Robert Lowell's Wikipedia page states that Helen Vendler, in contrast to certain other critics, praised Lowell's final publication, Day by Day, especially because of:

his descriptions of impotence, depression, and old age.

Of course, the word impotence can mean several things, but the context strongly suggests the sense of erectile dysfunction to my mind. (Or perhaps I just need to be psychoanalysed!) And, for what it's worth, whoever wrote that portion of the Wikipedia page agrees with me: the word impotence is hyperlinked to the erectile dysfunction page.

Is erectile dysfunction discussed in Day by Day? And, if so, in which poems?

  • Day by Day is available to borrow at the Internet Archive, if you fancy having an account to read it online.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 5, 2020 at 10:32

1 Answer 1


Looking through Day by Day, I found two poems that might be talking about impotence, although neither of them mentions it explicitly.

In Ear of Corn, about an old wine baron, the following lines at least show the inability of the subject to make young women be attracted to him.

someone's young wife is on his right—
She cannot cure his hallucination
he can bribe or stare
any woman he wants into orgasm...
He fills her ear
with his old sexual gramophone.
Like belief,
he makes nothing happen.

And The Downlook is also suggestive of impotence. It even contains the word (although possibly in another context, unless "two-way traffic" is a metaphor for sexual intercourse, which I suspect it is). Here are what I think are the most suggestive lines from this poem.

nothing lovelier than waking to find
another breathing body in my bed ...
glowshadow halfcovered with dayclothes like my own,
caught in my arms.

Last summer nothing dared impede
the flow of the body's thousand rivulets of welcome ...
winding effortlessly, yet with ambiguous invention—
safety in nearness.

Now the downlook, the downlook—small fuss,
each miss must be a mile
if one risk the narrow two-lane highway.

It's impotence and impertinence to ask directions,
while staring right and left in two-way traffic.
Ah, loved perhaps before I knew you,
others have been lost like this,
yet found foothold
by winning the dolphin from the humming water.

Robert Lowell suffered episodes of depression for much of his life. However, depression can cause impotence, and I believe that this is indeed a subtext here.
The Downlook seems to be primarily about depression (which is also one of the definitions of the word downlook). And this is indeed how Lowell used the word: Google finds:

In a letter to Blair Clark, Lowell speaks of the “downlook” as an inward feeling of depression (the aftermath of manic attack)

  • Great answer, exactly what I was looking for. On a point of pedantry: I think it's best to put the titles of volumes of poetry in italics, and the titles of individual poems in quotation marks. But no doubt you can find a dozen style guides stating the opposite.
    – Tom Hosker
    Nov 8, 2020 at 23:48

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