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A reflection on Robert Lowell

by Lloyd Schwartz


I was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1960s. But the most stimulating intellectual experience I had was not from any class I took, but from going to Robert Lowell’s “office hours.” I’d read and admired Lowell’s poetry because my undergraduate teacher and mentor at Queens College, Mary Doyle Curran, deeply believed that one had to be aware of contemporary poetry to be fully educated. If she couldn’t squeeze her favorite poets into her syllabus, she’d read them to us outside of class. A contingent of us—kids from Queens and Brooklyn and the Bronx—would follow her on the subway to her Greenwich Village studio apartment, where we’d sit at her feet while she read us “The Man-Moth” or “Skunk Hour” or “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave.” I wrote poems, but I didn’t know poetry could be like that.

Although I didn’t go to graduate school to write poems, and didn’t have much time to write any, given the demanding load of coursework (the year-long Chaucer course was a particular killer), I knew Lowell was on campus and I was eager to track him down. At first, his office hours were like everyone else’s. He’d be in his office and one would go during the hours he’d posted. At my first meeting with him, I brought a poem—a sonnet about Telemachus—that was published in my undergraduate literary magazine. It had been regarded by my friends and teachers as my “best poem.” Lowell was very kind—kindly—but he questioned the central metaphor of the poem: Telemachus “forging” his bow (I was deliberately echoing Stephen Dedalus’s wish to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”—I was that kind of undergraduate poet). Lowell said that one didn’t “forge” bows—one carved them; so my inspired metaphor didn’t work. I was both crushed and exhilarated. Robert Lowell had read my poem and he had taken it seriously.

He soon stopped having that kind of office hour. And what he did next was extraordinary. He had, as many people now know, a kind of open-ended, two- or three-hour weekly workshop that anyone—not exclusively Harvard students—could drop in on. You could go down to the windowless, smoke-filled (Lowell smoked) seminar room in the basement of Quincy House, under the dining hall, with copies of your poems, and stay as long as you liked. No one took attendance: you arrived when you felt like it and if you had to leave, you left. Some fifteen or so people came every week, though not always all the same people—mostly Harvard graduate students and undergraduates, but also some people who had no Harvard connection at all, who just heard about Lowell’s office hours and walked in off the street. Occasionally a well-known poet who happened to be in town dropped in for a while. But there was a hard core of regulars, and I soon became one of them.

Lowell was receptive to everyone’s poems, and made astute comments, but he didn’t much like any of them. That wasn’t the point. Talking about our poems was a springboard for him to have conversations about writing and poetry in general, and in the most freewheeling way, often very deep and very amusing. The conversation could go anywhere, and that was part of the joy of the experience. He was a role model—teaching us by example how one could talk about literature. We were in the company of someone for whom poetry was his whole life. Not long after John Berryman died, Lowell didn’t want to talk about our poems at all; he wanted to reminisce about his old friend and read some Dream Songs and just talk. I wish I had been savvy enough to take notes, though maybe note-taking wasn’t the point either.

My favorite office hours story centers on one of the few poems Lowell liked. It was about a public monument in Mexico—descriptive and historical—by a rather shy Radcliffe undergraduate. It excited him because it was both personal and public, and everything worked so deftly. He seemed thrilled for the poet, and his excitement was contagious. An animated discussion bubbled up about every image, every stanza, every line-break. As the heat of the conversation slowed to a simmer, one of the regulars, an undergraduate who worked on The Advocate, Harvard’s famous literary magazine, and who always sat directly opposite Lowell at the far end of the seminar table, leaned forward, cleared his throat, and said something like: “We at The Advocate would be very interested in considering this poem.” Lowell, who had never been published in The Advocate, was hardly reluctant to puncture any inflated sense of undergraduate entitlement (and with that irrepressible Lowellian glint, may even have identified with it). “Oh,” he turned to that morning’s laureate without missing a beat, “you can do much better than that!”

 

Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA Program at UMass Boston, is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix, appears regularly on NPR’s Fresh Air, and edited the new centennial volume of Elizabeth Bishop’s prose. (updated 4/2012)


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