Well, there are poetry-writing classes, and then there’s the 1959 poetry-writing class taught by Robert Lowell at Boston University, with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton among the students. Kathleen Spivack was there, too, and she re-creates those heady days in her memoir, “With Robert Lowell and His Circle.” She also recalls her subsequent encounters with Elizabeth Bishop (with whom she regularly played ping-pong) and Adrienne Rich; the mentorship of Stanley Kunitz and John Malcolm Brinnin (author of the classic “Dylan Thomas in America”); her friendship with Lowell’s wives, the writers Elizabeth Hardwick and Caroline Blackwood; and the early brilliance of the critic Helen Vendler. There are, as well, strobe-light glimpses of several contemporary poets in their youth, including Robert Pinsky and Frank Bidart.
It’s quite an array of talent, and Spivack, grateful to count most of these peoples as friends, writes about them with an almost girlish enthusiasm. I haven’t seen quite so many exclamation points in one book in a long time. Spivack, moreover, can be winningly guileless: “I had come to study with Lowell, but I did not understand a word of his early work, Lord Weary’s Castle.” More problematic, however, is her memoir’s tiresome repetitiveness. This results, I suspect, because the chapters originally appeared as separate articles and were never refitted into a single, smooth narrative. Closer editing would have made this enjoyable but ramshackle book into a much better one.
Spivack was born into a cultivated family that fled Nazi Europe in the 1930s. In America, after considerable early effort, her father, Peter Drucker, eventually made himself into the now almost legendary guru of modern management. Being a wise parent, he naturally sent his oldest daughter to Oberlin College, where she won a fellowship for her senior year. Spivack decided to use the money to study with a major poet.
She was first drawn to Allen Ginsberg, but the beatnik author of “Howl” was totally unacceptable to Oberlin’s English department. Then she wrote to that scion of Boston brahmins, Robert Lowell, who agreed to mentor her. Nonetheless, when she knocked on his office door at BU in the early fall of 1959, the poet was utterly nonplussed:
“ ‘Who are you?’ he queried mildly. He was eating his lunch, and looking abstracted. I had arrived in a rainstorm, in blue jeans and boots. ‘I never take anyone under thirty,’ he countered coldly. He didn’t remember getting my letter, or the arrangement with Oberlin. I was stunned. As I stood in the crowded office, wet and depressed, not knowing quite how to handle his amnesia, Lowell took pity on me. ‘Would you like part of this sandwich?’ he offered.”
As Spivack came to learn, Lowell often chose his female students by their looks and, from the photographic evidence, Spivack was a darkly attractive young woman. In any case, the poet relented and invited her to sit in with his class and even to come by for private tutorials at his home. Despite some flirtation on both sides, the two apparently managed to stay just friends, master and disciple, until Lowell’s death at 60 in 1977.
Lowell began that fall’s class by asking the students to name their favorite poet. Spivack answered Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Lowell cleared his throat, there was a long and awkward silence, and without comment the class proceeded as if nothing had been said.” The woman sitting next to her, Spivack recalls, “was ‘astonishing in her stillness,’ as she was to write later. Sylvia Plath appeared perfectly composed, quiet, fixed in her concentration. She was softly pretty, her camel’s hair coat slung over the back of her chair, and a pile of books in front of her.” To Spivack, she “presented herself rather like what I imagined an English boarding school ‘Head Girl’ to be.”
Lowell’s teaching was eccentric and largely “rhetorical, as if the class were a frame for the expansion of his own opinions.” He would repeatedly ask, “What does this poem really mean?” There would follow “long, agonized silences, while the class held its collective breath and hoped to come up with adequate answers.” Again and again, Lowell would bring up living poets and then quiz: “Major or minor?” Even his close friend Elizabeth Bishop was sadly declared “minor,” but “almost major.” Sometimes, when on the verge of one of his periodic breakdowns, Lowell could turn incredibly mean: “Don’t ever write again,” he told one young woman, after “decimating” her poem. She burst into tears and ran from the classroom.
During the course, and over the years following, Spivack grew especially close to Anne Sexton: “She was most often supportive. ‘I love this, I love this!’ she would exclaim over a line. Then the dreaded ‘Kathy, may I steal it?’ This was, she felt, her ultimate compliment. ‘Nooo!!!!’ I countered. What a horrible request! She had her own images to harvest, was the best image-maker there was.”
Spivack writes feelingly about the plight of the female poet in those days. When the distinguished Muriel Rukeyser gave a reading at Harvard, not a single member of the almost entirely male English department bothered to attend. As to why there had been so few major women poets, Spivack wryly explains that “few women poets have had wives.” Sexton’s home represented a kind of oasis, a feminine retreat:
“I remember swimming nude in the pool, looking at trees, and drinking Anne’s newest drink discovery, Champale, giggling over vague poetic jokes. Or drying off, sitting in the sun, reading each other’s poems. Maxine Kumin and her children would arrive. Maxine dove into the pool, cool, competent, and graceful. Anne, on Thorazine, would move a bit into the shade. The phone rang and was dragged outside. Anne’s children came home from school. The Dalmatian dragged its puppies outside. Figures were commented on: hips and waists. I had a baby. Lois [Ames] got her divorce. Maxine’s daughter entered Radcliffe. Anne’s children grew up. Poems were shared and magazines passed around. We wrote and wrote and read and revised and wrote. We read aloud to each other. Steam rose from the pool; the light grew thin; the leaves fell. And we swam until late October . . .”
When Sexton and Bishop wanted to meet, it was Spivack who arranged a lunch. “ ‘Tell me, Anne,’ Elizabeth leaned over. ‘How much money do you get for a reading nowadays?’ ” The two famous poets proceeded to talk about “contracts and money and publishers who had or hadn’t done them wrong.” Along with such “Po-Biz,” Spivack touches on the bad love affairs, depression and drink that led many of her literary generation to suicide or early graves.
Every poet longs, above all, to write in his or her own individual voice. Robert Lowell’s great contribution to his students, concludes Spivack, was nothing less than “to foster the discovery of voice in those with whom he worked.” That’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
WITH ROBERT LOWELL AND HIS CIRCLE
Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, and Others
By Kathleen Spivack
Northeastern Univ. 239 pp. Paperback, $19.95