There is no shortage of work on the life and poems of Robert Lowell: Saskia Hamilton’s collected “The Letters of Robert Lowell,’’ Ian Hamilton’s “Robert Lowell: A Biography’’ being two of the largest and most famous. Memoirists from Norman Mailer to Eileen Simpson have offered their depictions.
The question remains: Who, in Boston literary circles, from the 1950s to the ’70s, didn’t know Robert Lowell?
Kathleen Spivack’s “With Robert Lowell and His Circle’’ — part memoir, part portrait of Lowell’s classroom, era, and literary contemporaries — operates as a Venn diagram of the Spivack-Lowell relationship. Her life intersected with Lowell’s from her early 20s (when she sat in on his now-famous Boston University workshop whose members included Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath) through her 40s (during his Harvard “office hours” — largely informal gatherings — and his well-publicized second and third marriages), up to his death in 1977.
It is, in her account, a surprisingly un-vicious circle she is welcomed into, despite undercurrents of misogyny and mental illness running through this flood of creative genius. Spivack came to Boston from Oberlin College to work with Lowell as a very young woman, and while moments of mania and cruelty erupt on Lowell’s part, and egotistical frictions abound (between Sexton and Plath, Adrienne Rich and the Harvard establishment, Lowell and his students), her focus is on a public teacher and private friendship.
Spivack records Lowell’s mix of generosity and obliviousness that endeared him to writer friends and students, and changed their perception of their craft. In his presence, postwar American poetry underwent rigors of a unique scrutiny: “ ‘What does this poem really mean?’ Lowell urged, around the table from one student to another. It was like an examination, in which everyone was bound to fail.” Star-studded gossip — Spivack playing ping-pong with Elizabeth Bishop or swimming in Sexton’s pool — recalls Patti Smith’s name-dropping in “Just Kids’’: memories of a youth caught in the whirlwind of her time (here, unlike New York, infused with Puritanism), always in the shadow of Lowell’s eccentric tutelage.
This was, as well, the pre-MFA age, though members of the circle must have had presentiments of change: “Poetry, it was felt, could not be ‘taught.’ Lowell’s classes were known for the attempt.” Lowell’s grand vision of himself and his poetry lent itself to a crucible of talent, a cast of characters with (perhaps even in their time) a “bigger-than-Jesus” feel. Details about those characters are circumspect but revealing. Following Lowell’s funeral at the Church of the Advent in Boston, Spivack reflects on various personages and how they coped: “Afterward there was a flurry of visiting as the mourners reassembled at the home of Robert Gardner. Elizabeth Bishop, Caroline Blackwood, and others fell apart. Elizabeth Hardwick did not.”
To this day, Boston resonates with Lowell’s presence: his house on Marlborough Street, the Grolier Poetry Book Shop, the Iruna (a favorite restaurant), Quincy House (home of “office hours’’), Comm. Ave., the crimson brick of Harvard Square. Spivack’s portrait offers a window on a man, a city, and a method for anyone not lucky enough to have taken part in those times.
The book may not ultimately shed new light on why so many poets of that generation committed suicide, or their struggles with gender or sexual orientation (the book’s construction allows her to digress at will: contemplating, among other things, the mystique that surrounded certain poets after their deaths). Enshrinement, indeed, is Spivack’s goal; she notes, “We were aware of living a great moment together: no one more than Robert Lowell, in his persistent investigation into literature and its relation to one’s life.” But this is Spivack’s story — her young adulthood and midlife against a backdrop of crucial poetic moment.
Valerie Duff is poetry editor at Salamander Magazine and the author of “To the New World.” She can be reached at valerie