IN THE FALL of 1937 Peter Taylor and Robert Lowell transferred to Kenyon College in Ohio to study under the poet and critic John Crowe Ransom. Lowell, a Northerner, wanted to be a poet, and Taylor, a Southerner, wanted to be a fiction writer (his Collected Stories were published in 1969; his most recent book of stories is In the Miro District). They became great and lifelong friends. In his comfortable house in Charlottesville, where he teaches at the University of Virginia, Peter Taylor talked recently about his old friend with Book World assistant editor Robert Wilson.
ROBERT WILSON: I wonder almost that you could have wanted to be friends with the young Robert Lowell. In the book, as a young man, he seems not to be a terribly appealing person. He seems to match his nickname, Cal, which was in part for Caliban, wasn't it?
PETER TAYLOR: Caligula.
RW: Wasn't it both Caligula and Caliban? That's what the biography says.
PT: They say other things now, but I was always told it was for Caligula. He was crazy about the Romans...
RW: Well, at any rate, he seemed a kind of Caliban-like creature.
PT: He was not unappealing as a person, but he was awful looking. He never cut his hair, he never took a bath. His shoes often had the soles divided, and were just flapping. He looked terrible. Though he had what he called his good suit, which hung in our closet at Kenyon always, as a sort of sacred object. But he was such a dominant type, that anyone whose acquaintance he wanted he could get.
RW: When you first met him, did you feel that you were going to be friends, that you wanted to be friends?
PT: I found him to be very interesting. I've always been attracted to people who are not like me -- it's the "not me in thee" I like. He was so totally different. He was the intellectual and a poet and a classicist. I admired from the beginning his determination to get to know the people he thought were the most talented. He wanted to find out what was best in literature, and he was always pursuing that, and not rejecting anything until he'd really explored it. I admired all of that in him.
But, right after college he went with me to Memphis, he and Jean [Stafford, the late novelist and short-story writer] -- they had married while he was still in college -- to stay with my family...
RW: He seems like the last person you'd want to take home to meet your parents.
PT: But my parents found him attractive, and he was crazy about my mother. Anyone who excelled in any way she was attracted to and wanted to respond to. And he had a great way of making jokes and teasing, and right away they go into it. My parents and my sister -- all the people who met him -- liked him, and he would make an effort to win people, and he could. Because he had this very silly streak and he liked to make fun and joke.
RW: Was he a good student? Apparently he was rather indifferent about Harvard. Then suddenly we find him graduating from Kenyon first in his class.
PT: He had been a wonderful student at St. Mark's [school]. He hadn't been sure, at that age, if he'd wanted to be a writer. He was interested in painting, or at least in talking about painting. And history, that was his great interest. Then at Harvard -- he hated the superficial -- and he got the feeling that Harvard was... Harvard. Not for him. Then also, you have to admit that he was not a very important person at Harvard.
He was almost a recluse. Even when I knew him at Kenyon. Then, after he became famous and acclaimed -- I've noticed this about other people -- he changed completely. He became much more gregarious than I, and wanted to be the center of things, and admired. Well, that's just the way people are. And that was irksome, to some extent. At Kenyon, he didn't drink, he didn't go out with girls. He was just a big schoolboy.
RW: What about his poetry? Hamilton seems almost to make fun of his early poems.
PT: As an undergraduate? Well, all his teachers thought it was extremely obvious that he was going to be a poet. The poems were awkward, and they were pedantic at times. But he was always interested in working on form, on mastering form. And this is what I have observed in him more than in anybody else, I think: his work habits, and his determination to rewrite. He would write poems in those days over and over, and some of the poems that he wrote then, that are very long and difficult and... inchoate... I laugh when I say that because he used that word when we were undergraduates to tease me. He quoted one of the professors at Kenyon who had read something I'd written and had said that it was inchoate. That infuriated me, because I didn't really quite know what it meant.
But he would rework things and make you read them in every version, and he would read my work. He had read almost no fiction, and we began reading fiction aloud, and making an anthology of poetry together. We read the 17th-century poets to choose for the anthology, and he made all the choices. But our tastes coincided a lot -- almost always -- and he was responsive to my ideas. But we would fight. We had real fights about literary things, but it was because we were both so opinionated.
What I was going to say was he would write long poems that were not successful as poetry, but then later, much later, lines and sections of those early poems would appear. I have a lot of his early manuscripts, you see. [He shows photocopies of these manuscripts.] On the front are his poems in longhand. This just takes me back. I had to read pages and pages of this, and go over it line for line. Then on the back -- he was on the football team at Kenyon -- and on the back were football plays. He would just write on any piece of paper; this was just a nice big piece of paper to write on. He played tackle, because he was so big.
But the thing he had to teach other poets -- others of his generation -- more than anything else was this business of rewriting and experimenting. You can see how in different versions of poems he would change the entire meaning. He'd get carried away by a line. He was objective the way a writer has to be. Finally the form would take over the poem and the idea would just develop.
... He had a horror of being commonplace, of not being distinguished amongst the best. Well, that's a terrible trait. I mean it makes you hard to live with. It makes you a snob. And he was a little bit. But on the other hand, it was his great forte. He wouldn't have been happy to be just a good poet. For him it was the old saying, "The good is the enemy of the best." I think he really felt that.
RW: Lowell became famous in part for his letters to Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson protesting their respective wars. But was he very interested in politics, really?
PT: When we were young he was not interested in politics at all. None of us was at Kenyon, except [Randall] Jarrell. And knew nothing about politics. Lowell would say things like, "Someday after college I'll go to New York, maybe, and become a Communist for a time, and learn about politics." And then he'd say, "I'll go to London and learn how to dress." He really said those things. But that's the way he was about everything. He was a learner. He imagined that all life was made up of compartments and that he would go into each of them and learn everything about them and finally put the whole thing together.
RW: In Hamilton's biography Lowell seems to go from his crackups to periods of recovery, but then he seems to have gotten completely well. Was there any cumulative effect of all these spells?
PT: No, I would see him at times when he was just the way he'd always been. But when he had his first crack-up, it was at my house in Indiana, where I was teaching then. We went for a walk the afternoon he got there; as a matter of fact I was trying to keep him away from my house. And he was saying such outrageous things. Oh, we talked as always about... literature. I remember talking to him about Thomas Wolfe. I'd been reading Thomas Wolfe again, and I was expressing some ideas that I wouldn't agree with now. He was interested; he hadn't read Thomas Wolfe at all. But he began saying such outrageous things that I began to see that he really was insane. It had such a terrible effect on me. Because then all the long talks we'd had, even years before at school, and after -- I just felt that he'd been insane always. I nearly cracked up myself. It was as though I'd been deluded all those years. But then when I saw him again he was himself.
RW: What about his friendship with Randall Jarrell? There's a suggestion in the biography that he held Jarrell off as a friend a little bit because he valued him so much as a critic.
PT: I don't think he held him off. He considered Jarrell a great friend. They were temperamentally different, but they found their difference interesting. And their lives were different. When Cal came to visit in Greensboro [where Taylor and Jarrell were teaching], he would spend just as much time with Jarrell as he did with me. And he and Jarrell would go over Cal's newest poems. But Jarrell, if he liked your latest work, would write you a long letter about it, and if he didn't he wouldn't speak to you. Cal had exactly that experience, too, and we would laugh about it.
RW: You said earlier that Lowell liked to joke and be silly. Did he have a good sense of humor?
PT: I must say he had a rather strange sense of humor. Ian Hamilton's book, for all its virtues -- and I do think that it's a very fine biography, that Hamilton does the essential thing of relating the poetry to the life, and does it wonderfully well -- shows little awareness and no real understanding of his special brand of humor.
His humor was often childish, often corny, sometimes no less than sick. Yet I always liked his jokes -- except of course when they were at my expense. He invented facts and stories that made his dearest friends out as cliches of whatever they really were -- cliche Jews, cliche Southerners, cliche Englishmen. Naturally this was irksome sometimes -- even mischief-making. He was fond of representing me as a Southern racist, though of course he knew better -- knew it from the hours of talk we had had on the subject, as well as from my published stories. We didn't quarrel about it, though. We never quarreled about anything after we left college.
Anyhow, the biography doesn't interpret or attempt to deal very much with his humor. And the result is that, with all the book's careful delineation of his madness, there is the danger of his being seen as an unrelieved grotesque. None of his friends saw him as that -- not one of them. His teasing was often rough but he was the most affectionate and loyal of friends. And I might add that he expected teasing and affection and loyalty from his friends. And so that really made the teasing and the outrageous inventions all right with us. Actually, it was his way of drawing closer to his friends, rather than putting them off.
RW: He wrote some wonderful, generous letters to other poets, especially when they were having bad times. Jarrell, John Berryman. And he was also very kind to Ezra Pound, very loyal to him. What was that from? Was that because Pound was sort of an elder statesman?
PT: Yes. I was just thinking that. Pound was the great poet. Of course Lowell did admire him and admire his work. Pound was one of his models as a poet, and he was attracted to him for that.
Part of it was Lowell's really being kind, but always, with people's kindness, it's mixture, it's because they want to feel themselves kind. He did enjoy Pound. Pound was the most eccentric man alive. They put Pound in a madhouse because they didn't know what else to do with him. They didn't want to put him in jail. And, as people said, Pound was no madder then than he'd ever been.
RW: But I Lowell did keep up.
PT: Well, he had a strong sense of father-son relationship, and this was one of his problems and one of his virtues. He liked the relationship with Ford Madox Ford, with Allen Tate, with Ransom...
RW: And T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams?
PT: Oh, very much.And Frost. All of those older people. He liked that relationship with them. But it was because they -- it was one of his virtues -- he learned from them, and he admired them, and the things he admired he wanted to protect and be near.