When I stepped out of the elevator on the tenth floor of Holyoke Center, in Harvard Square, one afternoon in the fall of 1968, the corridor was already crowded. Students leaned against the wall, sprawled on the crimson carpet, or stood around in clusters. I sat down on a bench near the elevator bank, away from the others; their eagerness put me off.
We were waiting for Robert Lowell. The year before, I hadn't been eligible for his advanced poetry seminar—Lowell accepted no freshmen—but this year I was sure he would be impressed with my "work" (as I had taken to calling it). Somber meditations on history in a time of crisis and on the predicament of Jews who never quite found a home in America, my poems addressed the big issues yet were movingly personal. I considered myself a good candidate.
The elevator doors opened, and Lowell emerged amid a coterie of graduate students, a Mafia don surrounded by his lieutenants. Leonard Wiggins, my freshman poetry instructor, was by his side. I rose to greet him, but he hurried past with a brusque nod; clearing a path through the crowd. Lowell shuffled down the corridor, an aging professor in a fullback's body, staring ahead with the prescient gaze of the blind. We pushed into the classroom after him, so many that we spilled out into the hall.
Lowell glanced around in bewilderment; his eyes, magnified by black-framed glasses, flicked warily from face to face. The students fell silent, like birds before an eclipse. His wrinkled suit hung from his shoulders as if it were a size too large. Flecks of spittle formed at the corners of his mouth. "I can only take ten or twelve of you," he said in a tentative voice that had a faintly southern accent. He winced beneath the bright panels of light in the acoustic-tile ceiling, and smiled through taut lips. "I'm sure everyone is qualified." We were to leave our poems with him, and he would post a list in Warren House before next week's meeting. That was all; he was making his way toward the door.
Well, at least I had seen him. Like a bird watcher elated by a rare sighting, I noted the characteristics I had studied on book-jacket photographs and in the Time cover story that had appeared the summer before I went off to Harvard. (I could still recall my excitement when I walked into Hoo's Drugstore in Evanston, Illinois, and saw the cover, with Sidney Nolan's portrait of Lowell wreathed like an emperor.) I had that sense of recognition one gets from seeing a celebrity in person; he seemed at once familiar and remote, someone I knew and someone different from other people by virtue of his known image. Our first glimpse of the famous is often disappointing; they seem diminished, ordinary. Lowell seemed, if anything, larger; he was taller than I had expected, and his corolla of whitening curls trailed back from his broad, marbled forehead.
I felt as if I had known him for years. I had been gathering Lowell's biographical lore since I was a sophomore in high school. I had read every reference work, every literary essay, every biographical note I could find; he was the greatest living American poet, so it was natural that I, an aspiring poet myself, should be curious about his life. I had read every book of Lowell's, from Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary's Castle to Life Studies, that astonishing chronicle of his nervous breakdowns, his conflicts with his parents, his precocious, moody childhood. "I used to sit through the Sunday dinners absorbing cold and anxiety from the table"—I knew all about it.
Of course, Lowell, for all his complaints of belonging to a shabby, impoverished branch of the aristocratic Boston Lowells, was from another world. After all, what did that family have to do with the Atlases of Illinois and, before that, of Poland and God knows where else? This discrepancy troubled me; it was one thing for Lowell to write about himself and another for me, a mere boy, to go about denouncing my relatives and disclosing my wracked soul's every secret. My experience, however charged with significance I found it, could hardly have been more inconsequential in comparison with Lowell's. Even the proper names in his poetry—the Porcellian, Beverly Farms, Blue Hill in Maine—evoked a class so far beyond mine that I scarcely knew it existed. The names in my story—Eli's Delicatessen, the Skokie Indoor Tennis Club, Howard Johnson's Nassau Beach Lodge—were hopelessly suburban. How could I ever get poetry out of this unpromising material? It wasn't enough simply to feel the poignance of life, a poignance that graced even Evanston on humid August nights when I coasted on my bicycle through the lakeside parks, swerving up and down the graveled paths with an exalted heart. No, you had to move in a more privileged realm, I suspected, to get poetry out of life.
This is why I had gone to Harvard—to find that more authentic experience, to dwell in a literature-producing region. Never mind that Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and Nelson Aigren had been inspired by Chicago, that Saul Bellow lived there now, or that in the early decades of the century there had been some kind of Chicago Renaissance. (I was amazed to learn from Henry James's The American Scene that he had visited Chicago in 1905 and been introduced to a literary salon; the only salon I knew was the beauty parlor in the Orrington Hotel where my mother had her hair done once a week.) Much as I loved Chicago, it was impossible to imagine actually living in that soot-coated city. It was the East that held out promise, the East where writers lived and wrote; it was the East that I dreamed of, the New England of Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville (or was he from New York? Anyway, you get the idea), the crucible of culture, a world with a tradition.
Tradition: what a significant word that was! I couldn't open my mouth anymore without complaining about its absence. Everything is new! I sneered, casting a cold eye on our Danish-modern living room. I was off to where the American past was visible, where the furniture in the common rooms was burnished to a dark patina. The summer before freshman year I had spent whole afternoons in a plastic-webbed lawn chair on our patio perusing the 1967 Harvard course catalogue. "The Romance in America"; "The American Novel from the Civil War to 1900"; "The Poet in America": I read this catalogue with the "wild surmise" of Keats looking into Chapman's Homer "like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken."
But there was a still greater revelation in store for me, and that was the discovery that Harvard offered writing courses. Why, this was news! Here was William Alfred, the popular Harvard English professor I had read about in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town." And here was . . . "Mom!" I rose out of my lawn chair with a glad cry. My mother hurried to the door and looked out through the screen. "This is unbelievable! Guess who teaches poetry at Harvard? Robert Lowell." I read aloud: "English Sa. Writing (Advanced Course) . . . The emphasis will be primarily on poetry. Not more than ten students will be enrolled."
"Only ten?" my mother said doubtfully. "That's not so many."
"Oh, for God's sake, Mother. How many poets can there be at Harvard?"
When I arrived in Cambridge and learned that Lowell's seminar was closed to freshmen, I could scarcely imagine how I would get through the year. To console myself, I boarded the MTA, got off at Charles Street, and headed for 91 Revere Street, where Lowell had lived as a child. Standing before the "flat red brick surface unvaried by the slightest suggestion of purple panes, delicate bay, or triangular window-cornice," I was as disappointed as Lowell had been by its bland faade, which blended in with the other houses on the steeply descending street. For once I was unstirred.
I got no closer to Lowell that year. Now I was sweating out his decision. On the crucial day, I consulted the bulletin board in Warren House every few minutes until a secretary wandered in and tacked up the list. There it was! My name.
Elated, I rose in the Holyoke Center elevator that afternoon and hurried toward the seminar room—only to find it nearly as crowded as it had been the week before. There must have been forty people, perched on the broad windowsill or the metal-hooded radiator, sitting cross-legged on the floor among piles of coats and notebooks, or lounging by the door. Tutors and graduate students, local poets, elderly women with crests of billowing white hair and vein-threaded cheeks, a reporter with a notepad balanced on his knee: the list, I soon discovered, was a formality. Anyone could attend.
Lowell passed around copies of a poem—the ritual of poetry seminars—and asked who the author was. A girl with kohl-encrusted eyes and silver stars pasted on her cheeks raised her hand. Lowell nodded and began to read the poem in a low, droning voice—the same voice I had listened to on a Caedmon album in high school, sprawled on the carpet in my bedroom late at night, while the TV boomed up through the floor. His broad Boston accent blended with a southern drawl acquired during his undergraduate years at Kenyon, where he had been a disciple of the Agrarian poet John Crowe Ransom:
The night when you became my lover,
goats cavorted above the star-dappled sea,
I saw the whitewashed villages whiten,
the moon intensify its beam of light.
Lowell's hand, the fingers splayed, moved in circles over the page, as if he were conjuring it to rise off the Formica surface. "You feel this last stanza's almost a parody, it's so weird," he said. "You could almost say it's a satire on the genre." The girl gnawed a fingernail and lit a cigarette. "It reminds me of Swinburne's 'Cor Cordium,' " Lowell persisted. "It has Swinburne's florid energy" He turned a mild, inquisitive face to the girl, tucking a feathery wisp of hair behind his ears. "Isn't that what you had in mind? It's a translation of an English poem."
"I guess so," said the girl.
"How do others feel about the poem?" A few tentative hands rose, but Lowell was studying it again. "Or you could have the goats cavorting first: 'Goats cavorted when you became my lover." Pleased with this variation, he tried another: "'The star-dappled sea cavorts . . ." His eyes had a hectic glint. "Why doesn't someone else talk now?" he said softly.
"I wonder if that last image is really earned," ventured a boy in a motorcycle jacket. "I mean—"
"But then you couldn't really say Swinburne." Lowell cut in, his hands circling above the poem. "It doesn't have Swinburne's lushness." He stared out the window, thinking hard. "And you could queer my argument by saying that it doesn't rhyme."
Through the picture windows that made up a wall of the room, the needle-like spire of Memorial Church divided the sky. A line of geese floated over the Yard. Lowell studied the poem for a while, then turned again to the author. "It's as good as Edna Millay."
Eventually we got used to these peculiar associations. Lowell would sit before the poem, seemingly transfixed by it, one cigarette cradled in his hand, another smoldering in the ashtray. Glancing up, he would suddenly offer some terse summation—"How many others in the room have grandfather poems?" he once asked after reading my contribution to the genre—or impossible advice: "Have you tried writing this in couplets?" "What if you made the speaker a priest instead of a young poet? Then maybe his sins would seem more real."
Lowell's interruptions seemed involuntary. Hunched down in his chair, smoke dribbling from between his thin, moist lips, his forehead shiny beneath the recessed lights, he would spin his manic fantasies, imagining how the poem would have gone if Wallace Stevens or T. S. Eliot had written it. Once, discussing a poem by an athletic, fresh-faced boy who stood out in that pale, needy crowd, Lowell peered intently at the page and stated, "You've been reading Hardy."
"Not really," said the boy, in obvious confusion. Wasn't Hardy a novelist? Then, not wishing to be impolite, he amended his answer: "I mean, no more than usual."
"But you could see these stanzas in The Dynasts," Lowell insisted. "Only with Hardy it would require eight hundred lines instead of eight." He leaned back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling. "You have Hardy's grim sense of humor—his enjoyment of misery. Fate was something he could mock at and not be called cruel." The boy stared at him like a tourist trying to make out a foreign language. "But then Hardy wrote his poetry out of genuine despair," Lowell mused. "You feel he wasn't so much inspired by his misery as driven mad by it." And then he was off on a long account of Hardy's two marriages, his reclusiveness, his cruel behavior toward his wives.
Lowell gossiped about the English poets the way other people gossip about their friends; he spoke of them as if they were colleagues and contemporaries, and thought nothing of disparaging them. "You feel that Arnold's trying too hard here," he remarked once, poring over "The Buried Life." "You'd almost say he wants to feel more than he does; the terse lines are there to goad on his emotion." It would never have occurred to me that Arnold could have tried too hard or pretended to feel more than he did; Arnold was only a name in the canon. He came after the Romantics and before Swinburne. He was represented in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. But to Lowell he was a school inspector, a thwarted poet, a man who had once lived.
Lowell had the infuriating habit of devoting hours and hours of our precious class time to older poets—and I mean old. Bored with our unmetered cries of anguish, he would turn to a well-thumbed Oxford Book of English Verse that he carried with him, its dark-blue cover faded with age. "This reminds me of Wyatt," he would say quietly, contemplating one of our poems. (He never seemed ironic about these comparisons; to him, poetry was poetry.) Flipping through the compact blue volume, he would read with a weird, urgent lilt, his voice gathering tension, then dropping to a nearly inaudible murmur. The Elizabethan diction of "The Appeal" or "Forget Not Yet" was as natural in his mouth as a poem from Life Studies. Once he recited from memory Sir Walter Raleigh's "What Is Our Life?" and when he came to the last four lines—
Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.
Thus march we, playing, to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest—that's no jest.
—his voice grew rapt with terror. Eyes wide, he stared sightlessly out at the vision summoned up by Raleigh's words, a premonitory hallucination remote from our innocent classroom with its shiny Formica table and Fiberglas chairs, our heap of ski parkas and pea coats on the floor.
We listened dutifully to Lowell's monologues about these dead poets. Only why didn't he understand our unappeasable hunger to discuss our own work? Week after week, we entered the classroom tense with expectation; whose poems would be handed out this time? You could feel the frustration when the unlucky ones glanced down like poker players appraising their hands and learned that they would have to devote the next two hours to someone else's work. What bitter disappointment!
Lowell, though, was curious about our poems. Looking up from the mimeographed sheet before him, he would ask in his mild voice whose it was, then fix upon the author an uncertain scrutiny. The first time a poem of mine was discussed, read out in Lowell's quaking intonation, I could feel him trying to bring me into focus; it was clear he had never seen me before.
"It's an odd poem," he began, pawing the air like a blind man groping down a corridor. "It's all sensibility. You've written yourself back to the nineteenth century, to Baudelaire." He studied the poem, as absorbed as a scientist examining a slide, then read a line again: "My wracked frame wastes on a Tangiers balcony.' You've told us that you're suffering, but not how or why." He gave me a kindly look. "And this pathetic fallacy: 'The stars' mad vacant stare'—it's too outlandish. The reader balks."
Was my poem pathetic, then, on top of everything else? And after so many years of waiting for this moment, waiting for approval from the highest authority in the land? A fallacy! Pathetic! I eyed the poem in disgust. "But I like its strangeness." Lowell broke in on my despondent reverie. "It's as if Keats had come out and told us how much he wanted to be a great poet." He smiled. "The poem's all about you, a good subject—even if it's a you that's entirely made up."
I didn't hear another word in class that day. Like a patient cut off by his psychiatrist at the end of the hour, I was uneasy, resentful; I hungered for more. My audience had ended all too quickly. I tried to remember everything he had said, but the message was ambiguous. Had I been compared favorably with Baudelaire? What about "sensibility"? Was that a good thing to have? My memory, cruelly accurate for once, restored the disparaging phrase: "all sensibility." But it was the word "pathetic" that tormented me the most; what a hateful idea. Not even "I like its strangeness" could cancel out that distressing epithet. (It wasn't until many years later that I came across Ruskin's discussion of "pathetic fallacy" in Modern Painters.)
I was hardly alone in my hunger for Lowell's attention. Everyone clamored for a share: the Brattle Street ladies who invited him to dinner; the undergraduates who clustered around him after class on the thinnest excuse—a late assignment, a clarification of some stray remark he had made about their work; the graduate students and tutors who accompanied him to the Faculty Club for a drink. Nothing dejected me more than to watch Lowell moving off down the sidewalk surrounded by his coterie.
Denied direct access to him, I cultivated his disciples. Leonard Wiggins had organized a workshop of his own, which met once a week in the basement of Kirkland House, and now that I was in Lowell's class, he invited me to join. It was in that dreary room, beneath plaster-swaddled pipes and next door to a quivering, ancient boiler, that I came to know the core of Lowell's Cambridge following, that handful of zealous graduate students who dined out and corresponded with the poet, even visited him in New York.
It was from Lowell's disciples that I learned the main details of his life: that he lived in New York and came up to Cambridge for two days a week; that he was married to the writer Elizabeth Hardwick; that he had a suite of rooms in Quincy House; that he was writing sonnets now. But they knew far more: the identities of the people mentioned in his poems; the variants of celebrated lines ("That poem used to have two more stanzas," Leonard would say, or "The Sewanee Review version was much better"); his itinerary at any given moment ("Cal's in London," or "Cal's campaigning with McCarthy").
I was greatly impressed by these knowing discussions, and envious of the casual talk about "Cal"—short for the Roman emperor, Caligula, a prep school nickname that had stuck (with Lowell's own connivance, I suspected; I hadn't had any trouble getting rid of "Fatless," my nickname). To speak of Cal was to claim an intimacy with Lowell that forever eluded me; even later on, when I knew him well enough to call him on the phone, I would murmur with stilted English formality, "Is that Robert Lowell?" But Wiggins had clearly earned the right. "Cal read this poem aloud the other night, and thought it was one of my best," he would say; or, "Cal says you have to tinker with a poem until your eyes pop out of your head." The name in itself was poetry; it suggested a world one could know if one were only patient enough—a world in which great men were colleagues.
The other disciple of Lowell's I got to know that year was Winston Walker, a graduate student from New Orleans who attended the Kirkland House evenings and was writing a Ph.D. thesis on religious imagery in Lowell's early work. The son of an amateur historian from an aristocratic southern family, Walker had grown up in a household that must have been, from what he told me of it, as oldfashioned as mine was progressive. The strict father, the vine-covered house where servants glided noiselessly through the halls, the theological debates at the dinner table (Walker had converted to Catholicism while still in high school): had I read about such childhoods in Faulkner? I imagined Winston seated at a mahogany dining-room table, a Latin primer open before him, translating Catullus, while his father, behind a closed door in the upstairs study, put the finishing touches on a book about how the South could have won the Civil War.
However fanciful this image, it represented for me the rigor of Winston's character, its archaic formality. He was hopelessly awkward—I had once been riding with him in his old Chevrolet when he smashed a rear headlight trying to park, then sideswiped two cars as he drove off in disgust—but somehow powerful; in his cream-colored linen suits and flesh-tinted glasses, he was at once vigorous and professorial, refined yet possessed of a nervous animal strength. Nowhere was this strength more evident than in his voice, a penetrating nasal whine that made heads turn. Once, while crossing a street together in Paris against the light, we were nearly run over by a Frenchman who leaped screaming from his Citroen; Walker protested in a sonorous drone that emanated like a mantra from deep within his diaphragm, "Ca ne vous donne pas le droit de parler comme ca"—upon which the driver backed off, gaping in astonishment, and drove away.
Nothing mattered to Walker but poetry; I never heard him mention a novel. On the rare occasions when he found himself in the company of people who didn't write, he sat with a drink in his hand and the nervous look of a patient in a dentist's waiting room, tossing back one highball after another. Fiercely impatient but too polite to interrupt, he crouched forward in his chair, as eager as a hunting dog about to be unleashed, and waited for chance to bring the conversation around.
He was maddeningly thorough, and would go through some minor poet's oeuvre book by book, assessing the poet's development and reputation, concentrating on a thin volume destined for oblivion a laborious scrutiny that made me feel boorish for dismissing it out of hand. "How can you say that?" he would interrupt when I declared a poet "stupid" or "no good." "What about the sequence of poems on the death of his father in Waiting Out the Winter? There are some good things there." His impulse of fairness shamed me.
It was Walker who introduced me to Lowell's "office hours"—not voluntarily but by chance, when I happened to encounter him turning in at the gate of Quincy House one morning. He was on his way to see Lowell, as it happened, and had no choice but to invite me along. I followed him down a flight of steps, past a janitor's closet, and into a tiny, windowless cell with cinderblock walls, a scuffed linoleum floor, and a few metal folding chairs around an old wooden table. It was in this cheerless dungeon that Lowell spent every Wednesday morning from nine until noon. The procedure was no different from his Tuesday class, except that those who wished to have their poems discussed could volunteer. Anyone could attend, the only requirement being that one knew about the office hours in the first place; and since no one who did know was anxious to share the information, word didn't get around.
Promptly at nine, Lowell would shuffle into the crowded room looking hung over and pale, his forehead damp, a watery remoteness in his eyes. "Who has a poem?" he would ask shyly, lighting a cigarette.
I could never figure out why he submitted himself to this needless torture. Perhaps it was because so many of our poems were imitations of his own—a form of homage. The brutal candor of Life Studies was our model, Lowell's madness our literary myth. Every few semesters he had to be confined to McLean's, the Boston-area mental hospital described in his poem "Waking in the Blue." I had never witnessed one of these breakdowns, but I had heard about them in grim detail: Lowell showing up at William Alfred's house and declaring that he was the Virgin Mary; Lowell talking for two hours straight in class, revising a student's poem in the style of Milton, Tennyson, or Frost; Lowell wandering around Harvard Square without a coat in the middle of January, shivering, wild-eyed, incoherent. In the seminar room on the top floor of Holyoke Center, we waited nervously—perhaps even expectantly, given the status accorded anyone who had been present at one of these celebrated episodes—for it to happen before our eyes, watching eagerly for any manic soliloquys, references to Hitler, or outbursts of unnatural gaiety. These were the signs that Lowell had "gone off" and would have to be put away.
Encouraged by Lowell's willingness to write about such episodes, his disciples turned out confessions of madness, attempted suicide, and sexual miscreancy that made the revelations in Life Studies seem as tame as a country priest's confession. "When you slit your wrists," began a poem by a genial midwestern boy whose work Lowell admired, "the blood made a crimson gully on the floor." "I could feel his heart lunging like a rabbit flushed from cover" was another line I recall, from a poem in which a 300-pound diva laments the sudden death of her lover, seized by a fatal coronary as she rode above him on a couch in her dressing room. The day a thin, mild-mannered divinity student whose piping voice, disheveled beard, and wirerimmed glasses made him a dead ringer for Lytton Strachey read out the dramatic monologue of a mass murderer of boys that began, "I was only happy when I had one in the trunk," I gazed around our cell in wonderment: just how many Loebs and Leopolds were there in this room?
My own poetry revealed few homicidal inclinations; the only violence I did was to the language. But in every other respect it was so close to Lowell's as to verge on plagiarism. Once I brought in a poem for discussion at office hours and Lowell read it aloud, interrupting with his usual digressions, until he came to the last line. Instead of reading it, he paused as if studying a word that he was uncertain how to pronounce, then said in his gentle, murmurous drawl, "I see you've taken a line here from one of my poems." I faced his unreproachful gaze, and suddenly Lowell's line came to mind, a line from which my own diverged by only a single word.
"Huh!" I said. "I guess it is a lot like it." I could feel myself blushing, and stared down at the poem, my head cradled in my fists.
"It's a good line," Lowell said kindly, and everyone laughed.
Even in my embarrassment, I felt a certain pride. The plagiarism had troubled him, I noticed, and to register in his mind, however fleetingly and under whatever conditions, was to exist. I used to walk back to my dorm from office hours calibrating the amount of attention I had gotten over the past three hours; every glance in my direction, every casual aside, was rehearsed and evaluated. "What do you think, James?" Hadn't Lowell turned and spoken those words? Hadn't he referred to me by name? My need to be noticed was obsessive—an obsession shared, I suspect, by many who came to class or office hours. Like cripples thronging about a healer, we longed to be anointed by the great man's recognition.
What was it that gave Lowell this gravity, this nearly shamanistic power? Perhaps it was that the one question that tormented everyone else had been decided for him: he had made it into the pantheon of great American poets. His work would last, while we were condemned to doubt; our poems were so provisional, so rudimentary that we despaired of ever giving utterance to what we felt. "Oh Lord, how beautiful must have been some of the faces trampled in the dust." I was moved by that lament, from an Urdu poem I had read somewhere, awed that so much effort might come to so little. "The unspoken question," Winston once confided, "is which of us will last." It reassured him that Keats had gone largely unappreciated in his lifetime, that Tennyson had been ridiculed by his early critics.
He was haunted by thoughts of immortality. But I was haunted by other thoughts—thoughts of oblivion. I wrote to preserve the memory of my own existence, to record for the sake of the dead their forgotten history. This vanished past was the only tradition I knew, and it was to thwart its terrible anonymity that I sat hunched over my desk night after night, turning out what Lowell once called my "Jewish homelife" poems: chronicles of my grandparents' arrival in America, the crowded households of immigrants on Chicago's West Side, the new prosperity and dispersal of children to the suburbs; the accumulation and divestment of carpets and looms and paintings and sideboards and gold-framed photographs. They were like geologic strata, these possessions and lives, each generation burying the previous generation deeper.
Elated by the discovery of office hours, regular attendance at which had raised me above the common lot of the undergraduates in Lowell's poetry class, I was disappointed to find that there was still another, more privileged status—those who joined Lowell for lunch every Wednesday at Iruña, a Spanish restaurant in Harvard Square. It was with the keenest regret that I emerged from the Quincy House basement at noon on those days and lingered on the sidewalk while Lowell and his select group drifted off in a cluster. It was strange: no matter how old I was, there always seemed to be an "older crowd" around to exclude me. Just because I was twenty rather than ten made no difference in the humiliation I suffered as I made my way back to Dunster House and pushed my tray along the barred counter, peering in through the steamed-up glass at the metal bins heaped high with carrots and lima beans, mashed potatoes and Salisbury steak. I could still have been the boy unwrapping his bologna sandwich on a bench while sides were chosen for the scrub baseball game; still the seventh grader new to Evanston, trailing after the eighth-grade boys who smoked, carried switchblades, and slipped out to the luncheonette on the other side of the viaduct during lunch period; still the high school freshman trudging home after school, my Harvard bookbag crammed with work, while the upperclassmen hurried off to their extracurricular activities. Would there ever come a time, I wondered, scanning the Dunster dining hall for an unoccupied table, when I would belong to the "older crowd"?
One day, after a sparsely attended office hours, I noticed Lowell glancing around and realized that no one from the inner circle had shown up. Who would join him at Iruña? I happened to be sitting beside him—rather, I had arrived twenty minutes early and claimed the seat. Lowell registered my presence and said, "Let's have lunch." It was a command, but spoken in such a diffident voice that I scarcely heard him.
As we headed off down the street, I glimpsed one of the other undergraduates who had managed to find out about office hours. A burly, taciturn young man who specialized in dramatic monologues by martyred religious figures—Jan Hus, Giordano Bruno, Thomas More—he seemed capable of the violence the others only wrote about; there was a taut, furious shape to his mouth, and his blue eyes behind rimless glasses had an angry glint. He was angling toward us with a determined stride, his big shoulders thrown forward, as if he were muscling his way through a crowd.
I tried to hurry Lowell on, hoping to screen him from the intruder's view. But he came right up—and Lowell, the distracted, indiscriminate Lowell, invited him to join us. What the hell are you doing? I raged inwardly. How can you waste your time on this ominous character? I could scarcely restrain myself from seizing the intrusive poet and hurling him into the snow. But it was too late; he had fallen in beside us. Fuming, I kicked a stony lump of ice. The great event ruined! What was so special about having lunch with Lowell if this boorish lout, this lumpen bully, could push his way in? I was too exasperated to join the conversation or even hear what they were saying until we were seated at Iruña, and Lowell was filling our glasses with sangría. Oblivious of the malevolent stares we exchanged—the other poet was no happir than I at the prospect of having to share the occasion—Lowell posed his favorite question: "Who do you read?"
Some younger poets were mentioned, neo-surrealists with a weakness for hallucinatory images and weird, improbable metaphors. I knew Lowell didn't care for their work.
"Oh, I just don't believe them," I broke in. "Their poems aren't about anything. I mean, don't you get tired of all those speaking stones and streetlamps that turn into stars? It's become a style, the latest fashion." My voice quavered with vehemence.
Lowell lit a cigarette and caressed the tablecloth, smoothing out wrinkles and brushing away crumbs. He was in his element, ranking poets, assigning them their place on the ladder—beneath him, it was understood. Flattered as I was by his invitation, I had been anxious on the way over to the restaurant; how would I ever hold his interest or find enough to say? But I realized that it didn't matter; all one had to do was mention a few poets and he was off, judging, dismissing, now and then offering a shred of praise. This exercise could entertain him for hours. "Who else?" he would prompt during a lull in the conversation; or, "What about so-and-so?" Whenever a new name was introduced, he leaned forward eagerly, his hands spread out on the table, a glad look in his eye. "He's written two good poems," he would say in that mild but definite voice of his; and he would name and discuss them as if the poet's work were right in front of him, open to the page. I was amazed by how much he kept up with even minor poets; I don't recall ever hearing him say he didn't know someone's work.
"You think they're really so bad as all that?" My rude outburst had made Lowell more charitable. Why be the first to attack? "I find Norman interesting in his own small way," he said. "He's written some good poems." Lowell's eyes behind his glasses bulged. "Only you feel he has nothing to say."
I nodded—a victory for our side—and glanced at my sullen opponent, but he was busy gnawing the husk of a shrimp. Lowell signaled the waiter and ordered another pitcher of sangría. He hadn't touched his dish, an omelette in a cream sauce. The ashtray was heaped with bent and broken half-smoked cigarettes. Lowell wasn't one of those smokers who exhale in vigorous plumes; he smoked as if it made him ill. His skin had a mushroom-like pallor; his tie was streaked with ash. But he was talking with great energy now, recalling the time he and this poet had met. "He wanted me to come read in Milwaukee or somewhere like that against the war, but I'd already been to Washington and marched against the war, and felt I'd done my part." He gave an apologetic smile, as if asking us to absolve him; had he done the right thing?
Lowell had a way, I noticed, of soliciting opinions from his listeners in order to draw them out; it flattered us to know that our ideas mattered—though I couldn't imagine why they did. What difference did it make what I, a longhaired, unkempt boy in a worn corduroy jacket and Frye boots, thought of Pound's Pisan Cantos or the later Hardy? But Lowell was achingly well mannered. He was working his way through Yeats's whole career now, starting with the florid Pre-Raphaelite verse in The Wanderings of Oisin and moving brusquely through the various phases of his development, encouraged by an occasional nod or murmur of approval.
"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."
Everyone did this, I reflected as we left the restaurant. How many of us would choose loyalty over the chance to say what we really thought—or even to display our wit? And how often I disparaged my own friends just for the sake of camaraderie, for the atmosphere of good fellowship that agreement about the failings of others invariably produced. There was no reason why Lowell should be any less vulnerable or calculating than anyone else.
Yet the deference, the gentle drawl, the bowed head, were no pose: they were the visible signs of his ordeal. That he had been through so much was intimidating and made people shy away from him. One evening I spotted him at the Boston Athenaeum, where a young painter who had attended office hours on occasion was giving a slide show of his canoe trip through Alaska. Sitting in the dark among that crowd of ruddy-faced Bostonians, I wondered what Lowell made of the seals and caribou, the trout surfacing on ponds, the vistas of barren tundra that flashed on the screen; it was all so remote from his populous, incident-crowded, human world. Afterward, when the lights came on, he made straight for me, glad to see a familiar face.
More often he was oblivious. I used to see him shuffling down Massachusetts Avenue in his crepe-soled rubber boots. One afternoon, loitering by the magazine rack in the Pangloss Bookshop, I looked up to find him staring in the window, cupping a hand against the glass. I nodded and smiled, hoping to be noticed, but the face squinting with a wrinkled brow at the dust-flecked books registered nothing. He didn't know what he was looking at, I realized; his mind was elsewhere—circling, I imagined, the thought of death that had come to haunt his poetry. It wasn't that he thirsted to live; then only in his early fifties, he seemed wearier than anyone I had ever known. It was that he couldn't believe he would ever die; he had seen and known and felt so much. His bleak eyes in the sunlight were moist, as if he were holding back tears.
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