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"But We Must Notice": Robert Lowell's Poetry Classes
by Elise Partridge

In the spring of 1977, Robert Lowell taught what would turn out to be his final classes. One was a seminar on nineteenth-century English and American poets, the other a writing workshop which also surveyed twentieth-century poets. English 255 and English F each met for two hours weekly at Harvard, with a dozen or so students and half a dozen auditors attending. A freshman in both courses, I scribbled voluminous notes (as was my anxious habit in all my classes), crowding some 250-odd pages with Lowell's observations on poets ranging from Blake to Plath.
Lowell may have patterned his teaching style on that of medievalist F. N. Robinson, who, in what Lowell called "the best course" he ever took, would "read Chaucer aloud" in an "unpretentious voice. That's all he did¨stopped and explained here and there." Lowell's informalities more or less followed Robinson's: he'd hunch in a Windsor chair at one end of the long wooden table we all clustered around in a chalk-dusty room. (Just outside the door and around the corner was a life-sized statue of Ralph Waldo Emerson¨if it weren't for the intervening wall, Lowell and his New England literary forebear would have been sitting back to back.) Riffling through an anthology, Lowell would read poems aloud in a soft voice marked by relaxed vowels and swallowed prefixes¨"might" emerged "maht", "except" was always "'cept." Tilting his head, with its wild nimbus of white hair, murmuring from the corner of his mouth, he'd stop, line after line, to praise, puzzle over, define.
Lowell would start the discussion of each poet with a pithy, impromptu biography, an eclectic but telling assemblage of facts drawn from memory and mingled with witty assessments. Aubrey's Brief Lives and Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets were fresh in my mind that term, and Lowell's portraits, vivid with quirky detail, seemed to me to blend the former's colloquialism and gentle irreverence with the latter's scrupulously balanced judgments and attentiveness to writers' circumstances. "Other American poets wouldn't do what Whitman would -- be a wound dresser, get to know people on the bus. He invented free verse, an incredible thing to do (he had the advantage of not going to college). If you came from reading The Idiot or The Possessed, you'd not find any human beings in Whitman; he describes but doesn't present characters. He didn't make real people, but had extraordinary empathy." Byron is "the only nineteenth-century poet except Whitman who's outrageous -- though not stylistically, like Dickinson or Hopkins"; he displayed "the insolence, bad manners and confidence of a radical aristocrat," and is "very seldom at the end a dead writer."
After these sketches, Lowell would walk us through a selection of poems. He spent most of the class gazing down at the page in front of him, out of what appeared to be a combination of shyness and such indefatigable fascination that it would have seemed almost impudent to distract him with one's own comments -- or even with answers to the questions he floated. I felt too diffident, too ignorant, or simply too interested in how Lowell himself might respond to his questions to volunteer any replies; perhaps the other members of the class shared my feelings, because Lowell always held the floor, in his paradoxically unassuming way, for most of the two hours. But the range of his musings alone gave us an index of how relentlessly one could delve into a poem. "What is the fly?" he'd probe, about the insect in Emily Dickinson's "I heard a fly buzz when I died". "Why does she bring it in [again] at the end?" "What is the effect of Pound saying 'chopped seas' instead of 'choppy seas'" in stanza three of "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley"? On the "Dedication" to "Don Juan": "Does it matter whether Byron's invective was just?" "What makes 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' so much better than other imitations [of old ballads], sea stories of thirst and so forth?" In "A Noiseless Patient Spider": Why is 'filament' so good?"
If some of these inquiries sound more like appreciations, it is true that Lowell dwelt on the marvelous; he didn't choose poems to mock. His mode was consistently generous -- though he did not hesitate to rank: the words "greatest" and "best" reappeared in almost every class ("Repose of Rivers" is "one of Crane's greatest poems"; Randall Jarrell "was the critic of our generation, much the best."). Lowell's constant placing and re-placing was related to a practice that often led us to deeper insights. When he would juxtapose two lines, poems, or poets, new qualities would suddenly surface in each, the way two adjacent colors alter in relation to each other; sometimes the more unexpected the conjunction, the more we learned.
Lowell often, for example, contrasted vocabularies, pointing out that unlike Crane in "Repose of Rivers," William Carlos Williams "would say 'meadow,' not 'mead,' and Williams would never use phrases like Crane's 'undinal belly.'" He encouraged us to envision a free-verse poem in meter: "How would this [Whitman] poem 'go' in 'regular meter'? It would be a terribly poetic poem . . . much better in this kind of rhythm." Sometimes he weighed in one sentence a poet's better work against his lesser: of "London" he observed, "You feel Blake's been through these streets, and you don't necessarily feel he's been in the pasture with the lambs." Scrutinizing a poem in terms of a different genre could also be enlightening. In the poetry-writing class he taught that term, Lowell would sometimes counsel a student who brought in a troublesome draft to "imagine it as a short story, with all the necessary detail." After likening Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" to a "tiny short story," Lowell asked us to ponder how it also differed: imagine Hemingway, for instance, doing a visit to the dentist. Occasionally
Lowell offered joking yet illuminating alternatives to a subject, an image, or a line. What else might the Duke have said to his guest at the end of "My Last Duchess," instead of gesturing toward the seahorse cast in bronze? "'Notice this beautiful Botticelli annunciation'?"
The only assignment Lowell gave us in the literature seminar -- to write two 15-page essays or one 25-pager -- was delivered with the wry proviso that we "talk about the poems -- don't have Hegel be it all. [Write] something that quotes, evaluates, describes." Lowell didn't want to hear rhetoric from us; he fought shy of it himself. He wanted us to explore poems as freshly and minutely as he did, while not ignoring their contexts: "Bring in biography or anything, brought down to the text." Lowell proved to us that the anthology pieces which constituted our reading for his classes were inexhaustible, if we would only keep looking and listening. It was inspiring to see that although he knew these poems backwards and forwards, they remained so vital for him that they still yielded surprises: "I've just noticed something I never noticed," he said one day about unrhymed lines in Blake's "Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau."
Lowell's discussions of the work of contemporaries such as Berryman, Bishop and Jarrell were markedly affectionate. I remember Lowell laughing more in the class segment on Berryman than in almost any other. Though he acknowledged that Jarrell was "probably more powerful" as a poet, he saluted Berryman as "the funniest American poet, in a way" despite his "cursed life": "If you're in a Berryman mood, you feel other poems about tragic things are too grim." As he so often did, Lowell conveyed a sense of what endless effort it takes to grow as a writer, pairing Berryman, in a startling move, with the seventeenth-century Robert Herrick: their difficulty lay in "get[ting] themselves into their poems. There's no way to make that easy -- you need to work, have talent, luck. The odds were against Berryman doing anything like what he did." We glanced over several Dream Songs, Lowell classifying them as "a recoil from the strictness" of "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" in a way that made one think of Lowell's own progression from Lord Weary's Castle to Life Studies. Lowell related his original bewilderment at Berryman's new style: "I didn't understand him, he [didn't understand] me, there was a gulf. We tried, and bridged the gap. Reviewing The Dream Songs was torture -- after eleven readings, I was ready to give up, but then they sank in."
Lowell started the class segment on another "friend in the art," Elizabeth Bishop, by noting that "she teaches me, I teach her -- we've done this casually for years." Many readers of both poets know that Lowell in the late fifties and early sixties had looked to the work of other poets, including Williams and Bishop, in an effort to change his own; he said so himself during one of these classes, when a student requested he go over "Skunk Hour." "I was trying to write in much simpler language than I had been writing," he muttered, reddening as we stared at his poem; "this owes something to Elizabeth Bishop's simple style." He tried to isolate exactly what he admired about her poetry: "It's hard to put in a few sentences what's good." Clearly he honored Bishop for almost never publishing "something not inspired or well turned out. Most poets don't do this."
Then Lowell took us line by line through "In the Waiting Room." He characterized the beginning as a "good prose opening -- you feel it's perfectly under control -- nothing flashy." In his classes Lowell many times implied how hard it was to write an excellent poem; about "In the Waiting Room," he said there was "no one line we couldn't have written, but we couldn't have written the whole thing." Observing how the poem is built on repetitions, he noted repetitions are "very dangerous -- and she uses them beautifully." He also identified what he viewed as Bishop's "great stroke of originality" here. "Can you think of any poem that goes minute by minute? You'd think it'd be very common, but I can't think of another instance. Frost's 'Home Burial' comes close to doing that -- but that's more a little play, goes off into reflection."
When he turned to the work of Randall Jarrell, "one of the greatest teachers," Lowell paid tribute to his astonishing intellectual range and energy: "If you came to him before breakfast he'd turn off his records and tell you what he thought of the long short stories of Chekhov." Analyzing "Next Day," about an aging and unhappy woman, Lowell described the poem's treatment of the woman as "terribly artful," drawing a comparison between this suburbanite and Racine heroines: "No one talks about Racine heroines [today], and yet they're alive." In previous classes, Lowell had shown us how he would revise other famous poems, including Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." (He sacrificed much in that one, including the lambs.) But he closed the anthology on "Next Day" by saying, "This has no flaws for me, I don't know how to comment." I remember my surprise: it was the only time I heard that concession. When Jarrell died, Lowell told us, he read this poem aloud in memory of his friend.
I have since read accounts of Lowell's Olympian competitiveness, but I did not glimpse any pettiness in his evaluations. I saw instead profound gratitude for the beauty and wisdom he found in literature, and respect and sympathy for the way these writers struggled, in their lives and in their art. His peers of the last two centuries seemed part of a vigorous company existing contemporaneously in his mind; it was tremendously moving to see him considering, reconsidering, savoring, still wondering at their work -- or hooting with delight, say, at some exuberant boast of Whitman's. Intimately aware both of each writer's innovations and of the uniqueness of his or her gift, again and again in these classes Lowell declared, "No one else could have written this."
This essay is adapted from one that will appear in the collection Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell & Co. (University of Tennessee Press, spring 2003), edited by Suzanne Ferguson.
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