Kathleen Spivack’s WITH ROBERT LOWELL AND HIS CIRCLE or Why I Left Boston–Part 2

With Robert Fitzgerald, I wrote a thesis on Theodore Roethke. Which one member of the Harvard anointed with a magna and one attempted to fail. A third reader was pulled out, passing me with a cum laude. At the time I was vaguely aware that the English department housed enemies, with opposite modes of thinking. I’d used Roethke’s own words and ideas about poetry to dissect his work–unwittingly falling into one camp. And thus attacked by the other.
The Boston confessional school, like the Harvard I attended, was marked by suicide, misogyny, alcohol, drug abuse, class stratification, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. This vocabulary is Spivak’s–and I am indebted to it. Spivack does more than admit this–she examines it in terms of both Lowell’s and her own life.
But at the age of twenty-one I had little grasp on this. After all, Boston was also politically radical and intellectually honed. It also seemed to rain or snow continuously, over low lying buildings, in a series of endlessly gray skies. My boots leaked. I coughed. It started to feel as nothing real was every going to happen to me again.
So I went to San Francisco and later Santa Fe, falling under the sway of the Beats in the person of Phil Whalen and ripples emanating from San Francisco Zen Center. The Beats were also misogynist, suicidal, alcoholic. San Francisco was also rainy and gray. But inside that fog was an endless supply of Chinese hot and sour soup, gamelons, performance art, and something that Boston never had–hipness.
I had come for a reason.
Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg appeared on the same stage and held the same anti-war politics. Spivack sees the similarities and well as differences in tow different American streams of poetry.
I am grateful she wrote this book. Do read it.

Did Anne Sexton Hate Me?

As an undergraduate, I went to many poetry readings. I learned how to listen, with a rapt (sincere or insincere) expression on my face. I learned to avoid drunken poets and would-be poets at receptions, and to not snicker when Beat street poets rose from the audience to spontaneously declaim about “the silver butterfly of life.”
I heard many famous poets read, but the big rock and roll event was Anne Sexton, at Harvard’s Saunders Theater, shortly before her death. She was dressed in a slinky black and white Mod outfit, sipping a highball. She looked–and felt–like one of those wicked queens in a Disney cartoon. The work was amazing, but somewhat lost on me, until years later. I was mesmerized by the feeling that she might crack. Right there. On stage.
Which she did not do. But instead received a standing ovation, like the prima donna she was. But I wasn’t standing up, nor was the friend I’d come with. Instead, two scruffy students, we sat, clapping, but seated.
Anne Sexton glared at us, and glared. Finally, intimidated, we stood up.
About a year later, she killed herself. One of her daughters was in my women’s history class and I was struck dumb by her look of pure suffering. I wish I’d been more of an adult then and known to have said something, anything, like “I’m sorry.” Instead, I sneaked a glance, and then looked away.