In 2003, FSG published the Collected Poems of Robert Lowell, and while there were great assessments of the book (Willard Spiegelman’s in The Kenyon Review, or Helen Vendler’s in The New Republic), there were also some less smart takes. One of the most harebrained ones was James Fenton’s in the NYRB (“The Return of Robert Lowell”). DeSales Harrison, one of the book’s editors, gave the right answer and an excellent assessment of Lowell’s work in his brief letter to the editor. This bit especially is extremely well put:
Fenton assumes that Lowell undertakes his revisions in the interest of a perfection that anyone would recognize. What Fenton does not consider is the way in which revision might strive toward something other than perfection in this narrow sense. The “comprehensive review and correction” that he proposes must perforce ignore or deny how much of Lowell’s power inheres in the refusal of correction, and in its insistence upon leaving exposed the work’s pentimenti. The surface of the text is in its essence erratic, torn, distorted, or—to use a word Fenton might intend differently—incorrigible. In its scrapings, smudges, patchings, and scars the poetry enacts the struggle between impulse and repentance, gesture and erasure—between, in short, the forces of making and unmaking.