Malcolm Lowry, that old favourite of mine… That depressed, alcoholic, international man destroyed by his own inability to deal with the deep understanding he gained of himself through writing.
His two published novels, Ultramarine and Under The Volcano, I read about this time last year, the second one being one of the finest novels I have ever read. Since then, I have read an excellent collection of short stories he considered finished (Hear us O lord from heaven thy dwelling place), a good novella (Lunar Caustic) and a half-finished novel tidied up by other people after his death, Dark as the grave wherein my friend is laid. If you include the letters, there’s still (thankfully) rather a lot I am yet to touch. This, his Selected Poems, published in one of those beautiful City Lights Pocket Poets editions, was my first venture into his verse.
Lowry died in 1957, ten years after publication of Under The Volcano. In 1961, a collection of short stories was published, then the following year came this book of his poems. Some had appeared in magazines and collections during his life, but most hadn’t. In his introduction to the volume, Earle Birney states that the 60 or 70 poems in this book represent about a quarter of Lowry’s total poetic output. Which isn’t very much, when compared to the huge volume of prose he scribbled down (though rarely published) during his lifetime. And why is that?
Birney offers the hypothesis that this is because Lowry’s verse is more personal. More honest. More open.
But, as the best of his prose is nothing less than an unpretentious window into the darkest reaches of the emptiest, saddest, unloveliest mind, it seems hard to see that as a valid criticism. For where these poems are at their strongest is where they are engaging with parts of the “Lowry myth”, or whatever you want to call it, that I am already familiar with*. It is not his imagery or his poetic evocation of distant shores that excites, it is the moments when this sad, sad, drunken man is exposed, more than he’d like to be, in front of his reader.
Poems about fame, about himself, about the lack of happiness he found are in here, and they are golden, beautiful, good. But there are also unnecessary and frankly dull youthful verses that (one imagines) are little more than rejected lines from his first novel.
This is not a great collection of poetry, but there are enough moments of strength within it to, still, not put me off my knowing-Lowry quest. This selection has been made in order to offer variety. And that wasn’t what it needed. What it needed was editing to make it offer honesty, which is what I look for (and have often found) in Lowry’s work.
I look forward to reading more of him, and more of his poetry, soon. But this volume (which I found by luck rather than design), I am hoping is not a fair representation of what is contained within his collected poems.
* Having read numerous books of his own and a biography (Pursued by Furies by Gordon Bowker) and watched this film: https://www.nfb.ca/film/volcano/ I find Malcolm Lowry fascinating.
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