I’m reading Kathleen Spivack’s With Robert Lowell and His Circle, an impressionistic memoir of the group orbiting poet Robert Lowell, and right now I’m at the part talking about what it was like to be in his legendary poetry classes back in the late 1950s-early 1960s in Boston.
Here are a few tidbits:
While Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were both in the same class (imagine!), Lowell didn’t really see Sylvia as being the star; Anne was:
I can still recall his somewhat nasal Southern-Virginian-New England voice, oddly pitched, as if starting to ask a question, saying to Sylvia and to the class, “This poem [“Sow”] is perfect, almost.” A slight breath-gasp, nasal and outward, as if clearing his sinuses silently, “There really is not much to say.” A kindly but bewildered look. Long, struggling silence. Lowell looks down at the poem, brow furrowed. The class waits. Sylvia, in a cardigan, does not move. She listens. “It appears finished.” Long silence. Lowell looks agonized, but then he always does. Anne [Sexton] fidgets. Realizing that her arms draped with charm bracelets are making noise, she stops. Sylvia leans forward, dutiful, expressionless, intense, intelligent.“But. I don’t know. There’s something about it….” Lowell’s nasal voice trails off, helplessly. “Does anyone else want to say anything about this poem?” No one apparently wants to say anything. We are all too intimidated. … There is the almost inaudible sound of Lowell’s nasal breathing. He is thinking. Everyone tries to refrain from saying something stupid. The room gets darker. Sylvia does not move, watching. “I’m sure this will be published,” Lowell comments to her offhandedly, with a sly kind nearsighted glance. But perhaps the poem already has been published? No one dares ask.There is a feeling of unsatisfied poetic process in the room. The poem is formal and beautifully presented, as is Sylvia herself. Everyone senses that Lowell has damned with faint praise and has managed to sidestep real engagement with the poem. One can’t get beneath the surface of the poems Sylvia brings to class. And yet one can’t define that, or change it, either. There is an air of accepted disappointment, an accepted frustration.
These are the poems that eventually make up the manuscript of her first book, The Colossus. In a quote from Lowell’s writing, he says, “She showed us poems that later, more or less unchanged, went into her first book, The Colossus. They were somber, formidably expert in stanza structure, and had a flair for alliteration and Massachusetts’s low-tide dolor….Somehow none of it sank very deep into my awareness. I sensed her abashment and distinction, and never guessed her later appalling and triumphant fulfillment.” [with the poems in Ariel]
Spivack adds: “[Lowell] was deep in Life Studies, and W.D. Snodgrass as a current favorite poetic role model interested him more. Sylvia’s formal poetry at the time seemed confining, a path Lowell had already traveled in his earlier work. He expressed his astonishment at the bursting forth of raw emotion in later work, after Sylvia’s death.”
This sounds like the world’s most intimidating workshop FOR SURE, as Spivack writes, “In class Sylvia’s comments on other students’ work could be scathing, as well as full of obscure references. She managed to suggest that everyone—except herself, of course—had plagiarized poems from dead British or American writers.”
I don’t think that Robert Lowell is held in the same high regard he once was these days (correct me if I’m wrong, poets), but all I know is that I read a couple of his poems yesterday before jumping into my own revising, and my results were better for it, for feeling that immense pressure to be precise.