Insiders knew “cooked” meant electro-shock therapy and “raw,” the result.
Robert Lowell, in his acceptance speech for a major book award in 1960, welcomed the Beats to the party. Poetry didn’t have to be written for the graduate seminar, Lowell said; it could be street-wise and accessible. It didn’t have to rhyme—it could just talk.
Lowell was doing nothing, however, but furthering his own career. He had gone to prison as a conscientious objector during WW II, and then won a Pulitzer Prize in 1946 for a book of bombastically formalized verse: a few good lines, but mostly trash. Lowell was clearly a mediocrity, but he was a Lowell and he was a Beat before the Beats: iconoclastic, capricious, and mad. Also, crazy. And mad.
The ‘raw v. cooked’ formula was simply an acknowledgement on Lowell’s part that he was swinging from ‘cooked’ to ‘raw’ in his writing and he sensed that ‘raw’ had become sexier.
Nothing concerns a man in his 40s more than loss of sex appeal. The womanizing southerner Allen Tate was very sexy to Robert Lowell—Lowell walked away from WW II and walked away from his wife in a car wreck, but when Tate said Lowell couldn’t move in with him, Lowell pitched a tent in Tate’s yard and lived there for two months. Tate was the American Pound: in the mid-20th century, Pulitzers, Bollingens, booze parties and new Writing Programs went through Tate. Tate was the transatlantic star of the Euro and American wings of Pound’s modernist clique, praising the The Waste Land, starting up Princeton’s Writing Program where Merwin and Berryman established themselves, hosting Ford Madox Ford’s visit to the U.S, the Confederate to Lowell’s Union. Lowell paid homage to Tate’s glinting poem, “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” with his For the Union Dead.
Lowell bumped into New Critics for most of his career: leaving Harvard to study with Ransom at Kenyon, befriending Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks at Louisiana, besotted with Tate. Lowell also taught at Iowa with Paul Engle. And then he’d teach Plath and Sexton. The myth of Lowell sometimes makes us forget that he was basically a well-connected Workshop teacher created by the New Critics.
The “Confessional” label was given to Lowell by M.L. Rosenthal, which tremendously helped Lowell’s career. This was part of Lowell’s ‘new sexy,’ the ‘raw’ establishing itself against the graduate seminar ‘cooked.’ It was simply another calculated move by the Pound clique to build a New Critical, rich-boy, mediocrity into a star. In his NY Times obituary, Rosenthal is described the following way: “he had an affinity for the work of William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams.” There they are: the four horsemen of Modernism. The second phase of Modernism was insinuating itself (because ignored by the public) into the Academy and the Canon: these soldiers were Rosenthal, the New Critics, and Robert Lowell.
As for Lowell’s famous “Raw and Cooked” formula itself, it is without merit. How, for instance, is Donald Hall or Louis Simpson in 1960 “cooked,” and not “raw?” Would the poem “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath be considered “cooked” or “raw?” Plath was a student of the New Critics and dreamed of being accepted by the Kenyon Review. “Daddy” makes expert use of all sorts of formal devices, and yet it’s certainly a “raw” poem. The Romantic poets were both “cooked” and “raw” in the ways Lowell was using those terms, primitive yet learned. Lowell, however, was not astute enough to really know what he was saying; Lowell had no critical powers; his statement was merely self-promoting.
As we see in the following bit of history, whatever window there was quickly closed:
Seventeen years after his “raw” and “cooked” proclamation, Lowell did a joint reading with Allen Ginsberg at New York’s St. Marks-in-the-Bowery. The poets shared a podium—a hint that, in the interim, the battlelines had blurred. Gregory Corso rambunctiously heckled Lowell as he read his poem, “Ulysses and Circe.” “Robert, you left out that great line about paranoid,” Corso called out. Lowell responded with a quick “Point taken” and continued. “You treat us like a classroom,” Corso shouted. Lowell responded that he, in fact, was a teacher and tried to let it go at that. The event was shaping up like a lopsided showdown when Ginsberg finally stepped forward and proposed that the crowd collectively invite Corso to “shut up.” They did and Corso amicably exited, boots in hand, wife and baby at his side. To Lowell, the reading had turned into a veritable “happening.” In retrospect, it signaled a reprieve. The “raw” and the “cooked” were no longer warring, and the tribes needed new names. –Tina Cane, Poets.Org
As this excerpt points out, the so-called “raw and cooked” in American poetry quickly blurred, and it is doubtful whether the actual division Lowell intended existed at all.
America had no critic of note in the 20th century. New Critic-connected Randall Jarrell, Lowell’s roommate at Kenyon, where Jarrell taught, was merely OK. Eliot took his historical depth to Britain. Poe was insulted by the New Critics and stashed away in the cellar. Brooks, Penn Warren, Tate and Ransom had their day—but who reads them now?
It is no surprise, then, that one of America’s best-known 20th century critical pronouncements is weak, ambiguous, and ahistorical.
The change from 1960, when Lowell uttered the “raw and cooked” formula, to 1977, when Ginsberg and Lowell read together, can best be summed up by looking at the difference between Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. The former went to jail on obscenity charges in 1964, despite support at his trial from Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, and Allen Ginsberg, and died a broken man in 1966. The latter became successful by using the same “dirty words” in a 1972 comedy album.
The “cooked” might refer to cooking up poetry prizes.
In the end, Lowell going for “raw” when he was “cooked” is just one more silly event in the chapter of Modernism.