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Poetry and Social Class: Robert Pinsky on His Many Readings of Robert Lowell

“A book I didn’t like, and for years ignored, had opened new possibilities for people I admired.”

Life Studies is Robert Lowell’s best-​known and most influential book. It won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960. I read it in 1962 and I hated it. In a shallow way, my dislike was a matter of social class. I said aloud to Lowell’s book, “Yeah, I had a grandfather, too.” Like my fellow would-​be urban Beatniks at Rutgers, I preferred the manners of Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”—​the poet reading the Hebrew prayer for the dead while listening to Ray Charles and walking the streets of Greenwich Village.

A year later, when I arrived as a graduate student at Stanford, I entered a culture more bucolic than what I had known at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey—​the home state of Ginsberg, with urban New Brunswick about an hour from those Village streets. Surrounding the sleepy Palo Alto of those days, an actual village, the future Silicon Valley was still a place of horse ranches and apricot orchards. Leland and Jane Stanford had founded the university on their ranch, in 1891, and the school’s affectionate nickname for itself was “the Farm.” In Palo Alto, too, as in the quite different literary and urban terrain of Rutgers, Robert Lowell’s poetry was not held in the first rank of importance.

But five or six years later, in 1970, I took a job teaching at Wellesley College, not far from Boston and Cambridge, where I met poets who considered Life Studies a major work of art. For my impressive new friends Frank Bidart, Gail Mazur and Lloyd Schwartz, Lowell was the great living model of a poet. Life Studies had been transforming for them. A book I didn’t like, and for years ignored, had opened new possibilities for people I admired.

Rejecting Life Studies on first encounter was partly a conventional reflex, an automatic dislike for inherited privilege.

Rejecting Life Studies on first encounter was partly a conventional reflex, an automatic dislike for inherited privilege. But the resistance I felt goes deeper, involving qualities of idiom and imagery, and—​even more—​their cultural implications. In the personal narratives and declarations of Life Studies, many readers valued a directness that for me lacked an antic, disjunctive quality I prized in American life and poetry. Lowell’s autobiographical poems felt humorless and foursquare. They were not enough like the movies of Mel Brooks or the eruptive comic strips of Walt Kelly.

It was not just social class. Leaving aside laugh-​out-​loud comedy, an example in poetry of what I mean is the work of Marianne Moore. The social voice in her poem “Silence” is not exactly working class or ethnic. On the contrary, that poem begins:

My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard…”

After quoting her father’s distinctly upper-​middle-​class assertion, Moore presents a memorably outlandish, inexplicable image for self-​reliance: a cat with “the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth.” The image comes from left field, mixing different registers of attention (Longfellow, glass flowers, shoelace) with an insouciance I find inspiring. Lowell, I thought, would never come up with that cat.

The oblique collision Moore creates between her father’s social place and the cat’s prey has a quality I admire in the work of Alan Dugan, whose Poems and Poems 2 came out around the same time as Life Studies. Dugan’s books were much more my speed. His (possibly legendary) ancestor Old Billy Blue Balls was wounded so he had “two ass-​holes.” Dugan has him say, “The North won the Civil War / without much help from me / although I wear a proof / of the war’s obscenity” (“Fabrication of Ancestors.”). Life Studies was more decorous.

The manic moods of Dugan, Ginsberg and Moore in their different ways included a sense of the ridiculous. Lowell’s mania felt more somber and grand. Maybe those other poets were simply more appealing for a child of Sylvia Pinsky, with her rude jokes about Ruthie Edelstein’s ass filling up a picture window—​not a Lowell image.

Another poet I valued more than Lowell was Elizabeth Bishop. Her poetry had a recklessly candid darkness I loved. For example, the lonely interior landscape Bishop creates in “Crusoe in England”—​a symbolic self-​portrait without vanity—​is not heroic or wistful. The island is harsh, monotonous, infertile and volcanic. More directly autobiographical, the childhood memory of Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” has a humdrum surface so completely realized that it can contain “rivulets of fire,” cannibalism (“long pig”) and horrifying breasts. Bishop’s tough, sardonic way of writing about herself was bracing.

In the same spirit, I relished Dugan’s “How We Heard the Name,” a poem in the voice of a drunken soldier floating downriver on a log, addressing locals gaping at him from the banks of the river. Floating by, along with that laughing soldier and his log, are:

dead horses, dead men
and military debris,
indicative of war
or official acts upstream

The pair “war / or official acts” pleased me, and I liked how the river was also history and how the laughing, disrespectful soldier was also Alan Dugan himself.

Over the years, I mostly outgrew my dissenting first impression of Life Studies. I learned to appreciate the somber, restless music, for example, of “Skunk Hour,” with “A car radio bleats / “Love, O careless love,” and the garbage-​scavenging mother skunk in the book’s last lines that “jabs her wedge-​head in a cup / of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail, / and will not scare.”

Was my difference from those Cambridge friends partly regional? After I left Wellesley, returning to California in 1980, I discovered my Berkeley students were indifferent to Lowell’s work. Theirs was a mellow version of my irritation with all those proper names, lines like “The farm, entitled Char-​de-​sa / in the Social Register, / was named for my Grandfather’s children,” in a poem entitled “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow.” The young Californians in my Berkeley classes didn’t say to the book, “Yeah, I had an uncle too.” Mildly, they explained to one another that Lowell’s concentration on his family history was an East Coast thing.

Moving between the coasts a few times has taught me about the way works of art, like people, might have different stature in different social settings. In the 1980s it was a story of two Roberts. Among young poets and academics in Boston, Robert Duncan was a little-​read, peculiar figure on the outskirts of attention, while Robert Lowell was a major artist, his work a central, commanding presence. For the young poets in Berkeley, and for my colleagues in the English Department there, Duncan’s writing was a vital achievement at the center of living poetry. I remember Duncan stalking through a hallway in Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall to visit someone’s class, wearing a cape, like the superhero he was in that place and time.

Moving between the coasts a few times has taught me about the way works of art, like people, might have different stature in different social settings.

East and West, I missed out on some good things because of the shyness or arrogance, or whatever it was, that kept me from ever completely joining the life of either Boston or the Bay Area. In Berkeley, I witnessed my social group’s devotion to good food, natural fibers, elegant sporting goods and hikes in Wildcat Canyon—​a consumer paradise that brought out the skeptical, New Jersey sourpuss in me, even as I took pleasure in the food and the scenery.

In a mild, privileged way I was a Kirk Pettiford on either coast, an outsider with a discordant knack for certain things. It could be that my origins were too remote in spirit from both Cambridge and Berkeley. I try to comfort myself with one of the first things Homer tells about the most human of all the heroes, in the first lines of the Odyssey: “He saw the cities of many peoples and he learnt their ways.” Unheroic, but something to aspire to, I tell myself. I treasure the poet Tony Hoagland’s words in a review of my first book: “What has six arms, an enormous appetite, and roams over the earth devouring experience with omnivorous reverence? The poet Robert Pinsky, that’s who.” I cling to the idea of “omnivorous reverence” and to the verb “roams.”

Or maybe that’s a rationalization for what I missed by not getting the apprenticeship of attachment to an older poet in the generation of John Ashbery, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich—​in other words, the contemporary poetry of those days. I read poems by those living seniors, but never as their devoted student in the way I was a devoted student-​as-​reader of the earlier Modernist generation of T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, H.D. and Ezra Pound. Whether Pound would like it or not, he was now my Ezra Pound, my flawed but vital teacher.

I had read Williams’s statement that when he was young he memorized Francis Turner Palgrave’s old-​fashioned The Golden Treasury, a large, popular anthology of historical poetry. Williams’s memory of that early attachment made me feel better about my efforts to study as an apprentice of dead poets from Fulke Greville and George Gascoigne to Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Whatever the terms mean, I was more interested in “poetry” than I was in “contemporary poetry.”

When people heard I was working on a book about contemporary poetry, I remember questions like, “Will there be a chapter on the Confessionals?” Um, no. “On the Beats?” Well, it’s not that kind of book. “Chapters on Dickey, Plath, Berryman, Bishop, Olson?” No.

I could see from the person’s face a gradual conclusion that I wasn’t really writing a book, just pretending. When I finished The Situation of Poetry I resisted the publisher’s urging to re-​title it something snappy like Poetry Now or Poetry Today. The book makes unlikely pairings, comparing Allen Ginsberg with George Gascoigne, Sylvia Plath with John Clare, Frank Bidart with J. V. Cunningham, Louise Bogan with Frank O’Hara. The single poem with the most pages is Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” (Second most, James McMichael’s “Itinerary.”) If I were a thirty-​year-​old writing the book today I might compare the feeling of “wonder” as a noun in poems by Danez Smith and Ben Jonson. I write about Lowell not as “confessional” but in relation to quoting and dramatic monologues.

For my poet friends in Cambridge, Lowell’s central importance was embodied by his Office Hours—​the initial caps seem right for those unique sessions he ran in a seminar room at Harvard. That weekly event was an erratic writing workshop, with interjected lectures. About thirty people, many of them Office Hours regulars, most of them not actual Harvard students, sat at a big central table or in chairs around the room’s perimeter. Each week, various people brought photocopies of a poem they had written. After an awkward pause one of those people, maybe someone chosen by Lowell but sometimes a confident soul volunteering spontaneously, would hand out copies of their poem.

I did not live in Cambridge but in subsidized housing for married faculty at Wellesley College, out in the suburbs. With a full teaching schedule and three children, I could not have gotten into town for those peculiar séances if I wanted to—​which I did not. But one semester when I was on leave from Wellesley, just back from a year in London and not yet teaching, I did attend two or three times.

It was impressive to hear Lowell responding with his daffy insight, often allusive, to those photocopied poems. Sometimes well-​known poets who had published books brought their new work to the Office Hours, with Lowell in a double role as peer and master. He managed that duality with his habit of drifting to enlarge any question or example. I respected how he would bring up unexpected comparisons to William Blake or to Edna St. Vincent Millay—​all in his peculiar accent, sort of quasi-​Southern, a unique personal invention. Somebody told me the fabricated drawl was Lowell’s way to disavow Boston by resisting its manner of speaking.

For all his eccentricities—​famously abundant—​Lowell had class.

At one of the sessions I attended, encouraged by my friends, I brought in a poem, and Lowell praised it. What he said I can’t remember precisely, but I’m sure he wove my poem into his endless, thrilling and obsessive ruminations about poetry. Nothing was more important than the art and its history. In conversation he might at any moment erupt into an interrogation:

“Where is Alexander Pope’s best writing, do you think?”

And then, while you were still fumbling for an answer:

“Many people might say the ‘Essay on Criticism,’ written when he was practically a teenager, but politicians and everybody else are always quoting the ‘Essay on Man.’ ”

My other memory from those visits to the Office Hours was a moment when I disagreed with Lowell. It wasn’t as bad as my saying, “I’m surprised at your ignorance,” to Mr. Kolibas back in the eighth grade, or the high school duel with Mr. Pulaski. Whatever I said was more like, “I disagree” or “I think you’re wrong about that.” What I remember is not anything Lowell said next, but a kind of choral gasp from the room as a whole. I was breaking a rule.

Lowell himself more or less shrugged. For all his eccentricities—​famously abundant—​Lowell had class. My guess is, he was amused by the absurdity of the mouthy, overconfident young Wellesley professor, by the audible shock of his own followers at that reckless dissent, and by his own boredom while presiding over the moment. He later wrote an excellent blurb for Sadness And Happiness, my first book of poetry, even though he knew I did not admire his work intensely, the way Frank, Lloyd, Gail and many others did. Maybe he taught me a lesson that Mr. Pulaski had not, and I was still too raw and silly to get it.

Lowell could be funny in a digressive, absurdist way. Somebody’s poem reminded him of the time Julius Caesar stopped his entourage outside the house of Cicero so the two of them could chat about literature. The horses and soldiers and palanquins and sycophants waited in the street while inside Cicero’s place Caesar and his frequent opponent talked about writing. Lowell described the scene in that peculiar drawl-​without-​a-​region, pinwheel eyes behind his glasses, with no transition between scholarship and goofy riffs. I remember how he threw in the name of a contemporary rival:

“And so Caesar and Cicero talked while all the nobodies waited outside. The two of them chatted—​you know, they chatted about good prose and about oratory, and about the writers and politicians they both knew. They gossiped about Jim Dickey.”

For me, the West Coast alternative to Lowell was not Robert Duncan but Yvor Winters, my teacher at Stanford in the years between Rutgers and the days of Wellesley College and the Lowell Office Hours. When I went to California that first time, the farthest west I had been was Flemington, New Jersey. I had only a vague idea who Winters was. I knew his reputation as a rigid, conservative academic, a stiff and graceless prig. Shortly after arriving in Palo Alto, before meeting Winters or taking a class with him, I read his essay “Robert Frost: The Spiritual Drifter as Poet.”

“And fuck you very much!” I said to the book. I actually threw it across the room. The essay was a dismantling of Frost’s philosophical evasions, his hints and feints toward the Emersonian thinking that Winters considered a fatally sloppy, anti-​intellectual current in American culture. Even while praising Wallace Stevens or Mina Loy as great poets, he called attention to defects in their ideas.

For them, poetry meant the entire, monumental history of the art, not just the mere local neighborhood in time of their contemporaries.

His customary line was that he had read every poem by every poet of any reputation who wrote in English, and had made his own judgments. If you wanted to disagree with him, you ought to do the same. He and Lowell both had a total, undiluted concentration on poetry—​nothing was more important, for either of them. For them, poetry meant the entire, monumental history of the art, not just the mere local neighborhood in time of their contemporaries. Thanks to Winters, I learned to read the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets whose work I love. George Gascoigne’s longish poem “Gascoigne’s Woodmanship,” with the poet’s account of his failures and sincerities, moved me.

Even while throwing his book across the room, I was surprised by the subversive, comical grace of Winters’s prose. His sentences with their outrageous opinions and poses were light on their feet in a way that reminded me of Oliver Hardy dancing with defiantly ironic elegance, the fat man possibly a better hoofer than Stan Laurel, in their duets. Unlike Hardy, Winters could be vicious as well as nimble:

The only important difference between a chimpanzee and a professor of English is that the professor has a greater command of language. The professor may think himself more handsome, but the chimp thinks otherwise, and the chimp is beyond argument the better athlete. The chimp, of course, would not admit the one kind of superiority which belongs to the professor, because he does not know what it is. The only important difference between the professor and a distinguished poet is that the poet has a greater command of language; but few professors will admit this difference, because almost none understand the nature of the difference—​it is for this reason that nearly all are so feeble when they come to the defense of their profession.

He was a dominant figure within his Palo Alto corral in a way completely different from Lowell’s centrality in Cambridge. Lowell was an eccentric magnet. Winters was a relentless dictator. He imposed his often crazy literary opinions onto his Stanford disciples, known as the Wintersians, and they saluted. I can remember arguing in his seminar, in defiance of the Wintersian line, that William Butler Yeats was a better poet than T. Sturge Moore. Winters had said the opposite. The disciples in the room smirked at my error.

But I learned more about poetry from Yvor Winters than from any other teacher.

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Excerpted from Jersey Breaks: Becoming an American Poet by Robert Pinsky. Copyright © 2022. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.

Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky is the author of numerous books of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Figured Wheel, and prose, including The Sounds of Poetry. He served as United States Poet Laureate from 1997 to 2000, during which time he founded the Favorite Poem Project. He has edited several anthologies, most recently The Book of Poetry for Hard Times. Pinsky teaches at Boston University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.





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