"I guess my favorite is 'Under Ben Bulben,'" I volunteered.
"Really?" he said in surprise, as if I were F. R. Leavis reversing an opinion put forth in New Bearings in English Poetry. "What is it that you like about it?"
What, indeed? The only line I could remember was "Horseman, pass by!" God, why hadn't we been taught to memorize?
"Uh, it's such a mature statement about death," I babbled, reaching for my glass. My brutish colleague probably knew the whole poem by heart, and half the plays! But he too was silent. Couldn't Lowell understand that others simply didn't live for poetry the way he did? We had been sitting here for an hour comparing Dryden with Pope, Coleridge with Wordsworth, Edward Thomas with Wilfred Owen, and the two pitchers of sangría had made inroads on my attention. It seemed odd to be drunk in the middle of a winter afternoon, with the ice-etched windows glinting in the sun. Ecstatic as I was to be in Lowell's company, I felt groggy from alcohol and talk; and besides, I was eager to get word out about the momentous event. How could any experience, even this one, compare with the joys of reporting it? To refine, elaborate, revise what happened, to polish and edit the afternoon. . . I could hardly wait to get out of there. "Guess who I just had lunch with?" I heard myself saying over the phone. (No need to mention what's-his-name in these accounts; from now on it was Lowell and me.) "He was fascinating, just incredible. He's every bit as brilliant as he is in class . . ."
But Lowell, done with English literature, had started in on the poets who came to office hours. "I find Bennett's poems too much like mine," he said benignly. "You wonder where he can go from here." Bennett Lamsdon was one of Lowell's most devoted disciples, and had written several essays on his work. I was surprised that Lowell had reservations about him. He admired Bermett's poems and had even recommended him for a fellowship. "I mean, he's very good," Lowell said, turning to me with the look on his face of a child caught drawing on his bedroom wall, "but can you really get away with some of what he gets away with in a poem? Or can you say anything now?" There was a slyness in his eyes that dared reproof. No one had challenged him in years, I was sure, apart from a few easily discredited critics, and he must have grown bored at times by adulation. His disloyalty was a game, a way of diverting himself.
Of course, it was a game that required another player, someone to feed him names. "What about Leonard Wiggins?" I said. He had gone out to California for the semester and "been through a lot of heavy changes," he reported in a letter I now quoted to Lowell.
"Yes, I gather he's brimming with revolutionary zeal," Lowell said, leaning forward to concentrate on my words. (What a keen pleasure that was!) He loved news of anyone he knew. "I like his early poems, but I can't follow what he's writing now. You wonder if there isn't too much California in it." (He always switched from "I" to "you," as if attributing his opinions to someone else.) I introduced another name. "His poems are grotesque, too truthful," Lowell said. And of an undergraduate whose work he had praised in class: "She has a schoolgirl's bright enthusiasm, but you feel she hasn't lived."