Like many readers, most of the poets I've read have been introduced to me--either through another person, an anthology, or a literature class. By contrast, Lowell was probably the first poet I discovered completely on my own-- stumbling into him without encouragement or help. A century-old volume of his Complete Poetical Works was sitting on a shelf in Caveat Emptor, a used bookshop in Bloomington, Indiana one day when I was in my twenties. Now, chasing poetry or music is sometimes like looking for the right medicine to a disease we can't even diagnose--we hunt through various remedies, hoping to find a cure for our restless symptoms--at least that's what it can be like for me, and certainly was that day.
Opening randomly, my eyes fell on a short poem entitled "The Moon." At the time I'd been steeping myself in English literature--Milton, Donne and Herbert in particular. Here was something completely different: streamlined language, murmuring and muttering in Americanese, fantasizing his imagery in science fiction-y terms--imagining his soul to be what the ocean was before the moon was made. This re-purposing of nature for the sake of lopsided allusion was striking for many reasons, not least of which that it seemed so familiar, so native to my own way of thinking, which has its own fair share of the Yankee tinker in it. His blunt thoughts, plainly yet smoothly expressed, punching lightly with a couple of clean, spare enjambments, was like a breathe of fresh air.
One of the goals of American Poetics is to give sonic life to poetry, so I've uploaded a recording of me reciting "The Moon" to SoundCloud.
Nearly twenty years later, the freshness hasn't subsided. Here is the text of the poem:
BY JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL
My soul was like the sea,
Before the moon was made,
Moaning in vague immensity,
Of its own strength afraid,
Unrestful and unstaid.
Through every rift it foamed in vain,
About its earthly prison,
Seeking some unknown thing in pain,
And sinking restless back again,
For yet no moon had risen:
Its only voice a vast dumb moan,
Of utterless anguish speaking,
It lay unhopefully alone,
And lived but in an aimless seeking.
So was my soul; but when 'twas full
Of unrest to o'erloading,
A voice of something beautiful
Whispered a dim foreboding,
And yet so soft, so sweet, so low,
It had not more of joy than woe;
And, as the sea doth oft lie still,
Making its waters meet,
As if by an unconscious will,
For the moon's silver feet,
So lay my soul within mine eyes
When thou, its guardian moon, didst rise.
And now, howe'er its waves above
May toss and seem uneaseful,
One strong, eternal law of Love,
With guidance sure and peaceful,
As calm and natural as breath,
Moves its great deeps through life and death.