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With Robert Lowell and His Circle

Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz & Others

Kathleen Spivack

Publication Year: 2012

A memoir of a famous poetry circle In 1959 Kathleen Spivack won a fellowship to study at Boston University with Robert Lowell. Her fellow students were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, among others. Thus began a relationship with the famous poet and his circle that would last to the end of his life in 1977 and beyond. Spivack presents a lovingly rendered story of her time among some of the most esteemed artists of a generation. Part memoir, part loose collection of anecdotes, artistic considerations, and soulful yet clear-eyed reminiscences of a lost time and place, hers is an intimate portrait of the often suffering Lowell, the great and near great artists he attracted, his teaching methods, his private world, and the significant legacy he left to his students. Through the story of a youthful artist finding her poetic voice among literary giants, Spivack thoughtfully considers how poets work. She looks at friendships, addiction, despair, perseverance and survival, and how social changes altered lives and circumstances. This is a beautifully written portrait of friends who loved and lived words, and made great beauty together. A touching and deeply revealing look into the lives and thoughts of some of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, With Robert Lowell and His Circle will appeal to writers, students, and thoughtful literary readers, as well as to scholars.

Published by: Northeastern University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

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To the Reader

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pp. xi-xii

There was a preliminary list of topics I wanted to write about, episodic and sometimes simultaneous, like memory itself. I wrote in the brief interludes that were available to me at that time: in the hospital family waiting areas where, afraid and alone, I passed the days and nights. Whenever I had a moment, I scribbled down...

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pp. 1-5

He gave me formal letters of introduction to Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and other older women poets of the time. He introduced me to Bill Alfred and Stanley Kunitz, as well as to the British poets Jonathan Griffin and Basil Bunting. These became deep poetic friendships. I met Elizabeth Bishop through him....

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The “Family”

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pp. 6-12

Peter and Doris stayed and worked in London. Eventually our father was sent to America to write a series of newspaper articles on U.S. attitudes preceding entry into World War II. At that time my parents decided to marry, and they sold their wedding gift, a complete set of the Encyclopædia Britannica, to pay my mother’s shipboard passage. That...

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Oberlin and Boston, 1958–1959

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pp. 13-16

My little column, “Notes of a College Student,” largely consisted in holding up my end of a never-ending and feverish political exchange with my father, the writer Peter Drucker. The column was always due in on a Tuesday morning, and each Sunday night I called my father from the only telephone available in my dorm, at the...

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Early Days in Boston: First Impressions, January 1959

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pp. 17-18

It was winter, the streets of Cambridge filled with dirty slush. My mother was dubious. So was I. What kind of an adventure was I embarking upon? Coming to Boston was uncertain, and a bit gloomy. My mother did not say anything, but I sensed her sympathy. I had not yet met Robert Lowell, and had only an assurance to go on...

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First Meeting with Robert Lowell: Boston University, 1959

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pp. 19-23

I had already declared to one and all at Oberlin that I was going to work with him, and my senior year’s credit and graduation were dependent upon that happening. I was beginning to feel more and more desperate. I considered writing my English advisor, the kind Mr. Bongiorno, who had arranged this adventure for me. I continued...

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First Classes at Boston University, 1959–1960

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pp. 24-30

Interesting writers found their way to these classes: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, George Starbuck, Henry Braun, Donald Junkins, and, the next year, Stephen Sandy and Richard Lourie, to name a few. I watched from a vantage of nervous silence and did not learn the names of many of my peers. Either they were also reduced...

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Sylvia Plath, 1959–1960

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pp. 31-42

The woman next to me was “astonishing in her stillness,” as she was to write later. Sylvia Plath appeared perfectly composed, quiet, fixed in her concentration. She was softly pretty, her camel’s hair coat slung over the back of her chair, and a pile of books in front of her. Her notebook was open, her pencil poised. Everything...

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Robert Lowell’s Appearance

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pp. 43-46

The rest of his body expressed a hunched determination around the subject of literature — he slouched, shambled rather than walked, bending over to whisper some slight aside or mockery, some bit of gossip or slander, with a wicked softening of the mouth and glint of the eye, or a mild kindness, the face glazing slightly...

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Lowell’s Way of Teaching

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pp. 47-52

A poem examined in class might be only a springboard into Lowell’s imagination. After Lowell read a poem aloud, he pressed the class for deeper and deeper meaning. I remember one grueling session with “Homage to the British Museum,” by William Empson. A fairly straightforward poem, Lowell was determined to wrest...

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Anne Sexton, 1959–1974

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pp. 53-55

Anne was generous and immediately invited me to her house. I was to spend a lot of time there in the coming years. Her study was her sanctuary, invaded only by her two large Dalmatians, who curled at her feet and looked up at her adoringly as she composed her poems. For fifteen years we continued to work together...

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Later Visits with Anne Sexton: Reflections on Psychotherapy and Sleep

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pp. 56-64

It was easy to show poems to Anne. She was generous and could enter one’s work totally, so I relaxed into a waiting mood when Anne looked at a poem of mine. Not nervous or defensive, just watching that expressive face, those quizzical green eyes, the long fingers, almost as if she was reading braille. I waited, receptive to what she...

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Teatime with Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick

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pp. 65-70

Lowell’s study was at the top of his house on Marlborough Street, looking out on the famous magnolia tree and the watery spring sky. It was very quiet there. Lowell worked endlessly and carefully on his poems, painstakingly changing a word, a punctuation mark, and reading the poem aloud. He shared the books he was reading...

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Literary Boston in the Late ’50s and ’60s: Social Milieu, Class, and the Literary Tradition

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pp. 71-78

Coming as an undergraduate from Oberlin College to be Robert Lowell’s tutorial student, I was in the middle of the airless atmosphere of puritanical Boston and the Lowells’ house there. I met members of his family, his old school friends, and others. I was often around for cocktail hours or meals — too shy to eat anything...

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Significant Other, 1959–1977

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pp. 79-83

Mayer lived in a house shared with Henry Geldzhaler and artist Johnny Shahn (Ben Shahn’s son). The Japanese artist Yoshi Shimizu and others also lived there part of the time. The toilet, doorless, was in the hall; a shower occupied most of the kitchen; and Henry sat reading in his room with sunglasses on, no matter what hour of...

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Adrienne Rich, 1960s

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pp. 84-88

Adrienne Rich was the young woman poet in the early 1960s whom Robert Lowell admired the most. He held out her writing as an example to me of something to work toward. Adrienne Rich had won the Yale Younger Poets prize with her first book of poems. She was at that time a formally classical poet with restrained feeling...

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The Two Sets of Classes: Boston University and Harvard, 1959–1977

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pp. 89-95

Along with the women enrolled in his classes, Cal attracted a certain number of older, adoring women who came to audit and watched him raptly. One could speculate on these relationships — and we did. Sometimes these women would be completely silent for an entire term, sometimes they barely dared speak. They...

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Elizabeth Bishop and Ping-Pong, 1974–1979

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pp. 96-113

I visited Bishop in Cambridge at least twice a week. I adored her! It was light and fun and interesting, and our slant-wise, wacky personalities suited each other. She was idiosyncratic, unconventional. We played Ping-Pong, read poems, drank and ate extraordinary meals, laughed and talked of so many things. I was usually invited...

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Boston and Its Influence: Bishop and Lowell

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pp. 114-125

Lowell was attracted to Latin at St. Mark’s School, an Episcopal institution. He loved the classics. He was even nicknamed “Cal” after a Roman emperor, albeit a mean one. In a repressive environment, he found ways to rebel. The family was a largely commercial one; he was a dreamy boy. He lived the classics, and they were...

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Lowell’s Poet Friends: Frank Bidart, Lord Gowrie, Bill Alfred

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pp. 126-134

Of the later students in Cal’s life who became his friends, I was most familiar with Frank Bidart and the young Lord Gowrie. Frank first appeared in Lowell’s classes as a graduate student. He hunched over the table during the “office hours,” slumping onto his hands. He had a high forehead and exhausted eye sockets. He was tall and...

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Stanley Kunitz, 1971–2006

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pp. 135-142

Kunitz had undergone some hard times himself as a poet and person, and had transcended them. He had been a friend to Roethke and to other poets of Cal’s generation, and had survived the same struggles and self-doubts. His poetry has a compassionate quality that is extremely moving. It was as if Stanley had melded...

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Lowell and Women: Students, Friends, and Wives!

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pp. 143-150

In the later workshops and office hours at Harvard, the women played a quiet role. Many of them felt too intimidated to speak, and when they did, it was so softly that they were soon overrun by the more confident men. Gail Mazur, subtle and nuanced, occasionally brushed aside a curtain of hair, venturing, with a graceful gesture...

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Young Marriage in Somerville: A Small Apartment, a Mad Inventor, Literary Visitors, 1960–1977

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pp. 151-156

At one end of the large living room was his workbench, with power tools and bits of plastic and screws and all the materials that went into his prototypic construction of gadgets. At the other end was a couch and my writing desk, on which also rested a sewing machine, for at that time I still had the intention to make my own clothes...

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He Was Ancient! He Was Over Forty!: (After Office Hours at Harvard)

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pp. 157-160

I remember going to the Iruna with Grey Gowrie, at Bingo’s instigation. Grey confessed that he was having trouble getting up in the morning. Since I had been designated the “psychologist” because of my work with writing and writing blocks, I was supposed, so Bingo thought, to say something constructive on the subject. I sensed...

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The Underside: “Madness” and the Culture of Nervous Breakdowns

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pp. 161-167

So after I first arrived in Boston, and Lowell was suddenly inexplicably absent, it was a while before I learned that he was off having a nervous breakdown. What did that mean? Was he coming back? Personally, as his student I felt bereft, cut off, and slowly I began to realize that I was going to have to be my own teacher. The...

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Alcohol and Drugs

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pp. 168-169

Alcoholism was an integral part of New England — well, U.S. — life at that time. Alcohol, of course, figured heavily in American writing and movies, but it wreaked havoc with the personal lives of poets like Bishop and Lowell. When I look back, nearly everything was accompanied by the clink of ice cubes falling into amber...

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Gender and Suicide

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pp. 170-174

Perhaps the men and women writers who committed suicide were mirror images of each other, of the pressures that each faced. Many of the male poets seemed to come from a milieu where masculine roles were strictly defined. Hunting, shooting, fishing, fighting, and most of all, drinking, were seen as essential to the stereotype...

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A Gifted Young Student: Peter Kaplan, 1963–1977

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pp. 175-179

One morning in Lowell’s “office hours” I found myself sitting next to a very large, bearded man. He had an earnest look, short stubby hands, and a strong, unwashed odor. The hours went on, and during them I felt a large leg brushing mine under the table. I moved away as much as I could, but the leg followed me. So, too, did the...

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The “Po Biz”: Submission, Rejection, Money

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pp. 180-188

Once Lowell advised me to send my poems to Judson Jerome, an editor of a prestigious poetry magazine. Jerome wrote back that anyone whom Lowell recommended must be a terrible writer, a member of the loathsome East Coast literary establishment, and that there was no way on earth he would even read or consider my...

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“Genius at Work”: Revision, Presentation, Contribution

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pp. 189-197

Elizabeth Hardwick, Stanley Kunitz, and other friends of Lowell’s sometimes were fed up with his constant questioning and revision of each line. He was obsessed with a poem while working on it and demanded the same attention, or obsession, from others. Lowell flattered me, as he did later Bidart and others, by asking my opinion...

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Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell: Two Branches of American Poetry

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pp. 198-205

Beneath the formality of Emily Dickinson’s poems was a breathless tension that made her poetry so elliptical and so intriguing. Dickinson combined formal expression of controlled emotion with religion and delight in the natural world. Her work hinted at great love as well as delicate perceptions of nature and the world around...

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The “Romantics” Seminar, Harvard University, Spring 1977

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pp. 206-209

In his usual rhetorical style of inquiry, Lowell would read one line, “Oh Rose, thou art sick” and then pause. He took off his thick spectacles and rubbed his eyes; his fingers squirmed around the book. He asked, “What does Blake mean? What is the rose?” A long silence, as Lowell frowned downward at the page, and at the same...

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Final Spring, 1977

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pp. 210-215

Cal had been so much a part of my courtship and marriage, as well as of my poetry, the thing we both shared. There was a tenderness to him, outspoken, that had not always been there before. We had a pure and very quiet friendship, somehow independent of all the turmoil that had surrounded his, and my, private life. The instinct...

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Looking for Robert Lowell’s Grave, October 1977

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pp. 216-220

I had heard the Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky read his poetry at Boston University a few years before. Allen Ginsberg had read with him. Voznesensky read grandly, his leonine head thrown back, declaiming as if in Red Square. Then Ginsberg had read his translations of Voznesensky’s poems, “dovening” like a scholarly rabbi as he...

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Notes of a Witness

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pp. 221-226

As one relives these times with Robert Lowell, and with the poets that he trained, the experience becomes present again. Boston and Cambridge link with this and the even more distant past; the rainy glistening streets, the bookstores, the people shuttling through them emerge from ghostly presence into actuality. Those...


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pp. 227-229

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 231-238


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pp. 239

About the Author

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pp. 241

E-ISBN-13: 9781555537654
E-ISBN-10: 1555537650
Print-ISBN-13: 9781555537883
Print-ISBN-10: 155553788X

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 8 illus.
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Spivack, Kathleen.
  • Poets, American -- 20th century -- Biography.
  • American poetry -- Massachusetts -- Boston -- History and criticism.
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