In a 1961 letter to his cousin Harriet Winslow, Robert Lowell, reflecting on the Cold War crises of the period, particularly the erection of the Berlin Wall, wrote
The world's really strange isn't it? I mean the world of the news and the nations and the bomb testings. I feel it this fall and wonder, if it's just being forty three. Under a certain calm, there seems to be a question that must be answered. If one could think of the question. (Papers)
Though this passage illustrates Lowell's tendency to read the world in autobiographical terms, it also displays his sensitivity to the role of language in crisis situations. The rhetorical, public, and communal problem of voicing the required question may be the key to “the world of the news,” yet asking that question is not only beyond Lowell but beyond everyone else (the uncharacteristically impersonal “one”). By the end of the 1950s, voicing the need to ask such a question had become an intrinsic part of Lowell's poetics, most clearly formulated in “For the Union Dead,” a poem completed in 1960 in which the public and the personal dimensions powerfully cohere. However, Lowell's work of the previous decade, collected in Life Studies (1959), in a subtle way had already explored the clichés, aporia, rhetorical corruption, and general verbal difficulties of the first decade of the television era.