In the winter of 1964, a few months before the death
of T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell came to Boston University,
to read his work in Sherman Union. The reading room
was so packed, that some two-hundred students had to
remain in the lounge, and put up with a crackly loud
speaker. I was one of them.
He read poems such as 'Words for Hart Crane,' from
his Life Studies, and another about Eisenhower's inauguration
in 1953: 'And the Republic summons Ike, the mausoleum
in its heart.' His voice was mournful and had a distinct
Every so often, he interrupted himself to explain a
passage. Here was someone who represented a force of
liberalism, which was not popular at the time he was
writing his best work. Not surprisingly, he particularly
disliked Republicans, but was fascinated by the authoritarian
Jonathan Edwards and The Great Awakening, especially
Edward's hair-raising sermon, 'Sinners in the Hands
of an Angry God.' When one came to know Lowell and some
of his background, the contradictions didn't seem to
matter. Some people thought he was a cold Yankee, who,
ironically, was writing 'confessional' poetry [a misnomer
at best] and setting the tone for the next two generations
at least. He was also the heir to Beacon Hill Brahmins,
a neglectful father, strange aunts, and a top-heavy
tradition that began with the patriarchal literary authoritarianism
of James Russell Lowell. Lowell the XXth Century poet
was nothing like his relatives James, Percival, and
Amy. This new Lowell, wrote poetry out of fitful anxiety
that seemed streamlined yet raw, somewhat on the surface,
but provoking deep emotions and sentiments. Lord Weary's
Castle, his Pulitzer Prize winning book of poetry dazzled
me when I was 20 years old.
At the reception, I was welcomed since I was on the
staff of Patterns, The College of Liberal Arts magazine.
There I also met John Malcolm Brinnin who told me that
he was admitting me to his creative writing course.
Brinnin was a retiring man at first glance, preferring
to be quiet, and gently smoking his meerschaum pipe.
He seemed the opposite of Lowell. But when he introduced
the Boston poet, Brinnin used the word 'knife' in describing
Lowell's literary accomplishment. I may have forgotten
everything, but that word still sticks. Robert Lowell's
poetry was often knife-like. It gashed you, but you
didn't always know where. And even when you hated his
endlessly distracting word combinations like 'gun-shy
shadows,' you paid attention. You were being prodded
by his blade.
He was a very tall man with a square face, and eyes
that pierced right through his black-rimmed glasses.
I went over to him, and introduced myself. He asked
me my name, and before I even had time to answer, a
small crowd was encircling us; nevertheless, he paid
no attention. Someone brought him some punch while he
was sprawling in a chair, with his huge kneecaps, and
loosely fitting suit. His eyes were wild that night,
animated, inspired, or maybe just plain wild. But he
was in the mood for talk, and I gladly obliged.
We discussed a number of subjects: poets, musicians,
and cities. I asked him about Hart Crane.
'Allen Tate was just talking about Crane the other
day,' he said. Lowell was very compassionate toward
Hart Crane whom he saw as a victim of alcoholism, a
homophobic society, and the failed Whitman optimism
which resulted in a destructive materialism. He never
talked about the time he pitched a tent in front of
Tate's house, as a college student, or Tate's mean-spirited
condemnation of Ezra Pound. Then I asked him about Eliot.
' Eliot's sick,' he replied, with a slight despondency.
'Who are his favorite poets?' I queried, leaning forward
in my bridge chair.
'Oh, he likes Pound and Empson.' Now he was waking
up. 'You see, they all loved Victorianism and hated
it.' His voice was soft but vibrant, and he seemed to
enjoy a good talk, for the time being, oblivious to
all the hero worshippers around him.
'You know, Mr. Lowell, I loved your Imitations. They
are so inventive. 'The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket'
has so much space and music. . .'
'Oh!' he shrugged. 'Those early things were bony.'
I kept noticing how Robert Lowell gave you his full
attention. He was extremely attentive to what was being
said. It made no difference to him whether I was a literary
figure, or just a twenty-year-old college student. We
began to turn our attention to music.
'Oh, Bernstein--he hes awful.' He also said cities
were awful. I asked him if he missed living on Marlborough
Street and preferred his home in New York's Central
'No difference. Cities are awful,' he repeated, as
if the word had a quality all its own. We chatted about
the relationship between poetry and music; he then discoursed
on half- rhyme. I could tell he was an instinctive writer
more than a pedagogue. He didn't want to be an academic.
He forged his identity out of his literary work, and
his commitment to democratic causes. He had enough wealth
so that he could be his own man.
After a while, the crowed blurred; I had no idea of
anyone else being around but Lowell and me. Finally,
someone tapped him on the shoulder, and said,
'Bob, it's time to go.'
'Come up for a drink next time you're in New York,'
were his final words of the evening, while members of
the English Department hauled him away. I was in heaven
until the next day when fellow students, maybe out of
jealousy, accusedme of monopolizing his time. I hadn't
planned on any of it. That was my first encounter with
the blue blood spokesman for the Union Dead.
In the Spring of 1965, I looked Robert Lowell up in
Central Park West, only to meet with a surly doorman
who informed me that Mr. Lowell was in Egypt. I was
burning up with disappointment.
'He won't be back for a while yet,' the doorman told
me, a black man with comely white curls. I wasn?t used
to doormen, but in New York, the rich lived down the
street from the poor. I saw an irony in that. I was
certain that on Marlborough Street, Boston, there were
no doormen. What to do? Take a hike in Central Park?
Crestfallen, I opted for a bus back to Boston.
Several weeks later, I telephoned Mr. Lowell who answered
'Yes, we were in Egypt. Just got back.' I imagined
that life could be difficult for a man like Lowell,
living in New York, without the Public Gardens to console
him. At any rate, For the Union Dead had just been published.
I pictured him in the Back Bay with cops on horseback
clopping around, the rain glistening on their yellow
oilskins. His New York poems of 'chewed up streets'
and visitations from his dead father, or that line,
'We are like a bunch of spiders crying together/ but
without tears,' seemed apocalyptic in an urban sense.
He was less protected in New York, but he was lionized,
especially in those days. He was flying in by shuttle
to give a course at Harvard then, and when he was denied
a permanent chair because of his supposed emotional
instability, he took it very hard.
When I arrived in New York, I phoned him from the Port
Authority. He told me he was very busy. I went down
to my knees which was not easy in a phone booth.
'All right, come in a half-hour.' His voice was kind.
The first thing I did was rush over to Central Park
West, in a cab. He lived right across from Central Park.
My appointment was two hours away, and instead of wiling
away the time in those endless fields, ponds and benches,
I had myself an early dinner, and got half plastered
on rye and ginger. Now I was ready to meet the man,
with a sheaf of poems, and a mess of translations.
He met me at the door, tall as usual, but very sober
and sedate. My eyes met a photograph of him in the foreground
and some actors behind him. He seemed so out of place
in the Racine drama Phaedra - which was recently performed,
using his translation. He was the only aristocratic
declassee I had ever known, if America had such a class.
Lowell presented his library, with a long sweep of his
endlessly long right arm.
'My books!' It was one helluva bookcase that must have
stretched upward at least sixty feet, and wide enough
for a jumbo jet to pass. Each shelf was like a rafter.
But the flat done mostly in oak contained a balcony
where Lowell claimed that a famous string quartet was
always practicing.. Elizabeth Hardwick, better known
as Lizzy, streaked by and waved. Harriet, his daughter,
began to bug him about something.
'Darling....' His voice trailed off into a slur. But
my mind was still on his books. Nobody can own that
many books; no one can have a bookshelf as big as a
building. How does he get to them? I showed him a long
poem which I had just published in Patterns, The College
of Liberal Arts literary magazine. When Lowell taught
at Boston University, among his star pupils were Ann
Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and George Starbuck. I could never
take my mind off Lowell's phrase, which he applied,
to Plath in Ariel: 'The pounding pistons of her heart.'
What a crude phrase, so typical of Lowell's idiom at
time. There was nothing machine-like about Sylvia Plath,
especially her heart. Lowell sometimes mixed metaphors
like a bartender blending drinks.
So I was sitting with the man showing him one of my
poems. He would read silently, stop and make a remark:
'Flashes here and there...'baste them in defeat.' Sounds
like a turkey. You see what I mean? You baste a turkey;
you can't baste anybody in defeat.''
'Oh, oh, yes, I see what you're saying,' I stuttered.
'There's a flash,' he said, his head nodding approval.
'Well, it's better than what I wrote at twenty.'
'What! I screamed inside. 'What!' Then I cooled. 'Well,
not bad, he thinks I'm good for my age, that is.'
'Unleash their tits for a skeleton duel---hmm---skeleton
duel---you mean a skeleton's duel?' I didn't know what
I meant. It was a typical Baudelaire poem about a hermaphrodite.
I was trying to out Lowell Lowell in his translation.
This point only goes to show that I had not achieved
my own style--at the advanced age of twenty. I was getting
heady. Mr. Lowell offered me a soft drink. I started
to make small talk.
'Is this a dangerous neighborhood, Mr. Lowell?'
'You mean thugs?' Thugs! That was a Lowell word.
'Well--I noticed that down the street, things look
a little dangerous.' Robert Lowell didn't seem concerned.
'Yeah...hmm,' he replied.
I knew it was time to leave. I was a tad disappointed,
maybe even let down. At any rate, I was back to the
Port Authority, with a severe case of nausea, and nagging
thoughts about my own abilities. But Lowell and I had
not seen the last of each other.
Randall Jarrell died in 1965. Not only was he one of
the foremost poets and critics of Robert Lowell's generation,
but an anti-war poet as well. He was also one of Cal's
closest friends. Five days later, Lowell was delivering
a eulogy at Emmanuel College. At the time, most of us
assumed that Jarrell had jumped in front of a moving
car; some say he was just walking his dog. Encyclopedia
Americana called it a 'highway accident.' I first learned
the news in John Brinnin's creative writing course.
'The laurels are cut down,' he remarked, shaking his
head. Nobody feels good when a poet kills himself, but
as Kenneth Rexroth pointed out, 'the self-destruct level
is especially high.' I found nothing especially romantic
about being bashed by a car, especially since I was
struck twice, at the age of five and eight. Lowell in
Life Studies used a phrase in his poem for Delmore Schwartz,
another casualty, this time from alcoholism.
'We poets in our youth begin in sadness. In the end
comes despondency and madness.' It was Wordsworth who
first penned the aphorism; but he substituted 'gladness'
'Let's get this thing over,' I overheard Lowell say,
as he walked into a packed auditorium, somber, his face
streaked from napping. I didn't envy him.
'I'm gonna read a ten page paper on Randall Jarrell....
Can yawl hear me back there? I'm gonna read a ten page
paper on Randall Jarrell.' It is difficult to describe
Lowell?s voice. It was an admixture of twang and grit.
His voice went from a high pitch down to a low, like
a descending chromatic scale. By the time he'd finish
a sentence, his voice would be soft, deep, and barely
audible. He loved to talk about the ancien regime: 'Awnsyan
Every time he turned a page, he sighed. He talked about
his days at Kenyon College with Randall, how they used
to sit atop a knoll, look out over the campus, and discuss
what kind of a bomb would be needed to level the place.
There again, his teacher, John Crowe Ransom was there.
It dawned on me that Lowell had a southern touch to
his voice. Maybe he was trying to emulate Allen Tate
and Robert Penn Warren.
Tragedy still tinged the proceedings. It was vintage
'When Raaaandall and I were younger'.' A faint snicker
came over him. His eulogy finished with 'Randall's beautiful
soul.' I imagined how embarrassed Jarrell would be by
all of this. Then Lowell began to read some of Jarrell's
poetry: 'Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,/I
take a box/And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game
hens. The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical/Food
gathering flocks/Are selves I overlook.' [Next Day].
Thankfully, he didn't get stuck on 'The Death of the
Ball Turret Gunner,' still a great achievement.
After Lowell finished and departed the auditorium,
he was not looking forward to the reception awaiting
'Let's go to the damn thing,' he muttered. He did not
see me, as he was deluged by young girls trying to get
a chunk of his cheek, hoping some of his talent would
rub off on their lips. Such was the price of being a
Lowell was ambivalent. I found myself skulking behind
some dark bushes, rows of boxwood hedges, and those
shallow dangling chain fences designed to either keep
you off the manicured lawns, or aid you in breaking
I sprang at him like a jack-in-the-box.
'Ahhhhh!!!' He screamed, and jumped back in mortal
agony. I felt horrible, but decided to follow him to
the reception hall which was the usual academic room
crowded with erudite people all discoursing on something
or other, with a drink in their hands and a napkin under
the glass, not to protect the hand, but the glass. Cal
Lowell parked in a green monster armchair, and seemed
to tune others out--which sure enough brought the hordes
of students to him. They camped around him, and waited
for him to utter his first vocals. In those days, however,
these students knew that Lowell had a deep commitment
to poetry - day and night.
I shuffled over to an hors d'oeuvres table, and stuffed
a wedge of egg salad sandwich down my throat, washing
it down with sangria. Lowell was chattering away. I
departed--in a hurry. Several days later, a friend from
my class told me that Cal had reached into a briefcase
and produced a moth eaten piece of paper with translations
of Ossip Mandelstaum, who was Lowell's new interest,
and read a translation which stated that every time
Stalin had someone executed, he popped a strawberry
in his mouth.
'Gee that was powerful!' But something in me balked.
I refused to lie at his feet in what I perceived as
a charmed circle. In fact, I drew back. At that time,
it began to dawn on me that maybe he was the wrong personality
for me. He still remained the graying figure, the quintessential
man of letters with his heart on his worn sleeve--in
public, but maintaining enough distance to hold on to
the persona he had established for himself. I think,
most off all, that he was an unhappy man when he wasn't
discussing the arts. In my mind, I thought poetry was
sacred and that artists should be as Pound said, 'the
antennae of the race.' Lowell was not quite that; his
world was too safe. He even seemed awkward when you
spotted him at an anti-Vietnam War protest. Yet, he
put himself on the line in World War II, when he was
a 'fire-breathing Catholic CO,' and did jail time as
a result. (Life Studies, 1959)
Seven years went by before I saw Lowell again. He was
at the Academy of American Poets, across the street
from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, sharing the
table with people such as James Laughlin and Robert
Fitzgerald. All of Pound's relatives were there at the
memorial. Olga Rudge sat across from me. I hadn't seen
her since 1966, but I instantly recognized her.
When Lowell's turn came to speak, his searing eye caught
mine; it was all-momentary. He had just remarried and
was living in England. His hair was long and gray. He
was a bit like one of those battered soldiers he described
in For the Union Dead. But, he was still alive.
Unfortunately, he said some inane things about Pound.
In describing Pound's visit to New York in 1969, he
had asked someone:
'Is he always like that?' It seemed profoundly insulting
to one of his masters. 'But ah was told he heard everything,
and enjoyed himself.' It was Pound who gave him the
nickname of Cal, after that mad Roman emperor, Caligula.
He began to read one of Pound's pieces, and stopped
to explain. Each time he did, Olga Rudge would shake
her head, as if to say, 'No no.' I found it all embarrassing.
At the end of the memorial, someone got up and shrieked,
'Not one of you has addressed Pound's anti-Semitism'!
Fitzgerald made a slight grimace. The lights went down,
and it was over. I saw Lowell once or twice more, just
wandering along Massachusetts Avenue near Harvard Square.
On these occasions, I said to myself, 'There goes Lowell.
Leave him alone.' Was his third marriage on the rocks?
Someone told me his English wife had just had a baby--then
Robert Lowell died in 1977, in a New York taxicab,
somewhere between the airport and Central Park West--
on his way to make a reconciliation with his former
wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. He'd had a heart attack, and
probably died very peacefully. Perhaps, that was the
only peace he had known. Time had changed me. I would
look at his book of poetry, For Lizzie and Harriet,
and see a face of compassion and vulnerability. I think
the latter quality always appeared on his face. It was
the face of a journey-weary Homeric figure still searching
for the way home. Some saw him as very charismatic.
There was no doubt that he could be charming and ingratiating.
He had survived several of his students, and to blame
him for their self-destruction would be very unfair.
Many decades later, I can partially celebrate him. I
still think of Hart Crane and what Waldo Frank had said
about the Puritan tradition in American letters. The
excoriating prophet challenges America to live up to
its promise, a vague dream at the outset of this century,
but one that meant a lot to Robert Lowell: conscientious
objector, civil rights activist, and an academic to
be sure, but more than that. Since then, I have learned
how the vanity of fame, and the quest for celebrity
destroys poetry and its practitioners. Robert Lowell
did not embody that persona. That persona may have embodied
Robert Lowell's greatest desire was to belong and gain
approval. In an interview for Life Magazine, he had
articulated that very telling point:
'This is my age, and I very much want to be part of