Far from the Ocean: Robert Lowell at Iowa, 1953

....

O to break free, like the Chinook

Salmon jumping and falling back, …

 

I last spoke with my old mentor, Robert Lowell, in the spring of 1974. He was to give a reading that evening in a plain, somewhat dingy little room above the bar at the Queen's Elm Pub in South Kensington, a working-class section of London. The event took place under the auspices of the Writers Action Group. But who the sponsoring writers were and why the reading was to take place in this rather unlikely venue I don't now recall, if, indeed, I ever knew.

 

I had neither seen nor talked to Lowell in twenty years. Not that that's so remarkable. Because when I was a student of his in 1953 at the now much praised and often maligned writing program at the University of Iowa, I was just that—a student in his poetry workshop. The writing program at Iowa was, at that time, the only one of its kind anywhere in the world, small, and not yet a point of focus for much of anyone except Paul Engle and a handful of graduate students. Lowell's class numbered about twenty-five. John Berryman, Lowell's successor, cut the class to a core of thirteen. The survivors included W. D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, Donald Petersen, Jane Cooper, Shirley Eliason, Philip Levine, Paul Petrie, Melvin Walker LaFollette, William Dickey, Henri Coulette, and me. We certainly had, at the time, no sense of ourselves as anything special.

 

Our aims as fledgling poets were modest: to learn to write poetry well, and later to find a job somewhere, probably teaching literature. We were savvy. No poet we knew of, not Frost, not Auden, not Williams, had made a living from his art. We didn't, like later generations of workshop students, expect to go out and teach courses in creative writing. And we certainly didn't expect to be employed at prestigious and powerful universities. Any kind of college or university teaching job was hard to come by in the 1950s; moreover, our degree field was highly suspect. Donald Just ice began his post Iowa teaching career at the University of Missouri; Henri Coulette, at L.A. State (then a college); Paul Petrie, at the University of Rhode Island. Most of us kept those jobs the rest of our lives, except for occasional sorties as visiting writers to other more glamorous institutions. Children of the Great Depression and survivors of World War II, we knew how to dig in and hold on.

 

One of my workshop peers Philip Levine claims in his essay in praise of John Berryman that Lowell behaved like a Boston Brahmin, was bored to death with all of us and our poems, and played favorites in the classroom. I must have been even farther from the center of the action than I knew, because I recall neither his boredom nor overt acts of favoritism. If anything, Lowell permitted, whether from generosity or sloth, a wider range of what might be called "amateurism" than Berryman would allow later. In fact,

Donald Petersen's description of Lowell's classroom manner seems to me entirely accurate. ". . . he praised what he could in our poems and diffidently suggested that we consult other poets' works, to see how it was done this or that way. He seldom suggested any specific revisions."

 

I think Lowell saw himself simply as our instructor, and us as his students, certainly not his equals either in knowledge or skill, even our passion for poetry not entirely to be trusted, so he did not encourage familiarity. At thirty-six, he met all strangers, I imagine, with a certain natural reticence anyway. No doubt the notoriety brought him by the Pulitzer Prize for Lord Weary's Castle and an appointment as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, as well as by his personal troubles, contributed to his caution. He may also have been feeling still a bit bruised by the harsh response of the critics (including his longtime friend Randall Jarrell) to his most recent book The Mills of the Kavanaughs. In my own case, even if he had encouraged us to a bolder relationship, I certainly would not have been ready.

 

In fact, I can't claim to have known either Robert Lowell or John Berryman except in terms of what used to be called, rather chastely, the student-teacher relationship, a phenomenon which has pretty much been erased from workshop life. I was the poetry workshop's marginal man. I think I still am.

 

By marginal, I mean I was the greenest person in the room there in that corrugated steel barracks that served the workshop as both classroom and office. The barracks was one of fewer than a dozen remaining on the east side of the Iowa River after World War II had ended. There were one or two encampments of them elsewhere, converted by the university into married student housing. None of the classrooms in these huts had air conditioning, so on a hot day they were like bake ovens, and when the rains drummed down on them, all talk ceased. Paul Engle had managed to commandeer two of these buildings for his fledgling program; the director's office in the main one was the only administrative office on campus that could boast a full-size bathroom with its own shower, and a toilet

remarkable for its fiery hot water flush. Nonetheless, the workshop quarters were basically humble, and so was I. What I didn't know about poetry, the enormous amount I hadn't read, were facts borne in on me every day by the presence of my fellow poets whose educations were far superior to mine, as well as by a string of brilliant men tors at Iowa beginning with Karl Shapiro and Wallace Fowlie and ending with Robert Lowell and John Berryman.

 

Let me stress here that I'm being neither modest about myself nor exaggerating the literary prowess of my fellow poets. The next to youngest member of the workshop, at twenty-two, I had a Yankee

backwater high school education—good but thin, and a B.A. from a third-rate mid-western university. Donald Justice, by contrast, had a master's degree from the University of North Carolina; William Dickey had a bachelor's degree from Reed College and a master's in literature from Harvard; Jane Cooper had done summer work at Oxford, attended Vassar, had her degree from Wisconsin, and was on leave from teaching at Sarah Lawrence. They knew their stuff.

 

I was marginal also because I didn't live in Iowa City. Married student housing was booked up years in advance. I lived in a Czech section of industrial Cedar Rapids and hitchhiked twenty five miles daily to and from the university, sun, rain, or snow. A situation I didn't find at all unusual. My first wife and I had been married only a year and were on our first car, a used '46 Ford, a wedding gift from her father. We'd been teaching high school in a small town in the far northwest corner of Iowa, hardly a lucrative proposition in the 1950S or anytime for that matter. I had no family, and hers could provide us with only the most meager assistance. So we were living on the frayed shoestring her high school teaching salary

provided and paying rent on a tiny two-room apartment in a little frame house. (John Berryman attended a party there once and commented to my wife that the bathroom was so small there wasn't even room enough in it to fall down if you got drunk.) I had no scholarship help from the university (I'd done nothing to deserve one) and was in the workshop more or less on sufferance while I worked on an M.A. in English. In any case, in the 1950s, the writing program played no great role at the university. Kept on a short leash by a skeptical administration, it had at most only two or three assistantships to offer. It was a lean operation in lean times.

 

The fall Lowell arrived was marked by a sense among us that the ante had definitely been upped, that the workshop was moving onto a higher level. The mood was one of excited uncertainty, a sense that we were about to be seriously challenged. Not that the workshop had not been staffed by accomplished and highly recognized poets before—Karl Shapiro was still editor of Poetry magazine, in fact, when he commuted in from Chicago by train for his workshop classes. Perhaps our sharply heightened sense of anticipation was due to the fact that Lowell's fame was still very fresh and because he was known to be a complex and difficult man. He had completed a hospital stay only months before, recovering from one of the psychopathic episodes that continued to plague his life to the end. Of course, he had "the added cachet of his Harvard background; of having camped out in a Sears tent, in his student days, on the lawn of Allen Tate's house in Tennessee, until the Tates took him in; and of having studied with John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon College.

 

In addition, he was a Boston Lowell, related to both James Russell and Amy, a fact that probably played differently with each of the students in the workshop. Some of us—like Paul Petrie, Henri Coulette, myself—were not long out of the military; and had odd, mongrelly backgrounds distinguished more by luck and tenacity than by bloodline or old school ties. Without the GI Bill, we would probably not have come this far, or to this particular place. Our reactions were probably less matter of fact than, say, Donald Petersen's (who'd known Lowell at Indiana), or Donald Justice's or Jane Cooper's—more a mixture of curiosity, amusement, and awe.

 

I can still see Robert Lowell, sometimes, standing on the walk in front of the barracks - its large front window filled with a many-branched red geranium grown vivid and gangly and monstrous smoking a cigarette, leaning slightly forward, talking seriously if briefly to one of us. He was a large man, fairly tall, somewhat stoop-shouldered, and wore rather thick glasses. In fact, the brightness of Lowell's eyes and the low, mumbling, almost lisping quality of his voice remain in memory almost as powerfully as the

Pindarlike lines of the poems in Lord Weary's Castle. ("And blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill. / The Lord survives the rainbow of his will.") The eyes, distorted behind the glasses, were thick-lidded, aquatic, or like those of a man looking at you through bull's-eye glass. The voice was surprisingly southern, with a hint of fatigue or wistful amusement or complaisance in it. He was younger-looking than I had expected, and his clothes always looked as though he might have slept in them.

 

In addition to Lowell's workshop class, there was the more or less impromptu one we ourselves convened around the lunch table once or twice a week in the dingy and steaming cafeteria in the basement of the old student union: a kind of expanding and contracting court of complaint, a floating seminar in practical criticism, a rump parliament in literary theory, where we fed on each other's

praise and harkened to each other’s' criticisms. Poems were handed around, sometimes scribbled on, lamented over. The talk was free-wheeling, unfettered, sometimes even preposterous. No telling how

many bad lines and bad poems perished in those sessions. Probably not enough. But our little seminar brought us together in knowledge and ignorance and friendship. I learned an immense amount from my friends over those lunch hours.

 

Lowell's classroom demeanor was thoughtful and scholarly and marked by irony, offhandedness, and occasionally, dogmatism distilled to arrogance. "Looking at things a different way was always difficult for him," Paul Petrie recalls, "though he sometimes made a visibly painful effort to do so." Certainly, there was none of the all-out, energy-charged passion sometimes crossing the border into the histrionic that was later John Berryman's trademark. Lowell was deliberate, almost ponderous on occasion. He would lean forward across the wooden desk, his ever-present cigarette sending up its slender ribbon of smoke, waiting for our comment or reply. Other days he was more relaxed. "At that time," Jane Cooper remembers, "Lowell still hadn't done much teaching, and he seemed like an amateur in the best sense. Studying with him was like listening to inspired gossip, full of brilliant almost casual observations of how a poem could be made. .. . He always stressed what was most human in the work of contemporary and modern poets, most of whom he knew personally." His knowledge of poetry was broad as well as deep and his admiration for certain European poets, Rilke chief among them, was rivaled only by his respect for Virgil and Catullus. It may have been partly Lowell's influence that caused Henri Coulette and others to enroll in courses in the classics department, and which caused me later to undertake a translation of Rilke 's Letters to a Young Poet. He had a way, however indirectly, of pushing you.

 

I remember two conferences with Robert Lowell, although there almost certainly were others. The initial one was a kind of get acquainted session. All of us in the workshop were asked to turn in poems we'd been working on that might make up a set of work sheets for upcoming class meetings. Time has mercifully wiped from my mind any recollection of the poems I handed in, except that they were totally inadequate. Poor, lame, shrill little creatures.Had I been more mature as a writer and more knowledgeable I would have been embarrassed for them; instead I was hopeful Lowell was kind; he found intensity in them worth mention. He talked about Hart Crane's poems and his own, and about how intensity, while of value, sometimes obscured what one was trying to say. "It takes time," he said, speaking of the process by which good poems finally get written, then added laconically, "You can't hurry it." None of my poems made that first worksheet; none of them deserved to.

 

As a young poet, I idolized the work of Hart Crane; I loved its quirky vocabulary and its powerful compression. And I found similar qualities in Lord Weary 's Castle. By the time Lowell left Iowa, the cover of my copy was dog-eared and the dust jacket in tatters. What I thought most affecting in the poems of Crane and Lowell was their powerful emotional drive, their strong, enjambed rhythms. Lowell's poems, in particular, seemed marked by a tone of mourning and yearning older than the poems themselves. I associated this feeling, perhaps willfully, out of my limited background, with jazz, with, in retrospect, the blues, rather than with his recent Catholicism or with classical elegy. I'm sure I didn't articulate this view either very well or very confidently back then. I was keenly aware then, as I am now, that on any immediate level, any such connection must seem wildly fanciful. Very well then, let it.

 

Perhaps I made of Lowell and of Lowell's poems what I needed to. I was a Boston boy myself, and carrying all the bad psychic baggage of my mother’s early death, my father's desertion, and the string of foster homes I ran away from. Like Lowell, I was damaged goods. And still full of confusion, rage, and need, I read his poems as texts of anger and lamentation. I had only recently dumped all the constricting prejudices of my lace-curtain, Irish Catholic upbringing, rejected the church , and was living in free fall: Lowell had desperately embraced the faith I had cut myself loose from and then abandoned it, apparently as disappointed as I had been with its dogmas. Perhaps, in some way, I was the adopted son of his spiritual searching.

 

We never discussed any of this, of course. At least not beyond the surface details. I think I may have told him about my brief career, after my mother died, as an eight -year-old, would-be hooligan in the care of my aunt and uncle in Charlestown. I was from the wrong side of the river, of course, but he'd been something of a thug himself in grade school. And there is a sense in which evasiveness, rage, and rebellion, those poisons that leak from the wounded soul, are the same no matter what side of the river you're from. Perhaps he saw in the sometimes strained language of my student poems he was an exceptionally alert reader and, as the result of his own troubles, heavily into Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis – a tension akin to his own. Perhaps, in these sessions where nothing particularly noteworthy seemed to be going on, I was learning what could be done with the fear and inconsolable grief, the miserable knowledge, that come with too much pain experienced too soon.

 

So Lowell’s poetry and teaching have carried over into my life in a way he could not have guessed and might not even have wanted it to, a way I never realized until I began to write about it here. Wouldn't it be curious, if, of all of his students at Iowa, I was after all the one uniquely equipped by a wretched childhood to benefit from the full panoply of what he had to offer? It's even possible I was so involved in this silent dialogue of souls that I never noticed what others saw as his faults.

 

What I learned from him technically now seems to me of another order of importance. For example, after several decades of writing, I ditched uniqueness of idiom as a literary value, much as Lowell himself did in Life Studies in response to the urging of William Carlos Williams to use common speech. The early 1950s were a period of intense literary formalism in poetry presided over by Frost, Tate, and Ransom, as it had been earlier, by Yvor Winters. But in truth, during my time in the Writers' Workshop, I never felt

entirely comfortable—with rigidly defined poetic forms. I appreciated them and practiced them for their beauty and music, but I also felt that I was repeating the past, repeating work already done and done better by the masters of those forms. Whitman and Williams called. And the formal demands of my own spirit.

 

At Iowa in 1953, I was somewhat aware, as I think most of us were, that Lowell was struggling with a similar disaffection, that he had begun to find rhyme and scansion a "hurdle," an impediment "to what you want to say most forcibly" as he wrote Williams later. And it would be four more years before he published his first relatively unmeasured verse. It would be even longer before I would make my own small revolution in Some Versions of Silence. My work over the last decade, while it shares Lowell's late passion to say clearly "what happened," has also moved yet further away from his in the direction of an often wholly improvisational method.

 

Certainly, I owe my early belief in revision to Robert Lowell. His reputation as a tireless reviser of his own work preceded him to Iowa City. An obsessive craftsman according to the literary grapevine, he was an aggravation to his publisher, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, revising lines and phrases in his poems even after a book had gone into page proof. Robert Giroux tolerated this expensive habit, apparently because he felt Lowell was already a major poet.

 

One day, in a class given over to talking about revision, Lowell surprised us by handing out dittoed sheets of one of his long and as yet-unpublished narrative poems, "The Banker's Daughter." It was an uncharacteristic act of humility. The poem, as he perfectly well knew, was so unfinished as to have some real clinkers still in it (e.g., "Ring, ring, tired bells, the king of Rance is dead ..."). Nevertheless, he read it to us and then talked about European history and its possibility as subject matter and what he was trying to accomplish in the poem.

 

"The Banker's Daughter" in particular, of his recent long narratives, had caused him a lot of trouble and indecision. He had already cut it by a quarter in the 120-odd line version he showed us. When he finished reading it, he said. "It's a bit too long, I think, and slack in places. Do you think it's turgid?" Donald Justice remembers someone said, "Yes."

 

A year or so later, I saw, in the Partisan Review, a very much shorter version—fifty lines or so. And a year later, in another magazine, still another longer version. The version he finally printed in part one of Life Studies, six years later, is about a third the length of the draft he presented to us that spring afternoon in 1953, with the result that the poem is more sharply focused and clearer. It was one of the last poems Lowell would write in his grand manner.

 

My last meeting, as a student, with Robert Lowell, took place at the end of the fall term. Everyone in the class had turned in "finished" work, and he was to offer a final opinion. I'd had a miserable season; my poems were still strained and clumsy and marred by melodrama and a lot of false emotion. I had a pile of ruled pages full of doodles and pencil-smeared failures. Most of one notebook was given over to a poem I was trying to write about my mother's death and the devastation that followed. I told Lowell that all I had to show him was the notebook and that there was nothing in it polished enough to be worth his looking at. He advised me to turn it in anyway.

 

A week later, when I went in for my conference, I found him, to my surprise, encouraging. I think it was during this meeting that he asked me the details of my growing up in Boston and Charlestown, and my years in foster homes. It was certainly during this meeting that Lowell suggested I try a narrative framework for the poem. Clearly, the lyric forms in which I'd been laboring so unsuccessfully were too narrow to accommodate the material I was trying to cram into them. Later, when I reached the privacy of the student union lounge or my library carrel and opened the notebook to see what comments he'd made, I found a 3 x 5 card tucked between two pages; the grade of B had been written on it in blue ink. Below it, the accompanying note read, "I think your writing is surely getting somewhere. It's hard for me to judge 'My Glass Brother' in its present form, but your language is intense and your stanzas are compact. You should write more, I think." It concluded with a short sentence: "I expect you will be publishing soon." I was stunned.

 

For a long time, I had trouble imagining what he saw on any of those pages, beyond perhaps an image or a line or two, that might have led him to write such a comment. I told myself that he was just being kind to a struggling young poet. So I thought, until 1955, two years later, when Karl Shapiro at Poetry accepted and published "My Glass Brother," a lyric poem laid down on a narrative base, drafts of which I'd been struggling with for three years by then in spiral notebooks. Only a half-dozen lines and phrases from the draft Lowell saw survived, I think, into the final version. But, in Lowell's eyes, they must have been enough.

 

Robert Lowell may have disliked his days in Iowa City. In fact, he commented openly on the "sterility" of the Midwest on the dust jacket of De Snodgrass's Pulitzer Prize-winning Heart's Needle. But if he found life in Iowa City "a pretty dormant, day to day thing, a rather rustic pastoral after Europe," he also found it remarkable for its "light, space, and cleanness." And in at least one letter to Allen Tate he wrote that his students were pretty good. Whatever else may be true, twenty years later, Lowell remembered this period of his life with pleasure and a certain amount of pride.

 

That evening in 1974 Lowell entered the Queen's Elm Pub in South Kensington in the company of half a dozen people. One woman, thin, pale skinned, and aristocratically beautiful, stood out. It soon became clear she was Lady Caroline Blackwood, his third wife. In her full-length fur coat she seemed out of place amid the scruffy audience of students and writers crowding into that dim, tiny meeting room above the bar. About thirty folding chairs had been arranged in several rows. And there were one or two other odd

pieces of furniture, including a straight-backed chapel pew. The event had been virtually unpublicized, and it was clear the Writers Action Group wasn't expecting a large audience. Lady Caroline paused a moment beside her husband, and then took a seat in the back, at some distance from two silver-haired matrons of the Empire properly gloved and hankied who'd arrived early. Lowell had aged greatly since I'd seen him last. He was partially bald now and wore the remaining hair, now pretty thoroughly silvered, long in the back and on the sides in a kind of lanky tonsure. He seemed overweight and tired, or at least languid.

 

After a few minutes had elapsed and he was seated, I went over to speak to him. I hadn't expected him to remember me, and at first he didn't. Or if he did, it was only as part of a moment buried deep in the past. But then, his memory seemed to clear, and he began to speak warmly of his days in Iowa City and his class of aspiring poets, asking about Donald Petersen and recalling Phil Levine ("he had a little diary about Spain, didn't he? Rather nicely written, didn't you think?"). As we sat talking, we were interrupted by a young girl from Radcliffe who wanted him to sign a book for her. By way of introducing me, he said, "This man was a student of mine at Iowa almost twenty years ago. That was a great place. Only twenty students—all of them good. Most of my students from there have published books, you know." Then, turning to me, he said, "That was a golden time, wasn't it?" I hesitated a moment in mild shock, because like many others I'd shared for years the general myth of his unhappiness at Iowa. I don't know what I'd expected him to say; but it wasn't that. Then I laughed and said, "Yes, it was."

 

That night Lowell read only translations: of Villon ("After hearing Villon in the original French, I have a strong desire to revise it."); of Dante ("I'm going to skip the next six lines; it's prophecy and obscure."); of Leopardi ("Someone once said that, in his poems, the splendor of the writing overcomes the misery of the subject."). The group that had accompanied him to the reading were friends who'd assisted him with the translations, and they preceded him, reading the poems in the original languages: ancient Greek, Italian, French, German, and Russian. He himself read well, punctuating and emphasizing his commentary with what my wife later characterized as his "little boy gestures." A young writer friend, an American, who accompanied us to the reading that night said that Lowell's brief introductions to each poem had struck him like "whole semesters of coursework"; and the poet himself, as "a broken man, a felled giant." Lowell's voice was the same low, melancholy voice I'd heard for the first time nearly twenty years earlier, back in those converted steel barracks by the Iowa River, still strong if tired and a little slurred perhaps by drink or medicinal drugs.

 

At the end of the evening, my wife, my friend, and I said goodbye, and Lowell signed books for us in his almost completely unreadable script. (I've only now figured out why his inscription has remained a puzzle to me all these years. Below the printed "For Robert Dana / With Keen Happy Memories of Iowa / 1952?" he'd scribbled only his first name, "Robert.") He rose from his chair then and asked how long I'd be in England, and said rather wistfully, or so it seemed, "Well, it would be nice to get together." But

I was leaving in a couple of days for the States and he, for Italy. I shook his hand and thanked him for the fine reading. Then, my wife and friend and I separated ourselves from the crowd, descended the dark stairs, and walked out into the chilly London night. I never saw him again.

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