The Techniques of Free Association in Robert Lowell’s Poetics

I was browsing through the Addlestone book stacks looking for a suitable critical essay to examine for this week’s blog post when I discovered, in the Robert Lowell section, a work that delves into the craft and effect of poetic language. Admittedly, I was looking for a book on the feminist poetics in Adrienne Rich’s poetry, but as I am, and always have been, a sucker for self-examination and the ways in which those are produced linguistically, I will use this post to discuss a chapter in Katherine Wallingford’s book, Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self.

In her book chapter, “A Poetry of Association,” Wallingford argues that Lowell’s poetic technique includes the workings of both the unconscious (experiencing) and the conscious (observing) self. Wallingford starts the chapter by examining Lowell’s attention and commitment to the flow of free association, a psychoanalytic technique. In a letter Lowell writes to George Santayana, Lowell describes, though does not name, his experience of free association. Whilst in a hypnagogic state, Lowell is struck by a “dog-image,” (original italics, Wallingford, 24). Though he feels powerless over the unbidden image, Lowell “determines not to ‘shut these things out’ but to ‘let them come,” when he asserts his willingness to follow along as the dog takes him ‘God knows where…’” (25). By following the image, Lowell commits to “follow[ing] his associations wherever they lead, no matter how unpleasant such a process may be” (25).

Robert Lowell

Wallingford argues that Lowell’s habit of free association is more natural and less intentional than other poets and poetic schools. The Beats, by contrast, used Free Association deliberately. Referencing Deanna Silberman, Wallingford focuses on Allen Ginsberg, saying his ‘“theory of composition… is built on the Freudian idea of revealing the unconscious self through the technique of association’” (26). The Surrealists, too, “deliberately and self-consciously focused their attention on psychoanalytic methods such as free association (26). Like The Beats and the Surrealists, Lowell lets the unbidden images bubble in his mind and commits to following them down the path of association. However, though he takes inspiration from The Beats and dabbles in surrealism in his collection, Notebook, Wallingford argues that Lowell not only uses free association but “shows us…how free association feels” (28). By balancing the automatic unconscious (of experience) with the more conscious form (of observation), Lowell conveys the experience of self-examination via free association.

Poems like, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” succeed in conveying this balance. Though the poem is formal in its usage of traditional meter and rhyme, it feels intimate as “the speaker seems to have immersed himself in a flow of associations rather than to have arranged images according to an aesthetic or rational order…” (37). Poems in which Lowell only tries to consciously dredge up confessional poems from memory are unbalanced in that they put too much weight on the observing self. This, Wallingford argues, is the result of “blocking rather than opening up access to the feelings evoked by the memories,” (39), and therefore, of blocking free associations to lead from one image to the next. However, excluding the observing self will leave the reader without a speaker to “oversee[] and to comment on the experiencing [self] as the [experiencing self] freely

associates” (39). Without the observing self, the reader is left without a speaker to associate the image-objects to. Lowell tries, intentionally, to merge both the unconscious and the conscious selves in his poetry collection, For The Union Dead. By surrendering the reader to the flow of association, and by creating observational distance between speaker and image, Lowell merges both the conscious (experiencing) and the unconscious (observing) selves.

In the last portion of her chapter, Wallingford addresses the conflict in interplaying these two modes of self, particularly between narrative and free association. There is, in Lowell’s poetry, a desire for the fragmentary imagery of free association as well as a conflicting desire for simple narrative and plot. Wallingford argues that, while Lowell may not always succeed in rectifying this conflict in a single poem, he succeeds in creating a type of narrative, or connection, through an image that reoccurs in several poems. Instead of looking at this image in isolation, Wallingford has us look at it in association with the other poems that include it. The image she makes an example of in her chapter is that of a turtle. Lowell associates “the turtle not only to cruelty and helplessness but also to creativity and poetry, to love and affection, wife and child” (48). By doing this, Lowell has the turtle-object accumulate image, linking one image to another to tell a story of self transformation, and thus “accumulat[ing] meaning beyond its significance in any particular poem” (51). She concludes that Lowell’s poetic journey, and his journey in self-examination, is located in the willingness to follow images as they bubble up into the observational eye of the conscious and down the path of unconscious association.


Works cited:

Wallingford, Katharine. “A Poetry of Association.” Robert Lowell’s Language of the Self, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2012, pp. 24–54.

One Response to The Techniques of Free Association in Robert Lowell’s Poetics

  1. steversonj October 6, 2022 at 3:40 am #

    Great presentation of ideas. You make understanding the chapter easy and I learned something. I think a balance between the experience and observation in Lowell’s poetry, Wallingford discusses, is important to the idea of free flowing poetry. It almost sounds like Lowell wants to let the ideas in his mind flow onto the paper without directing them a certain way. This “flow of free association” you describe in your post, allows the poet to not only take the reader on the journey, but allows the reader to feel the journey they are taking. This type of poetry, to me, would provide an experience that isn’t restrictive, in a sense you know where the end is and you know what kind of journey this poem will take you on. It instead provides an experience that isn’t so calculated; you just have to read it and immerse yourself in the words and accept how the words make you feel. It’s less thoughtful and less intentional. It’s more natural and the poet has to develop the balance that conveys an authentic experience for the reader. This poetry seems challenging to write and get right.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes

Skip to toolbar