Robert Lowell’s ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ is a complex personal narrative of the time the poet spent in prison.
Throughout the poem, Lowell creates powerful images of his past. These range from his fresh, laundered pajamas to his daughter’s clothes and the death of a fellow prisoner. Readers are confronted with a great deal in ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ and it is helpful to read the poem at least twice to get to the heart of it.
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Summary of Memories of West Street and Lepke
In the first lines of ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke,’ Lowell depicts his home in Boston where he works as a professor. This leads him to reminiscence about his time in prison for objecting to serving in the Second World War. He alludes to a letter he wrote to President Roosevelt and what it was like to be in the “bull pen” before being convicted to one year and a day in prison.
The second half of the poem focuses on this period in his life and the people he met. These included Bioff and Brown, two men imprisoned for extortion, and Lepke, the mob boss of Murder Incorporated. Despite spending a great deal of time going into details about his life, what he saw around him in prison, and more, Lowell’s speaker (who is likely Lowell himself) does not pass judgment on any of these things. They are simply statements of the past and what the world used to be like for him and others.
Themes in Memories of West Street and Lepke
In ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ the poet engages with themes of memories/the past as well as wealth/poverty. The latter is connected to the kind of life that Lowell lives in Boston, how his life changed in prison and the economic disparity between the prisoners (such as Lepke who has a great deal in his cell he’s not supposed to have). It is also important to note the allusion to the walls wealth creates in the first lines when the poet speaks about the man outside his Boston home. As the speaker looks back on this time in his life he acknowledges things he saw, people he met, and important moments like Lepke’s execution but he doesn’t spend time worrying or expressing emotion about any of these. They are, in the world of this poem, just things that happened. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they are without meaning.
Structure and Form of Memories of West Street and Lepke
‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ by Robert Lowell is a four-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza has eleven, the second: eight, the third: sixteen, and the fourth has eighteen. Lowell did not use a single rhyme scheme or metrical pattern throughout the lines of ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke.’ Despite this, close readers will be able to take note of some examples of end-rhyme. For instance, the half-rhyme between “man” and “cans” in lines five and six of the first stanza as well as the exact rhyme a few lines later with “daughter” and “granddaughter.” An example of perfect rhyme can be found at the end of stanza two with “then” and “pen” and at the beginning of stanza three with “short” and “court.” The random nature of the rhyme throughout this piece keeps the reader guessing.
Literary Devices in Memories of West Street and Lepke
Lowell makes use of several literary devices in ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, caesura, and allusion. There are many examples of allusion throughout this poem. In fact, this poem wouldn’t be what it was without Lowell’s commitment to alluding to personal experiences from his time living in Boston to his year in a New York jail, serving time as a conscientious objector.
Enjambment is a formal device, one that occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the third stanza. Readers have to go down to the next line to find out how the sentence or phrase concludes. Often this technique can be used to create suspense or influence the feeling of rhythm in the text.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of the lines. these are created either through the use of punctuation, such as a comma or semicolon, or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, this line from stanza two: “and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?”
Analysis of Memories of West Street and Lepke
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
In the first lines of ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke,’ the speaker, who is Lowell himself, begins by making several allusions to his personal life. The reference to Boston places the poem, at least in part, in the city where Lowell taught university. There, he lives with his young daughter. The first images are idealistic. Teaching one day a week, fresh pajamas, and a whole house to himself. This appearance of his life is contrasted with the “man / savaging felt in the back alley trash cans.” This person, despite their circumstances, has “a beach wagon, a helpmate, /and is a “young republican.” This curious addition is suggestive of the times.
These are the tranquillized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
It’s in the second stanza that the context of the poem really becomes clear. He’s a Catholic conscientious objector or someone who refused the draft to fight, in his case, the Second World War. He objected to the bombing of civilians by the Allies and was sentenced to a year and a day in a West Street Jail in New York. He refers to this time period in which he’s writing as the “tranquilized Fifties.” In the past, he was passionate about his beliefs and chose to “tell…off the state and the president.” He valued his “fire-breathing” opinion to the consequences, serving time in person.
The written statement that Lowell refers to in these lines is an actual letter he sent to President Roosevelt explaining why he didn’t want to join up. In the last lines of this stanza, he reflects on the time before his sentencing when he was waiting in the “bull pen” alongside a young man with “curlicues / of marijuana in his hair.” Both Lowell and this “Negro boy” are facing imprisonment.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
The following stanza spends its lines considering the time that Lowell spent in prison. They are packed full of images and allusions. It’s impossible to know exactly how much of what Lowell wrote in this poem is fact and how much was embellished upon or added to for the poem. He describes walking on the roof of his jail, speaking with Abramowitz, who he describes as jaundice yellow. The following phrase “it’s really tan” comes in parenthesis and is presumably what Abramowitz thought of his own complexion. This same person is elaborated on in the following lines.
He was vegetarian, something that he tried to push onto other inmates, such as Bioff. This is an allusion to Willie Bioff, a man who was part of one of the largest extortion cases in the history of the country. He worked one side of the street while Brown worked the other. They formed a partnership known as “B&B.”
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
jarred his concentration on the electric chair—
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections….
The fourth stanza of ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ is the longest. In these lines, he speaks to someone who labels himself as a J.W. or Jehovah’s Witness, rather than a C.O. This person points out Lepke Buchalter, head of Murder Incorporated who’d been convicted and kept a cell filled with “things forbidden to the common man.” Lowell uses accumulation to list these things out. They include a portable radio and two American flags. Lepke was condemned to be executed and the final lines depict that process. In these lines, readers might find connections between Lepke’s cell and Lowell’s home.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ should also consider reading some of Robert Lowell’s other poems. For example:
- ‘Night Sweat’ – speaks about the narrator’s anguish as he struggles with “life’s fever.” His wife’s presence, he adds, is the only thing that can redeem him and lighten his mind.
- ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’ – a complex poem that depicts the sea, corruption, and a divine force. One of the major themes is humanity’s inability to control the power of the ocean.
- ‘Skunk Hour’ –depicts the speaker’s interest in a Maine town and the night-time activities that occur there.