Sunday, February 14, 2016

Spivack's With Robert Lowell

  Could I ever "have gone on the road" so to speak?  Poets have a "road" as well as singers and musicians.  I learned about it in college, but struggling on the GI Bill and having married with a kid on the way never seriously considered it.  But had I not married could I have gone?  I have been reading Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell and his Circle, published 2012.  Lowell was obviously "on it" as were Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton and little Kathleen.  I've never read any of Spivack's poetry, don't really expect much from it but ordered one of her collections just to see.  How can I assume something like that, that though she went on the road and became a successful poet that her poetry won't be great, perhaps not even very good?  She says, in effect, in her book, that becoming a "great poet" is to a great extent about "celebrity."  You needn't be a major poet who writes "major poems" to be successful.  You just need to become a celebrity like Lowell, Plath and Sexton. 
    Lowell before having one of his breakdowns would engage in something Spivack writes as one of his "'mirror, mirror, mirror on the wall.  Who is the greatest poet of them all' monologues."  Spivack doesn't give the impression that she was interested in being one, one who presumed to write great poetry, poetry like Elizabeth Bishop wrote.  Once Lowell asked his class whether they thought Elizabeth Bishop was a major or minor poet.  He loved Bishop and loved her poetry but, reluctantly, rated her not-quite-major.
    Kathleen Spivack was the daughter of Austrians Peter and Doris Drucker.  They fled Austria when they had to and Kathleen was born in 1938 (I think after they got here, but I may be wrong about the date).  Peter was a mathematician, renowned in Austria and before too long became renowned in America.  He wanted his daughter to become a scientist, but she failed all her science classes "on purpose."  Peter didn't understand English well enough to appreciate poetry but when Kathleen published her first poem in a major magazine, Peter was delighted and showed the poem to his colleagues.  He was very proud of her accomplishment, and Kathleen seems to be the same way.  She seems prouder of the fact that she studied under Lowell, became his friend and confident, and played ping pong with Elizabeth Bishop than she is about her poetry.  She isn't crass about it, but she values celebrity as did her mathematician father and, perhaps, as do all those who "go on the road."
    Of course "going on the road" doesn't mean that you can't be a "major poet," in Lowell's terms, but I've often wondered about Lowell in those same terms - that is, is he himself a major poet?  In the past I thought not, but all that celebrity, as seen in articles by PhD's making names for themselves by writing books about him, I succumbed and began reading more of his stuff, much as I've just started reading more by the celebrity-poet Ted Hughes (here in the U.S., I recently read, critics don't like Hughes' stuff, but back in England they think him wonderful, and if there was any problem with his marriage to that American blond Hughes-groupie, it was sure to be her fault). 
    Interestingly Hughes liked Anne Sexton better than he did Sylvia Plath.  Anne was the standout poet (partly because she was the best-looking perhaps -- this isn't a slur.  Spivack assisted him in the selection of students for his classes and he admitted this to her.  His female students needed to be good looking) in his class.  Plath according to Hughes, died before she had written more than five really good poems and so can never be considered major.  Anne Sexton was doing well with her ground-breaking confessional stuff, but she never grew beyond it which was a great disappointment to Lowell. 
    Kathleen Spivack lists names of poets from time to time, names of people she considers to be "fine poets," and perhaps they are, so I'm sending for a few of the books she considers exceptionally fine.  How after all can I trust my own views about such matters?  I started college after I had been a Sergeant in the Marine Corps.  How could such a person bow the knee like Spivack did and follow some celebrity deemed (by critics who followed those on the road) great, someone like Lowell?  I simply had the wrong attitude -- probably still do.

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