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Winter-Spring 2010 Table of Contents

Icons Among Us: Room 222

It is the most famous classroom of all. Or was it?

| From Gallery | By Caleb Daniloff

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In the video above, Carl Phillips (GRS'93) reads from his recent collection at the fall 2009 Lowell Lecture. Watch the rest of the event. Pictured: Robert Pinsky (above, far right), a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English and three-time U.S. poet laureate, leads a Creative Writing Program poetry workshop in Room 222. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

When I was in college, I had a terrific crush on the poet Anne Sexton, dead twenty years at the time. I was smitten by her confessional verse, the recordings of her voice inflating those tortured words.

Sexton’s story of morphing from suburban housewife to Pulitzer Prize winner to asleep forever in the front seat of her car, the drunkenness, hospitalizations, affairs, family abuse, suicide, all throttled my imagination.

I moved on; she stayed fixed in time. But like a one-time high school flame friending me on Facebook, we reconnected a few weeks ago. At 236 Bay State Road, second floor, Room 222.

Room 222, or the Robert Lowell Seminar Room, is the central classroom for BU’s venerable Creative Writing Program. Legend has it that Lowell, considered the father of confessional poetry, taught Sexton in this small room, along with Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck, in what is considered poetry’s most famous class.

“There was a period when many people would have said Lowell was the major poet of the post–World War II era,” says Bonnie Costello, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English. “He had a major impact on the poets who came through Room 222. Sexton, Plath, W. D. Snodgrass, Starbuck — they had a lot in common. They all had breakdowns, were all in treatment. It’s hard to know whether these people came to Lowell’s class because they recognized themselves in his work or it was coincidence.”

I met Robert Pinsky, a CAS professor of English and former U.S. poet laureate, in Room 222 to ask what the space “with a little glimpse of the Charles” means to him.

“Of all of the classrooms I’ve taught in — Harvard, Berkeley, University of Chicago, Stanford — this is my favorite,” Pinsky says. “The legend of Lowell teaching Plath, Sexton, and Starbuck is only part of it. I like the echoes. And I like knowing that my colleagues Louise Glück, Leslie Epstein, Ha Jin, and Rosanna Warren are using this room, too. I like knowing it’s ours.”

In the early nineties, the room’s legend was further juiced when the program produced future Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97), National Book Award winner Ha Jin (GRS’94), and writers Peter Ho Davies (GRS’94) and Daphne Kalotay (GRS’94, UNI’98). Sue Miller (GRS’80) and Arthur Golden (GRS’88) helped pave the way in the previous decade. Poetry wasn’t slouching, either, churning out Carl Phillips (GRS’93) and Erin Belieu (GRS’95), among others. Room 222 has taken on the quality of an organic museum, a vessel for the collective literary imagination.

But doubt has been cast on the facts of the creation myth. So I phoned longtime department administrator Harriet Lane (DGE’55, CAS’57, GRS’61), who retired last year after a fifty-year tenure. She said that other departments occupied the second floor when Lowell taught at BU, and that like other English professors, he was assigned random classrooms.

Pinsky thinks it’s possible the room was informally commandeered. “I’d bet Lowell did teach a class here,” he says. “It might have been some weird outrider that this was consigned as a space.”

Starbuck went on to become director of the program, and his one-time colleague and successor, Leslie Epstein, supports 222’s pedigree. “This was the room,” he says. “That’s what George told me, and as far I know, it’s the truth.” Then again, Epstein points out, more often than not the class met at the Ritz Lounge over drinks, parking their cars in the “loading zone,” as Starbuck, who died in 1996, used to joke.

Regardless, the whiff of mystery feels appropriate. Art is about reconciling perception and reality, illuminating the truth rather than defining it. The lessons taught in 222 apply to itself.

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