Two Things I Remember About Robert Lowell
I was crossing Harvard Square, coming from the Coop and on my way to Adams House. I saw Lowell near the kiosk and he saw me about the same time. He waved me over. "The most extraordinary thing has happened," he said. "Can you come with me?"
"Sure," I said.
He started walking briskly down Dunster street to one of the Harvard houses where he stayed in the terms he taught at Harvard. On the way we met Helen Chasin, who was auditing a class with him (she would be a Yale Younger Poet a few years hence). He said to her almost exactly what he'd said to me: "The most extraordinary thing has happened. Can you come with us?" Helen responded as I had: "Sure," with no interrogation.
He said nothing more until we were in the room. He motioned for us to sit down on the couch, which we did. He picked up an issue of Encounter. "Have you seen this? Have you seen it?" We both said no. "Listen to this, then."
It was the issue with a large group of Sylvia Plath poems: "Daddy," "Death and Co.," and I think eight others. They would be the core of Ariel.
He read all ten poems without comment. Cal was an exquisite reader of poetry; the only people I've known with as nuanced a reading voice were Robert Fitzgerald and Allen Ginsberg. When he was done I waited for him to say something, but he didn't. He just sat there with the magazine on his lap. I realized he had already said all there was to be said: those poems, in that voice.
Helen and I left. We walked up to Mt. Auburn street, where I turned right and she continued up Dunster street to the Square. The only thing we could think of to say the whole time was "Goodbye."
Lowell asked me to lunch. He suggested I meet him after his seminar in English lyric poetry and that we go from there. I arrived early, so I went into the room to listen to the last part of the class. I knew most of the students: they were from Adams House, where I had my office. And Helen Chasin. Harvard in those days permitted undergraduates to sign up for graduate classes if there were spaces available after graduate students had several days to register.
Later, I said to him, "Most of those students are undergraduates. I know them from Adams House."
"Except for Helen," he said, "they're all undergraduates."
"I thought it was a graduate seminar."
"It is. I've been told that the graduate students don't take it because they think it won't help them in their exams." I expressed something: anger, outrage, shock. He shrugged. "They're probably right."
Lowell knew more about poetry than anyone I'd ever met, and perhaps than anyone I've met since. He was a brilliant analyst and reader of poems. He was one of the great living American writers. How could he not be "useful" to graduate students?
That night, at a dinner, I sat across from Harry Levin and Walter Jackson Bate, the stars of Harvard's Comparative Literature and English departments respectively. I said, "I went to Lowell's seminar today. Except for one auditor, the only students there were undergraduates. Afterwards, he said he thought it was because the graduate students thought he wouldn't be of any help to them in their exams." I said all that in an even voice so Harry and Jack could express the shock and outrage.
They said, in unison (and I remember both their heads nodded up and down in agreement as well, though memory may have added that), "Quite right, quite right." Then they went on talking about what they'd been talking about when I had interrupted.
That was when I understood that with rare and generally transient exceptions, artists in the university are pets.
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