echoing Ginsberg, the result wasn’t, well, Ginsberg-like enough for Bernstein. Bernstein never collaborated with Ginsberg, either—that would have been some pairing. And it’s intriguing to try and imagine how Lowell’s unsentimental, tightly-controlled power would have interacted with Bernstein’s sprawling symphonic ambitions. But that could be why it failed—you always assume that the collaboration of two potent personalities will produce a critical mass, but maybe the result is destined to be fission rather than fusion.
Special thanks to Jodi and Patrick, and my lovely wife, for the Lowellian birthday swag.
Great stuff, Matthew. Lowell is a favorite of mine. Thanks for the reading material.