A Memoir of Reading a Memoir, Boston 1959-1977; Boston 1983-1993
To prepare for teaching a course at Purdue on post World War Two American poets, I’m reading a memoir by a Boston area writer and literary teacher from an earlier generation than my own—Kathleen Spivack. With Robert Lowell and His Circle (2012) shows Spivak to have been a confidante of Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, and Stanley Kunitz. They are all now canonical American poets. She arrived in Boston from Cleveland in 1959 at the age of twenty-one to study poetry. Her first choice of mentor had been Allen Ginsberg, but he was, as might be expected, nowhere to be found in Boston, and so Lowell took her on.
Spivack recounts what turned into an unlikely lifelong friendship of extraordinary intimacy with Lowell. Their connection—a love affair, really, but without the confusions that sex injects in any relationship—only ended with his death, at age 60, in 1977. When she first showed up at his Boston University office, where he was teaching a writer’s workshop, Spivack, by her own account, lacked special qualities. It is unclear why she would have stood out to Lowell as worthy of attention. An alienated young woman hailing from a midwestern college without much experience at poetry writing or literary analysis, she barely knew who Lowell was when they first met. He was entering the magical (if psychically tortured) period that would result in his greatest influence on American letters. He would go on at the end of his life to tell one of his outstanding students and closest friends, the poet Frank Bidart, that he was uncertain of the value of his life’s writing, but he was sure he had “changed the game.”
When discussing Lowell with Purdue undergraduates—none of whom has even heard of him—It is hard for me to convey just how famous Lowell was when Spivack entered into close terms with him. His last name all by itself garnered respect and fascination. It was an Old Money Boston Brahmin family name with roots dating back to the Mayflower. Ancestors included a Harvard president, and leading poets (James Russell, Amy). Buildings at Harvard were named Lowell, as was the Massachusetts city where Jack Kerouac grew up. At the same time, he appealed to a new generation of young writers because he was something of a bête noir in academic circles. In the late 1950s he’d turned away from modernist formalism and linguistic opacity. He now favored a subtly well made, but, on first glance, nakedly revealing, verse style that characterized the addictions, manias, infidelities, and hospitalizations of a speaker that the poet, in an interview, said he wanted readers to believe was “the real Robert Lowell.” In “Skunk Hour” and “For the Union Dead,” one sensed how transformational contemporary politics informed and reflected his speaker’s unruly nature. One could also imagine other member’s of his patrician class interpreting his writing as betrayal, an airing of dirty laundry. In “Waking in the Blue,” which describes his time at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Lowell imagined himself with self-effacing humor as a bloated Moby Dick figure weighing 200 pounds after a hearty New England breakfast. He also offered unflattering sketches of other twisted blue bloods who now haunted the madhouse, mere specters of their formerly commanding selves as All American fullbacks and members of Harvard’s elite secret societies. Lowell was of such public stature that when he accepted prison time (later immortalized in his poem “Memories of West Street and Lepke”) for his stance as a conscientious objector to World War Two (and thus a betrayal of FDR) it landed him on the front page of The New York Times.
Lowell was in 1959 teaching what amounted to the most influential creative writing workshop in the country with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton among his star students (and co-conspirators in the nascent “confessional” movement) at Boston University. He was also finishing his game-changing poetry book Life Studies. In the late 1940s, Lowell had already gained renown in academic literary culture. By then Old School High Modernists championed his clotted, forbiddingly difficult early poems found in impenetrable volumes such as Lord Weary’s Castle, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. His first books were influenced by opaque but sublime modernist authors such as Hart Crane as well as by the weight of his learning in New England transcendentalism and religious Calvinism. (Among his most famous early poems was a challenging philosophical meditation on Jonathan Edwards).
By the late 1950s, however, Lowell had betrayed New Critical pieties about what Wimsatt and Beardsley termed the “intentional fallacy.” Contra Lowell, New Critics separated an author’s biographical story from the significance of the work. Lowell, ironically, was thus rejecting the theory inculcated into U.S. academic study of poetry by his “Agrarian” movement Southern teachers John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate. By so doing, he’d moved serious poetry off its steep and icy peak and in the direction of a more accessible, overtly political, and personally forthcoming style that became labeled—reductively, by M.L. Rosenthal—as “confessional.” His example took root in the work of Sexton and Plath, among others, in what was then, in the era before the proliferation of M.F.A. writing programs, still an insular academic poetry community located in Boston, New York, and with a few emerging outsider figures like Ginsberg hanging out on the West Coast.
Enduring mental illness, Lowell was often during his time with Spivack in a manic phase, which meant on the verge of a nervous breakdown. During such episodes, Lowell would squander class time engaged in an excruciating (and, to those students who had to endure it, painfully embarrassing) private dialogue concerning which poets in his circle were “major” and which “minor.” Such classes inevitably preceded the full-blown collapse that led to yet another stay at McLean, a Belmont, Massachusetts hospital for psychically broken (and often artistically famous) patients with financial resources to afford first rate care on bucolic grounds originally conceptualized by Frederick Law Olmstead in the late 1800s. It was Spivack’s misfortune (and, in the end, blessing) to arrive at the great troubled man’s office door during a period of disequilibrium; he didn’t even remember having accepted the Oberlin fellowship student to attend his seminar at BU. But from the inauspicious first meeting in 1959 at which Lowell offered her half of his sandwich, but no indication that he will sponsor her, Spivack shows how Lowell became her surrogate father and she his unofficial “psychologist,” given her penchant for analysis and the steady way about her that he found comforting. Spivack gravitated around Lowell’s orbit to the point his Back Bay apartment became her mailing address.
Lowell extended to Spivack access to his private life. Besides studying with him at BU, Spivack attended private tutorials in the attic study of Lowell’s Marlborough Street apartment twice a week. One suspects an affair, but apparently that was not the case. Sensing her isolation as a fragile single young woman in Boston, he offered her formal letters of introduction to leading women poets in the area, thus initiating friendships Spivack would enjoy with legendary authors ranging from Sexton to Adrienne Rich to Bishop. Perhaps a sign of his mania, as well as his inability to maintain proper borders with those near him, Lowell took such a paternal interest in Spivack’s personal life that he visited her parents’ home in New Jersey to vouch for Spivack’s talent. He encouraged her parents to accept poetry writing as her serious life endeavor. He also spoke for Kathleen’s choice of marriage partner, Mayer Spivack, an eccentric inventor with whom she would have children, but eventually divorce. Marital struggle was a common affliction for Spivack and Lowell.
On one level, I recognized Spivack’s Boston. As in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem,” in which she spots a specific Nova Scotia farmer’s house as drawn in a watercolor “about the size of an Old Style dollar bill” by her Uncle George, I recognized in Spivack’s book the streets, buildings, and sharply chill New England light from my own Boston decade (1983-1993). More to the point, as a graduate student at Brandeis, I studied with Frank Bidart, a prominent Lowell student from Spivack’s era. More soon on the contours of my relationship with Bidart. On a second level, I read Spivack’s initiation into Lowell’s inner world with dormant feelings of envy and resentment over my struggle to gain the confidence of students Lowell had championed in the 1960s –- many of whom had come into their own as leading writers, critics, and teachers in the 1980s. Born in 1938, Spivak is twenty-four years older than I am. Primarily focused on Lowell, Bishop, Plath, and Sexton, Spivak recalls figures who had died before I arrived in Boston. That said, the literary landscape she paints corresponds to the scene as I discovered it after my unemployed single mother, my two brothers, and I moved into the area from South Florida when Harvard accepted my older brother to law school in the summer of 1983. I only met Spivak briefly when I lived, wrote, and studied in the Boston area, but I spent time in her house. Like me, Spivack resided in the blue collar, but gentrifying, Boston suburb of Watertown. She owned her large old house near Mt. Auburn Street while my mother, two brothers, and I rented a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment. I knew Spivack’s place because she rented an attic apartment to Louis Schwartz, a fellow Brandeis PhD student in English, now a Milton scholar at the University of Richmond. I visited Louis to listen to free jazz, discuss metaphysical poetry and its relationship to T.S. Eliot’s modernism, or to hang out with an imported beer before heading to the Brattle movie theater in nearby Cambridge for Marx Brothers or Fellini and popcorn with real butter. Further, Spivack mentions her friendships with Bob and Gail Melson, then a young Cambridge couple involved in intellectual endeavors with Spivack and her circle in the 60s, but who in their mature years have become my professorial colleagues at Purdue—Bob in politics and Jewish Studies; Gail in Childhood Development—and fellow congregants at West Lafayette’s Temple Israel. Those are coincidences, but more significantly, Spivack discusses her comradeship with other poets and scholars of her generation such as Frank Bidart, Lloyd Schwartz, Robert Pinsky, Helen Vendler, and Bill Corbett. Each went on to become an influential literary figure when I was a young poet and scholar pursuing graduate degrees in creative writing at Boston University and then in modern literature at Brandeis.
Reading Spivack in my fifties I felt an uncanny sense that I could trace my literary family tree to the same legendary roots – Lowell and his circle – from which Spivack blossomed into an award-winning poet, essayist, and teacher on the international stage. I spent significant time with the poets and critics Spivack regards as Lowell’s most prominent literary children and interlocutors, Frank Bidart chief among them. Spivack knew the poet and scholar Allen Grossman, who became my PhD dissertation advisor at Brandeis, but does not focus attention on him in the memoir. A Yeats scholar who championed impersonality, Grossman was not a Lowell acolyte, but he had written an important essay on Lowell, and had been an editor of the Advocate, Harvard’s literary magazine, as an undergraduate there in the late 1950s, before moving on to graduate study and teaching at nearby Brandeis in 1960.” (To this day I hang a poster in my office at Purdue announcing a commemorative reading at Harvard from 1987, a decade after Lowell’s death. The event featured Grossman—who read from Lowell’s early difficult work, “The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket” —as well as Bidart, Vendler, Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, and Harvard professor and dramatist William Alfred.) Was I not, in a sense, Lowell’s grandchild, given that I studied at Brandeis with Bidart and had frequent contacts with poets (Lloyd Schwartz, Bill Corbett) and critics such as Helen Vendler who took part in Lowell’s Harvard office hour workshops and seminars? Did I not spend time lounging on the puffy couch sampling new books at the same shrine of Cambridge poetry—the Grolier—run first by a man named Gordon and then by a woman named Louisa—that Spivak remembers, at first, like me sheepishly, and then more comfortably, entering? Did I not attend the poetry readings at the Blacksmith House or in the Lamont poetry room at Harvard and take part in my own coffee klatches at the Pamplona and Irun cafes? Did I not take classes in the same musty seminar room of a converted brownstone at 236 Bay State Road on the BU campus where Lowell, in the late 1950s, held his workshops with Sexton and Plath before he moved over to Harvard in later years? Did I not myself, after completing my Brandeis PhD in 1992, but before landing a tenure track job at Purdue in 1994, teach literature as a lecturer at Harvard in the same buildings that Lowell had taught his classes on Romantic poetry late in his life? Did I not review poetry for the Harvard Review and publish my own poetry in Agni, BU’s literary journal? Moreover, did not Bidart attend my own poetry reading on campus at Brandeis and at a bookstore on Main Street in Waltham? So yes, nostalgic recognition when reading Spivack. But also an uneasy question. On paper, I seem to have done well. I’ve published books of criticism and poetry and hold an (increasingly rare) tenured post at a respectable (if provincial) Midwestern state university. Granted that I’ve built and maintained a solid, if unremarkable, career in the world of letters over the last twenty-five years, why do I feel regret that, for a time, I was in the Boston-Cambridge literary scene Spivak describes in her memoir, but never of that world, never embraced?
Lowellian lions for students of my generation—Grossman and Bidart— spent countless hours with me in the classroom and in office hours, but neither offered me anything like the professional (and personal) support that Spivack received for almost twenty years from Lowell. When Spivack received a negative review for her second book of poems in the The New York Times, she spent the day curled up, like a sick daughter, in bed with Lowell and his wife Carolyn Blackwood. The couple fed Spivak tea and toast, and read her Coleridge, while she self-consciously joked about her Oedipal and Electra complexes until she napped? By contrast, I never saw the inside of Grossman’s Lexington house, even as I was his teaching assistant for several years. When I needed Grossman, my PhD advisor, to make a quick call of support to his former Brandeis colleague who now held a chair at another school where I had received a rare campus interview, why had my mentor denied me, falsely claiming he didn’t know anybody at the college where I had applied? Why did Bidart, after attending a reading at BU by Language poet Michael Palmer, inform me that he looked forward to being on my PhD thesis committee, but then never mentioned the offer again? Was I such damaged goods?
Perhaps I can’t admit to myself that Lowell simply recognized Spivack’s gifts in a way my “Lowells” did not recognize mine. Insecure to begin with, however, I have held on to the nagging suspicion that Grossman and Bidart were somehow ashamed of me. However, reading between the lines of her memoir, I offer another theory about why Spivack, so unlike me in this regard, could endure self-doubts about her attractiveness, creativity, intelligence, and social skills to cast aside insecurity and hang in there with Lowell, whose illness could result in split second shifts from gentle kindness to aggressive critique? Before I put forward my theory, let me express respect for Spivack’s sheer spunk and perseverance in the face of Lowell’s quixotic moods and overwhelming personality. She endured his hospitalizations at McLean that, at least in the first year, left her marooned in a drab rooming house. Gritty, Spivak absorbed, without being overwhelmed by, Lowell’s command of Latin, Roman history, and the English kings, of which Lowell, in his manic phases, believed himself a number.
So, given that Spivack does not imagine herself as especially talented, learned, or graceful, and since she does describe her doubts about being worthy of attention from Lowell and Bishop, why did she gain admission into the inner sanctum of Boston letters? By contrast, why do I perceive myself, accurately or not, as orphaned by Grossman and Bidart and thus left to fight on my own for a place on the academic margins in a provincial Midwestern town at a university far better known for producing engineers than poets? I think Spivack’s accessibility, her receptiveness to new experiences appealed to Lowell and to the others. By contrast, I came across as a brittle guy with a chip on his shoulder. Rather than celebrating my resilience, I was defensive about my modest upbringing. My father had died when I was 11 and I grew up on food stamps in an agricultural town, Homestead, Florida, best known today, if at all, as ground zero for Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and, more recently, as the site of detention center for immigrants. It never occurred to me to celebrate an affinity between my obscure background and that of Bidart, who hailed from the farming world of Bakersfield, California. Instead of connecting with other, albeit, older and more accomplished, misfits such as Bidart and Grossman, I was on the lookout for signs of disrespect. When a leading poet such as Mark Strand or Louise Gluck appeared at Brandeis to give a reading, I chafed at Grossman’s request that I find a water bottle for the visiting dignitary. As one who supported himself through graduate school as a custodian at the Waltham Medical Building, I feared the faculty perceived me as the department lackey. Deep down, I worried I was a water boy (but not heroic like Gunga Din). Unevenly shaven, hair greasy, hands slightly trembling, I feared looking anyone I perceived as my better straight in the eye. I took everyone in the Boston literary world as my better. Expecting rejection, I rarely asked my mentors for guidance with placing my scholarship and poetry, or for information about securing grants, fellowships, or academic jobs. My slouched bearing and saggy thrift tour tweed announced my lack of self-worth. I recall my trepidation at asking Professor Grossman for a perfunctory recommendation letter three years into my dissertation project with him! “My dear boy,” he said, stopping to puff his ubiquitous pipe. “If you don’t know I will write for you by now, I don’t think you have been paying any attention at all these last few years.” Reassuring? I guess. Sort of.
Setting aside our different levels of talent, gender, and distinct personal dispositions—Spivack (open, warm, willing) and Morris (prickly, resentful, suspicious, self-doubting)—, I nonetheless maintain that Spivack’s social background helped advance the relationship with Lowell. Spivack enjoyed cultural capital through her father, Peter Drucker, a renowned European Jewish immigrant economic theorist, journalist, and college teacher. My point is not that Lowell accepted Spivack under his wing out of respect for her father. (Perhaps reeling from guilt over the Holocaust, Lowell, who, like Berryman and Plath, imagined himself as an imaginary Jew with obscure Jewish ancestry, may have viewed Spivack favorably in part because she was the child of a diasporic Jewish family.) My main argument, however, has less to do with what Lowell saw in Spivack, then with how Spivack saw Lowell (and, implicitly, how she regarded herself when in the company of famous men and women). I believe Spivack’s familial and interpersonal experience with authors and intellectuals when young enabled her to tolerate feelings of inadequacy, ignorance, and not measuring up to Lowell, Bishop, and Sexton.
Spivack recalls years when her father taught at Bennington when now distinguished—but then still relatively unrecognized—poets such as Theodore Roethke and Stanley Kunitz (whose greatest fame came much later, from age 70 to 100!) were teaching there. She describes Roethke as an incoherent depressive who saw himself as a professional failure, toiling in obscurity, passed over by more flashy and socially-capable younger writers. What is telling for me is that Spivack describes Roethke’s insecurities, not as an anomaly faced by one paranoid man, but rather as the typical lot of an author. Roethke dealt with fears of imaginative failure that, she admits, all poets, explorers of the unknown, must endure by definition of their uncertain task. Spivack, in other words, was not taught to interpret lack of self-confidence in one’s art or social graces as a sign of fundamental, irresolvable personal flaw, as did I. Rather, insecurity was the common lot of all creative persons, even those as accomplished as Roethke.
Later in the memoir, Spivack recalls discussing the issue of rejection with Lowell and Sexton. Riffing on the language of income investment—a realm I knew nothing about—they come up with a “3 percent rate of return” on accepted submissions to literary journals. It would have been comforting for me to realize that “rejection” —the keyword that I read as defining my Boston decade – was not peculiar to me, and thus was nothing to take personally.
Of the generation of poets Spivack identifies as Lowell’s primary children, I spent the most time with Frank Bidart. Can anyone claim Lowell and Bishop as symbolic literary parents more so than Bidart? He is literary executor for both Lowell and Bishop and co-editor of Lowell’s Collected Poems. Spivack writes that Bishop and Lowell “loved” Bidart like a son. There are accounts that Bidart actually co-authored (or at least significantly edited and helped shape) Lowell’s final poetry books. Bidart’s own mature poetry ingeniously synthesizes modernist “impersonality” and postmodern “confessionalism.” He evokes the deeply personal explorations of psychic disturbance associated with Lowell, but, at the same time, Bidart distances himself from the speaker through modernist collage techniques and personae (masks) —Herbert White, Ellen West, Vaslav Nijinsky—that recall strategies of authorial detachment associated with High Modernists such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, authors who Lowell chafed against with his comparatively up-front style.
When I knew him, Bidart’s main academic job was as a tenured professor at Wellesley College. Because Wellesley had no graduate program, and because of Bidart’s respect for Grossman, as well as Brandeis’s tradition of supporting outstanding poets—J.V. Cunningham, Adrienne Rich, Mark Halliday, Mary Leader, Alan Shapiro, Timothy Steele, Ha Jin, John Burt, Mary Campbell — who studied or taught there—, Bidart offered a course on contemporary poetry on the Waltham campus. Pitched to undergraduates, Bidart, however, encouraged me to audit. After class, he regularly invited me to his office to continue to discuss poetry. These meetings with Bidart resembled the private tutorials with Lowell that Spivack recalls as a cherished part of her education.
What was the texture of the office discussions with Bidart? What, specifically, did we discuss? What was his approach to poetry? Context matters here. Grad school in literary studies in the 1980s was not the best of times for poets bent on aesthetic appreciation of the literary object, or for those who connected poems to the emotional lives of the people who made them. The 1980s were disorienting for naïve readers. By naïve readers I mean people (like me) who came to poetry and stories because, on a gut level, they (we) felt literature meant something to them (or meant differently in some difficult to define but nonetheless self-evident way) than other genres of writing (newspapers, history books). I recall my first deep connection with literature as a poor, fatherless, alienated Jewish kid from Long Island who found himself at South Dade High School in rural Homestead, Florida in the 1970s. The school’s nickname was still The Rebels, a Confederate Flag proudly adorning the gym walls during basketball games against multicultural Miami area schools. The Klan roamed freely down Krome Avenue and U.S. 1. I think of that “shock of recognition” I felt when discovering Kafka, Camus, Mann, T.S. Eliot, and Faulkner. I think of the uncanny feelings of being “at home” and yet never “at home” after finding my way into comparative literature professor Erich Heller’s course on Continental Fiction in the Fall of my Freshman year at Northwestern in 1980. I saw on Heller’s reading list the authors (and others I had yet to hear of such as Dostoyevsky, Rilke, and Sartre) I had connected with in Homestead, where the other kids assumed I had horns under my hair because I was a Jew. I saw on Heller’s reading list the same authors (and others I had yet to hear of such as Dostoyevsky, Rilke, and Sartre) I had connected with as a freakish alienated outsider, a pudgy, possibly queer, Jew who found himself in a land of kids who assumed he had horns because he was Jewish. Personal connections to literature (or to use the word literature!) seemed beside the point to most grad students in the PhD program. The post-structuralist climate at Brandeis in the 80s, ironically, made my meetings with Bidart that much more informative to us both. As Bidart’s poetry makes clear, he is a philosophical author with strong interests in metaphysics and religion. His great poem “Ellen West” from The Book of the Body (1977) is a meditation on the mind-body problem and on the relationship between presence, absence, and aesthetics through a celebrated set piece on the voice of Operatic Diva Maria Callas as it changed qualities as her body withered in old age. Bidart was by no means anti-intellectual—the dust jacket of his Collected Poems offers an etching by Giovanni Valpato of Raphael’s The School of Athens—and so even if aesthetic appreciation, so-called New Criticism, or biographical approaches to reading poetry were out of favor, Bidart curious about trends in Franco-American high theory. He would take what he needed from any influence and leave the rest behind. To the degree I understood what I was reading in classes on Literary Theory, I did what I could to explain to Bidart my notion of “differance,” “simulacrum,” “contingency of value,” “subject position,” and “death of the author.”
Bidart was curious about the postmodern theory I was learning with the Yale Mafia’s offspring. At the same time, he was working out his own ideas about being, time, language, body, meaning, sexuality, and art. Bidart’s poetics were rooted in traditional approaches even as his own poems benefited from avant-garde graphics. He attended to how poems were made (line length, enjambment, pacing, word choice), but also what poems implied about the emotional and social lives of the authors who made them. An innovator in the use of italics, capitalization, and punctuation to indicate timbre, tone, pitch, timing, and stress, Bidart was especially sensitive to poetry’s sound, texture, tone, and graphic appeal. Form followed function. He was a bird, not an ornithologist, even as he was not the kind of bird, such as an ostrich, who puts his head in the sand and turns a blind eye to the world as it changes around him. Bidart himself had been a PhD student in English at Harvard in the 1960s, when he first met Lowell. (His thesis was to have been on the poetry of Lowell!). Like T.S. Eliot and Charles Olson, other Harvard graduate students who became famously allusive 20th Century American poets, Bidart never bothered, officially, to complete his PhD.
Bidart’s teaching style was, paradoxically, intensely relaxed. Folding his large pale hands behind the back of his globular balding head as he leaned back in his chair, tipping with his feet the bar that held together the front two legs of the chair, thus lifting the front part of the chair a few inches off the floor, he waited to hear what we thought of the poem at hand. He was performing the quintessential Whitman posture of receptivity to other minds. He didn’t need to prepare lecture notes because he taught poems he knew by heart by poets he loved or whom he found perplexingly fascinating. He taught with a microscopic focus on the text. The placement of a period or dash, the choice of colon or semicolon, the cheeky tone of a parenthetical aside (as in the young Elizabeth Bishop’s brash remark that she “could read” in In the Waiting Room), the esoteric reference, line length, enjambment, or rhythm, these were elements Bidart turned over and turned again with us in class. Bidart used the chalkboard, writing out a line we were debating, and then rewriting it several more times. He would not change a word of the poem in the rewritten versions, but he would break the line in different places. He would try on different punctuation. Watching him tinker at the board, I thought of him, strangely enough, as a master car mechanic. It was as if he were lifting a line of poetry – instead of an auto chassis — with an hydraulic lift off the pavement (the page) so he could better examine the line. He was, so to speak, checking under the hood, to decide, if anything, what was wrong with the placement of the words, the grammatical markers, the line itself, and what needed repair. Bidart was wary of labels such as “confessional,” “beat,” “impersonal.” Close reading troubled any such categorical definitions.
He was interested in how major (unlike Lowell, Bidart didn’t use the term) contemporary poets developed over their careers. He noted that Ginsberg only came into his own in poems such as “Sunflower Sutra” when he incorporated his queer friendship with Kerouac into his narrative poem. Thinking back to his reading list, one could argue that Bidart, a gay man, paid special attention to other gay or queer poets. Ginsberg, Ashbery, Rich, Merrill, Bishop, and Frank O’Hara were among his main subjects, but I do not recall Bidart emphasizing (or concealing) that fact. (He taught Rich’s essay on “compulsory heterosexuality”). Bidart discussed poetry as if they were living documents written by full-fledged human beings, many of whom he knew intimately. As with family relationships, the closer one gets to a person the more difficult it becomes to define them by “subject position” or to categorize their motives via an overarching theory or encapsulating phrase. So, it turned out, was the case with poems and poets.
We spent time close reading poems from Lowell’s groundbreaking book, Life Studies (1959). Bidart encouraged us to interpret Lowell’s poetry as limited, rather than informed, by the “confessional” label attached to it by critic M.L. Rosenthal. To disprove the “confessionalist” moniker, Bidart paid special attention to the poem “To Speak of Woe that Is in Marriage.” As the notes to the poem in the Collected Poems, edited by Bidart and David Gewanter, point out, “To Speak of Woe” is itself deeply in conversation with literary and philosophical traditions. The sonnet’s title stems from Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath”; the epigraph is from Schopenhauer’s “The World as Will and Idea”; the poem itself “started as a translation of Catullus’s siqua recordanti benefacta” (1045). Lowell placed the sonnet in quotation marks because the poem’s speaker is not to be confused with a figure for Lowell’s autobiographical persona. Rather, it is spoken from the perspective of the author’s wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. In conversation with other poems from Part Four of Life Studies such as “Man and Wife,” “Home After Three Months Away,” Waking in the Blue,” and “Skunk Hour,” “To Speak of Woe that Is in Marriage” examines Lowell’s well-documented personal maladies, including his mental illness, addictions, manias, marital struggles, and infidelities. One could accuse Lowell of self-absorption because he restricts the lyric domain to the author’s quotidian failings, and thus of abandoning poetry’s long association with historical, mythic, social, and political themes. However, at Brandeis, Bidart stressed Lowell’s extension of his poetic vision beyond the narrow horizon of the monologic self through poems such as “To Speak of Woe” that point to the novelistic qualities of Lowell’s autobiographically inflected lyrics.
Bidart was interested in gift-giving and friendship as signs of intimacy and as creative spurs. I think this is what he especially loved about the poetry of Ashbery’s close friend, Frank O’Hara. In “The Day Lady Died” (1964), O’Hara describes with luxurious (even neurotic) detail how he spends his lunch hour (from his day job as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art). He selects unique gifts, as acts of memory and love, for friends he plans to meet at a weekend vacation home (probably on Fire Island, where O’Hara died in a tragic accident —or suicide? —when he was struck by a Jeep). In his obsessive, theatrical, even histrionic manner, Bidart clearly relished reciting O’Hara’s finicky, exasperated, humorously self-conscious process of indecision about which gifts to buy his friends in “The Day Lady Died.” It was not merely about whether to get Patsy some Hesiod, but a specific translation. Bidart emphasized the campy self-mockery about “practically going to sleep with quandariness.” He appreciated O’Hara’s invocation of taste (the good, the bad, the trashy) as an aesthetic value and interpersonal good. He noted O’Hara’s emphasis on specifically branded, often imported, distinctly urban, and idiosyncratic product selections. It was not a carton of cigarettes, but Gauloises, not booze, but the Italian herbal liqueur, Strega. The social experience of purchases mattered. O’Hara has not headed to a mall or supermarket, but pops in and out of specialty shops, cash in hand from a bank where he knows the teller’s first name. O’Hara is celebrating, in the context of a nascent consumer society, the creation of human significance through the registration of O’Hara’s Eliotic “visions and revisions” about what to buy for friends. Part of his gift is the sacrifice (and personal pleasure) of giving up his lunch hour to move through the hot city to buy extravagant stuff for them. A member of the art world who is not made of money—the teller, after all, usually checks his balance before handing over the bills—, he must draw precious funds to go on his shopping spree. On behalf of friendship, O’Hara has given up time, thought, funds, and endured mental quandary, in anticipation of the desired moment of social exchange. One senses that for O’Hara the payback will be well worth the fuss: the moment of reconnection with the friends and lovers on Fire Island or in the Hamptons. Perhaps he, too, will enjoy the Strega, Gauloises, and the Verlaine with the Bonnard drawings.
What makes the expectation of presenting gifts to old friends so poignant, and the sense of immediacy and temporal specificity in “The Day Lady Died” so moving, is that it is in the process of buying gifts that O’Hara learns of Holiday’s death from the New York Post. Knowledge of Holiday’s death (as opposed to anticipating his weekend holiday) draws him out of the moment, and away from desirable future images of himself bearing gifts. He turns back towards memories of hearing Lady Day at the Five Spot, a recollection that makes him sweat. The poet of the quotidian, of temporal specificity – “it is 12:40/ of a Thursday” he writes in “A Step Away From Them” — acknowledges the vanishing nature of pleasant experiences and the ephemeral nature of gifts including life.
I rehearse Bidart’s celebration of the energy, playfulness, as well as pathos, in O’Hara’s gift giving poem for two reasons. First, I recall literal gifts Bidart offered to me and to the other members of his Contemporary Poetry class. On the last class meeting he brought in an exquisite (and I’m sure quite costly) Black Forest cherry chocolate torte from a special little German bakery that I had walked by with longing many times on Mass Ave just past the Harvard Law School. Getting through grad school as a janitor and paid-by-the-course composition instructor, I would never have dared step inside to buy dessert there. Bidart, who in “Ellen West” explored anorexia as a metaphysical issue about body, desire, and control, seemed to be signifying with the rich cake the message of LET GO! Moreover, Bidart put in my mailbox in the English Department main office a signed, just off the press hardbound copy of his In The Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90. His inscription honors what he refers to as my exemplary care for poetry. What a gift.
Second, I understand Bidart’s willingness to take my interest in poetry seriously in our office hour discussions as a symbolic gift. Thinking of those meetings today I feel pride, gratitude, and I am even a little humbled. Here I was discussing poetry, not merely with a scholar or teacher in the field, but, as Spivack’s memoir makes clear, with the most trusted and revered heir apparent to the two most influential and canonized American poets since World War Two – Lowell and Bishop.
I think of how overcome I was in reading Spivack. Envy, resentment, anger, and regret took over when I remembered how I felt that Bidart and Grossman didn’t lift me into their circle in the way Lowell and Bishop and Sexton lifted Spivack. Yet as my account of my relationship with Bidart at Brandeis makes clear (even to thickheaded me!), Bidart did honor me. It would require another long essay to describe, but Grossman, too, provided me with incalculable attention and unforgettable knowledge that I bring with me into the classroom, study, and writer’s desk each day. I regret that I have waited so long to recognize my Boston years as a gift that has only grown in value over the decades.
Daniel Morris’s poetry has appeared in Agni, Colorado Review, DENVER QUARTERLY, Western Humanities Review, Southern Humanities Review, River City, among other print and online journals.. Professor of English at Purdue University since 1994, Morris is the author of three earlier poetry collections published by Marsh Hawk Press: BRYCE PASSAGE (2004), IF NOT FOR THE COURAGE (2010), and HIT PLAY (2015). This year, Marsh Hawk Press will publish his fourth collection, BLUE POLES.