Disaffected Prep

Monday, November 9, 2009


Style of the Poets: Robert Lowell

The nexus between clothing and literature is an endless source of fascination for me. While it may dilutive to compare literature (the "sacred") and fashion (the "profane") to each other, I think it is a rich well of inspiration that, for the most part, lies untapped.

For example, despite all of Tom Wolfe’s contributions to literature (introduction of New Journalism, endless neologisms and coined phrases, creative use of punctuation), he may be equally as well known for his double breasted white suits and spats.

From Lowell
(image from Paste Magazine)

This line of thinking could be applied to Gay Talese, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Truman Capote, and many others.

If you think about it though, writing and clothing need not be at opposition. If one has a strong, distinctive writing style, then it is natural that some sort of unique clothing style carries over. (Or is it the other way around, that a fashion aesthetic dictates a writing style?)

The inspiration for my site’s name, Disaffected Prep, comes from one of my favorite descriptions of Holden Caulfield as a “disaffected prep-schooler.” The Disaffected Prep look, in my mind, is a worn out Brooks Brother button down, repp tie slightly askew, untied laces, a messy mop of hair, a duffel coat, and a scathingly cynical attitude. As modern examples go, Igby Goes Down nails this pretty well. (“Where do you think you are going to go now, young man?” Igby’s archetypical prescription-popping Manhattan-mother asks after he’s been kicked out of his latest prep school. Igby deadpans: “I don’t know, Choate?”)

From Lowell
(Image from Blogspot - Igby on far right)

In terms of stylish writers, recently I’ve had the look of Robert Lowell kicking around in my head. Now, I don’t think many people would list the poet Robert Lowell as a “style icon,” but I think his look merits examination.

From Lowell
(from Google/Life)

Most are familiar with the rough biography of Lowell – his birth into the prominent Boston family as well as his introduction of the ‘confessional’ style of poetry. In the recently released Words in Air complete correspondence of letters between Elizabeth Bishop and Lowell, Bishop touched on both subjects and gave a fascinating backhanded compliment to Lowell that underscores just why his ‘confessional’ poems had so much weight:

“I feel as if I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say – but what would be the significance? Nothing at all. He became a drunkard, fought with his wife, and spent most of his time fishing . . . and was ignorant as sin . . . Whereas all you have to do is put down the names! And the fact that it seems significant, illustrative, American etc gives you, I think, the confidence you display about tackling any idea or theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation.”

From Lowell
(image from Amazon)

Sometimes I wonder – did Lowell feel some sort of noblesse oblige when he dressed? Upholding on the Lowell name & tradition? Needing to appear properly patrician in the public eye?

From Lowell

This photo is from the Google/Life image archive. I find it interesting as Lowell wears the nerdy, slightly patrician aesthete look quite well. Now, if you look closely at the full size image, Lowell holds a book by John Crowe Ransom, his mentor at Kenyon College. (Lowell decamped from Harvard and its rich history of graduating Lowell family members for the Midwestern liberal arts college Kenyon so he could study under Ransom.) Ransom’s formalist poetry isn’t really popular anymore, but here is one of his best poems, “Blue Girls.”
Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished -- yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

I’ve hardly seen a photo of Lowell not wearing a tie or a button down shirt - which made me think about this post, however irreverent it may be.

Even if Lowell was rumpled and slightly batty – he was still well dressed. While we often have an image of poets as disheveled and sloppy, these pictures of Lowell refute this common wisdom.

From Lowell

Recommended poems:
Skunk Hour
For the Union Dead

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Dan- Great post. You passion for literature is inspiring and you do so many things with DP that I wish I could pull over at Sart Inc. Good looks on Igby too...I did a whole post last month on style in the movie itself.

IGD is one of my all-time favorites, and you pulled my absolute favorite line, aside from:

Reform School Nazi: "Slocumb! What in the hell do you think you're doing here?!"

Igby: "The Ritz-Carlton was full."

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