Sunday, November 25, 2012

A letter to Kathleen Spivack: With Robert Lowell and His Circle

A letter to Kathleen Spivack:  With Robert Lowell and His Circle

By Irene Koronas

Dear reader, I will review this book, initially, by addressing
it to the author, Kathleen Spivack. Please be reminded that
it is a review and I bring the review back to you as a reader.

Dear Kathleen

Last night, I first made my way to the bookstore,
and with some effort the young sales person helped
me find your new book, “With Robert Lowell and
His Circle,” on the shelf under the L's. Then I traipsed
off to a poetry reading with the book in my mind, anxious
for its story. I had to separate myself from seeing your image
as we greeted each other at the Saturday morning Bagel Bard gathering.
Once I left my own images and concentrated on the words
on the page and when much later I was open to the
newness of this book, I found myself engrossed with the
historical, instead of “an invert” relationships a new book
might offer.

By the time I left the poetry reading, with your book
still in a plastic bag begging me to open to the clean pages,
anxious to read about what I perceived as a glamorous time,
(from all the talk about Lowell and Plath and Sexton),  and
the supposed glamor of suicide, depicted in other books. I was
interested in your writing, your participation during those times.

Waiting down under in the subway, for the 77 bus, I opened the book
and read the introduction. Realizing we are from similar circumstances,
how we relate to the immigrant way, the accented language, the need
to be an American success story, brought me closer to understanding
the way the book is written. I read the beginning of the first chapter,
“Family” and then slipped the book back into my bag. When I have
more time I will read more. The book mark is on page twenty.

Dear Kathleen

“If pulled into the sexual orbit of this extremely
attractive person, one would be burnt to cinder.
Lowell, with all his genius and madness, would
make sure to survive. A girl would not.”

Kathleen, your intellectual life was on its way to maturity. The
beginning of the 60's was (and even now) a time of inequality
of circumstances, which lent to your feminine innocence.  Lowell
seemed entitled, (or what I perceive as entitlement) juxtaposed
with your young student's innocence, became a recipe for disastrous
consequences. Your writing presents this focused and broad under-
standing about Lowell, out of context, or in context with the times:

“at that time Millay was out of favor. She
was considered too romantic, too direct and
“out there” - a girl might have a passion for
her poetry. But I was in the land of oblique,
incomprehensible words, words one had to
struggle to understand. I was in Boston, the
Land of Harvard, with sophisticates who
spoke of poets I had never heard of.”

Lowell, being a multilayer character and teacher,  with his approach
to teaching, dogmatic and gentle, lends to an interesting read.
This is so clearly shown in the way you depict his everyday posture and presentation..
Your portrayal of the great poet Lowell is masterful. Your book is written
to be understood. (I thank you for that)

The poets become real and not a romantic rendition of who the reader
might want to think they are. This then gives the reader real under-
standing. Poetry is also the way a poet lives and thinks and all the
different ways a life may  lead to writing poems. Your writing
captures the nuances in the details. Their lives are perceived by your
discerning eye:

“On a particularly lucid day, Lowell passed out copies
of Sylvia's poem “sow.”
 I can still recall his somewhat nasal Southern-Virginian-
New England voice, oddly pitched, as if starting to ask
a question, saying to Sylvia and to the class “This poem
is perfect, almost.” A slight breath-gasp, nasal and out-
ward, as if clearing his sinuses silently, “There really is
not much to say.”  A kindly but bewildered look. Long,
struggling silence. Lowell looks down at the poem, brow
furrowed. The class waits. Sylvia, in a cardigan, does not
move. She listens. No one else moves either. “it appears
finished.” Long silence. Lowell looks agonized, but then
he always does. Anne fidgets. Realizing that her arms
draped with charm bracelets are making noise, she stops.
Sylvia leans forward, dutiful, expressionless, intense,

Dear Reader:

The descriptions of Lowell as teacher send goose bumps.
I think about my own reactions if I’d of been there. My youth
and inexperience would've caused my shyness to take a seat
in the back of the room. If I’d been an older student I would
scream obscenities and been thrown out of class. Spivack has
an acceptance. She has the vocabulary which enables the
reader to experience what she experienced, an acceptance
in being able to be herself even if it is shyness, she will take
her seat and observe. It is remarkable how the reader will
be able to relate to this book because of Kathleen's observations and note
taking. She is able to bring the events to life. Chapter after
chapter we read from this awesome book:

"How did Lowell manage to train so many poets?
perhaps it was the fact that if one survived those
classes, one felt tough enough to survive the outside
world, even as a writer. these classes were more in the
nature of an ordeal, a fascinating one, to be sure, than
in the nature of entertainment."

This book needs to be in every classroom of higher learning:

"Poems were often submitted to Lowell without
names on them; most of us preferred to remain
anonymous as much as possible. but of course,
being slyly, Lowell would flush out the unfortunate
author. passing out those smeary carbon copies
with a seemingly tentative bend of the head, a
kindly smile, he would somehow get the author
to confess ownership."

The writing pulls me into,  each page until I’m lost in Lowell's
circle. The sentences carry me beyond myself. I feel the intensity
of being in this poetry class:

"While many of Lowell's women-writer friends were
kind, if slightly patronizing, Anne Sexton, irrepressibly
exuberant, was genuinely warm. She had a way of
drawing me right in."

Spivack has the capacity to write about Plath, Sexton and Lowell
and all those people in the circle friends and family come to life ;
the way a good novel has the ability to bring them into our life.
"Her (Sexton) hands shook when she read her poems aloud."
Sexton was a formidable person in writing as in her life, she was
immediate, present, seemingly self assured, perfect in manner,
open to friendships and dedicated to her poetry and poetic friends.
"Don't let the bastards get you" was her refrain about rejection notices
and she had a drawer full of them. This was her refrain to her close
poetic friends, Kathleen, Kumin and Lois Ames. Plath had a magnificent
attitude, supportive to the women poets, writers in a world where women
were still trying to please their male teachers/partners/editors, yet both
Sylvia and Anne were focused on themselves, in an (almost)
pornographic sense, meaning, not minding being public, being
able to do what was wanted and also, taking advantage behind
closed doors or in the open class room:

"But Anne was something of a renegade. She broadcast her
messy personal life, rather than hiding it beneath a veneer
of polite and tightened fury. So Anne, by virtue of her lack
of formal education and by her "excessive" emotionality and
obvious vulnerability was a lightning rod for criticisms. She
inspired controversy."

The focus of the book remains centered on those poets who were in
Lowell's class. Kathleen seems destined to write about Lowell. I
came to this conclusion  by the references Kathleen makes about
how she came from her fellowship at Oberlin and was “chosen”
by Lowell for private study with him, and later attending a class with so many
soon to be famous poets:

“After my initial few months of terror, I relaxed. It seemed,
once I settled in to the armchair across from Lowell, surrounded
by books and words, that I belonged there, had always lived
in that world where poetry had such power. I had been waiting
all my life for these conversations. Now they were upon me,
in that Lowell read and led me to read and inquired into my
thoughts on what I read...”

The reading moves quickly, not too quickly, yet, in an absorbing manner.
I move from one page to another with great interest. I'm beginning to
find it difficult to continue reviewing, when all I want is to sink
into the pages without the distraction of having to stop and write about
what I'm reading. There are so many phrases I want to capture, to quote
that even if I'm not writing this review, I would be slipping the note
paper out and jotting down passages for my own future reference.

Dear Kathleen, you have written and important book. Your writing
has opened a door into the world where many great writers and personalities,
live. Your writing opens as a great novel opens, with a mind to history
as well as imagination and a sense of place that will remain eternal
because, “With Robert Lowell and His Circle” we come to see clearly
through a dark glass.

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