Summer 2004


Summer 2004

Marc Weidershein


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 twang.

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 Park West.

'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 the phone.

'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' for 'sadness.'

'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 regime.'

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 Lowellspeak:

'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 him.
'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 public figure.

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 your neck.
I sprang at him like a jack-in-the-box.

'Mr. Lowell!'

'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 another separation.


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 him.

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 it.'

Marc Widershien
Boston, 1986




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