Crazy Poets Society

Michael Dirda reviews Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell and His Circle, a remembrance of the remarkable 1959 seminar the poet taught at Boston University, whose students included both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. An anecdote about his idiosyncratic classroom mannerisms:

Lowell’s teaching was eccentric and largely "rhetorical, as if the class were a frame for the expansion of his own opinions." He would repeatedly ask, "What does this poem really mean?" There would follow "long, agonized silences, while the class held its collective breath and hoped to come up with adequate answers." Again and again, Lowell would bring up living poets and then quiz: "Major or minor?" Even his close friend Elizabeth Bishop was sadly declared "minor," but "almost major." Sometimes, when on the verge of one of his periodic breakdowns, Lowell could turn incredibly mean: "Don’t ever write again," he told one young woman, after "decimating" her poem. She burst into tears and ran from the classroom.

Irene Koronas points to the following excerpt on the precocious talent of the young Miss Plath:

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, intelligent.