One of the great political poems of the 20th century, Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" (1964) is an archeological dig through the multiple pasts of personal and American history, a re-dedication of the famous St. Gauden's Memorial in Boston to Robert Gould Shaw and the all-black regiment (the Massachusetts 54th) who fought in the Civil War. What attracted me to Lowell's poem was--in addition to its kaleidoscopic allusiveness--its seething anger, just below the surface of its erudition. The poem comes to its anger slowly, but it's just as I felt before and during the Gulf War of 1991, when I was first encountered this poem. The poem ends with an image of the countless cars choking the roads: "a savage servility/slides by on grease." To echo Walter Benjamin: every artefact of civilization is also an artefact of barbarism.
- Len Sousa has smartly mashed "For the Union Dead" with Philip Glass. Thanks to Chris Kempf for pointing this site out to me. (My little girls danced to Frank O'Hara Meets the Beatles the whole time that I posted this note.)
- Here's the "For the Union Dead" text.