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Memories of Brattle Street and Lowell
Attending Robert Lowell’s ‘office hours’ at Harvard

I DIDN’T GO to graduate school to study with Robert Lowell, though I knew he was teaching at Harvard and he was one of the few major contemporary poets whose work was important to me as an undergraduate. His poem "For the Union Dead" had recently been published and Lowell seemed a kind of American conscience. And poetic conscience. But I was planning to get a PhD and become an English teacher, so — serious as I was about poetry — writing my own poetry would have to be put on the back burner; I didn’t think I could risk good grades on the chanciness of poetic inspiration. But you didn’t have to take a course to be serious about writing, and when I heard that Lowell was willing to see students during his office hours, I made an appointment to see him. I brought a poem — a sonnet about Telemachus, Ulysses’ son, going out to seek his fortune; it had been my undergraduate poetic success.

Lowell was genial and welcoming, but rigorous and severe. My sonnet ended with an image of Telemachus "forging" his bow. I was thinking of Stephen Dedalus who wanted "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." But Lowell would have none of it. You could carve a bow, he said, but you couldn’t forge one. I was both crushed and exhilarated. I had been taken seriously by Robert Lowell! I didn’t know when I’d have a new poem, especially one that was as ambitious as my undergraduate poem, but I wished I could bring him more.

He came to Harvard for one semester every year, and by 1966 his office hours metamorphosed into something different: a kind of open workshop — and not just for students. Anyone who had a new poem and brought copies of it could come — people off the street, famous poets who happened to be passing through Cambridge. It was so freewheeling, people could leave whenever they liked. Most of the "regulars" — among them Frank Bidart, Gail Mazur, Robert Pinsky, Anne Winters, Alan Williamson, Richard Tillinghast, Kathleen Spivack (a classmate of Sylvia Plath’s and Anne Sexton’s at Lowell’s legendary workshop at BU), James Atlas (biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow), and Jonathan Galassi (now head of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Lowell’s publisher) — came and stayed the full three hours (later, two hours), once a week, in a stuffy, windowless basement seminar room under Harvard’s Quincy House dining hall. Lowell smoked, and the room soon filled with smoke. He was oblivious to a number of practical things — he would let his cigarette ash get longer and longer (there was no ashtray). Sometimes we got hypnotized by the ash — wondering when and where it was going to fall.

I never registered for any of Lowell’s undergraduate poetry workshops or (to my particular regret) his course in the Bible as literature. But "office hours" became the high point of my graduate-school experience. I wish I had taken notes, as some of the attendees did, because what he said was often enthralling. No one could have been more devoted to the Idea of Poetry. The sacrament of poetry. Not taking poetry seriously was unacceptable. But that didn’t mean discussions couldn’t be lighthearted. Lowell loved games. Who were the greatest American poets? What were the best opening lines? He was fascinated by careers and trends, though his work was oblivious to them.

Lowell was critical but rarely unkind. He was open-minded (discussing the disturbing subject matter — murder followed by the rape of a young girl — in Frank Bidart’s "Herbert White," he said, "You can say anything in a poem, as long as you place it correctly"), though most of the poems people brought were not to his taste, which leaned toward richer, denser language than most younger poets were writing. And he didn’t much care for the personal "confessional" style, which some critics accused him of unleashing. But as Frank Bidart writes in his aferword to Lowell’s new Collected Poems, Lowell’s "confessional" mode was an illusion; he was more interested in the problem of finding a style that would allow him to incorporate autobiographical details than in the mere churning out of autobiography.

But his lack of interest didn’t particularly matter to us. We each lived in hope that one of our poems might get through to him (once, one of mine did — a colloquial dialogue poem not at all in a style I’d have predicted he’d like). The main thing was talking about poems and poets, and no one was a deeper talker than Lowell. A poem he wasn’t especially interested in could trigger a fascinating stream of questions and associations (I’m sure my own teaching is modeled on his Socratic Q&A). Every so often he’d get tired of looking at new poems and preferred to talk about his own favorite writers. I remember a probing "tangent" on Hart Crane. And Lowell thought a great deal about his friend John Berryman’s suicide. Once he devoted a particularly moving session of "office hours" to Berryman.

One of my favorite episodes was when a young Radcliffe undergraduate brought in a poem (I can’t remember the title) about a statue in Mexico. By this time, the mid 1960s, after "For the Union Dead" and just after the publication of Near the Ocean, Lowell had become our major political poet. He was struck by this student’s poem, and it was thrilling to see him get excited about something of "ours." His jubilation raised everyone’s spirits, and an animated discussion ensued extolling the virtues of one or another aspect of this poem. When the discussion subsided, one of the undergraduates, who was working on the Harvard Advocate, the famous undergraduate poetry magazine (which had never accepted a poem of Lowell’s in his brief undergraduate career at Harvard), cleared his throat and said something like: "We at the Advocate would be interested in considering this poem." Without missing a beat, Lowell waved away the invitation and said: "Oh, you can do better than that!"

After office hours, Lowell would go for lunch to the Iruna, the quiet little Spanish restaurant set back from what was then Boylston Street (now Kennedy Street). A small group of us would follow him there, wending our way through Harvard Square like ducklings after their mother. Lowell would order a basque omelet sizzling in cream (it’s no longer on the menu), avocado and sour cream with baby shrimps, and a pitcher of sangria; he’d usually pick up the check, until we stopped letting him. The conversation about poetry continued, only in a pleasanter atmosphere.

Once, after lunch, I walked with him back into Harvard Square. He wanted an ice cream at Bailey’s, where I ordered a vanilla malt with an egg in it (a Bailey’s specialty). He’d never heard of putting an egg in a milk shake and had to try one too. He was so exhilarated, he wanted to take a long walk, and we strolled all the way up Brattle Street to the Armenian Church on Sparks Street and back. It was, I think, the longest time I’d ever spent alone with him.

He was probably on the verge of one of his annual manic episodes. In office hours, we could usually tell this was coming when he started to go on at length about Hitler or Napoleon. Then he’d miss the last few weeks of classes because he’d admit himself to McLean. I visited him there once, with Frank Bidart. He had asked us to bring a Pinter play for us to read out loud together, but when we got there, he was too distracted to concentrate. The turning point was the discovery that lithium could level the highs and lows of what is now called bi-polarity. He started taking it, and it worked. In all those years of office hours, I’d never seen him do anything aggressive or mean. He’d get obsessed. But he never lost his sense of humorous irony or his kindness. None of his biographers has captured his most attractive qualities, which were pervasive. You can hear them on his poetry recordings — his jokes, his seductive chuckle, the way he’d interrupt a poem with a fascinating footnote — just as he did in office hours.

I attended office hours regularly. Despite his toughness, he was never unsupportive. When my very first poem was accepted for publication, I telephoned Frank Bidart with the news, and Lowell was there visiting him, so he was the second person to congratulate me. He still knew what it felt like and his pleasure was genuine. When I started looking for a teaching job, I asked him for a recommendation, which he happily agreed to write. Years later I saw it — it was generous. And sweet. I was so shy around him, he evidently thought I’d been an undergraduate, and said in his letter that he looked forward to my comments and wished I had spoken up more. There were certainly people attending his office hours who wanted to hear their own voices; but most of us were there to hear what Lowell had to say, and we were never disappointed.

Lloyd Schwartz can be reached at lschwartz[a]phx.com

Issue Date: December 19 - 25, 2003
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