“Boston,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick in December 1959, “is a winter city,” not the flowering American Athens of literary legend but “defective, out-of-date, vain and lazy,” a promising destination only to those who naively sought “a lost ideal, a romantic quest.” Still a senior at Oberlin College, the poet and essayist Kathleen Spivack arrived in Boston less than a year before Hardwick’s anti-paean appeared in Harper’s Magazine. She had earned a scholarship to study writing with a prominent poet “acceptable to the Oberlin English Department” and wanted nothing more than to spend a year in San Francisco under the tutelage of Allen Ginsberg. Alas, as the apparent ringleader of the notoriously wanton Beats, Ginsberg failed to meet the staid Oberlin standard, so Spivack, “reluctantly, oh very reluctantly,” turned to “the airless atmosphere of puritanical Boston” and Robert Lowell instead. Despite Lowell’s solid critical reputation, neither she nor her advisors had read a word of his difficult poetry, but Lowell agreed to the arrangement and set into motion the defining experience of a young writer’s life.
In this record of that experience, from her first meeting with Lowell until his death in 1977, Spivack conjures Boston’s most laureled and learned inhabitants as they wrote, taught, drank, and confided within an urban landscape of poorly lit classrooms, chilly apartments, and greasy spoon restaurants. No stranger to the company of intellectuals—her father was noted economist Peter Drucker—Spivack nonetheless found ready acceptance in Boston’s academic circles unforthcoming: “The coldness of the Boston literary scene was not to be believed, and first attempts to broach that were impossible.” The new arrival’s introduction to her future mentor is a case in point. Lowell had no recollection of admitting her to his Boston University poetry seminar and, as her memory of their first encounter reveals, his demeanor could change in an instant:
“Who are you?” he queried mildly. He was eating his lunch, and looking abstracted. I had arrived in a rainstorm, in blue jeans and boots. “I never take anyone under thirty,” he countered coldly. He didn’t remember getting my letter, or the arrangement with Oberlin. I was stunned. As I stood in the crowded office, wet and depressed, not knowing quite how to handle his amnesia, Lowell took pity on me. “Would you like part of this sandwich?” he offered.
Eventually their friendship blossomed and “Mr. Lowell” became “Cal,” but not before Spivack witnessed more troubling mood swings, particularly the awkward classroom moments that preceded Lowell’s manic-depressive phases (“Cal’s prebreakdown periods over the years were mainly signaled by an increased and obsessive classification of other poets”). To her credit, she avoids rehashing the sensational anecdotes detailed in Ian Hamilton’s biography and elsewhere, admitting that she distanced herself when sensing a manic episode in the wings, a response that Lowell would notice afterward. For Spivack, as for most of his devoted students, Lowell’s emotional instability was secondary to his critical brilliance and encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history. She recalls that while he “always tried to find something good to say,” Lowell’s “opinions had the randomness of a natural event. Praise or damnation fell equally upon our heads.”
Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and George Starbuck, each no more than a year from publishing their debut collections, were among Spivack’s first Boston classmates. She quickly observed that the two female poets—who, with W.D. Snodgrass and Lowell himself, were to be forever linked with “confessional poetry”—couldn’t have been more different in taste and temperament. The formally schooled Plath admired Wallace Stevens; the largely self-taught Sexton favored William Carlos Williams. Coolly preoccupied, the conservatively dressed Plath sat in quiet contrast to the chain-smoking, ex-fashion model Sexton. Where Plath’s classroom demeanor “was serious, focused on the matter at hand, almost pained,” Sexton’s was the opposite:
Her entrances were dramatic: she stood at the door, rattling her...