June 23, 2002
Memories of the City as Seen by the Poets


The poet lives between two worlds, says Peter Davison-- "the city," with its danger and excitement, and the inner, contemplative world of "the island." Davison, who is poetry editor of the The Atlantic Monthly and author of ten books of poetry, including one titled The City and The Island, points out that Boston is a city that also has islands. Maybe that balance explains why generations of writers have found it a fertile place to work.

No writer works alone in Boston. The city's literary heritage nests on windowsills, hovers above keyboards, and is breathed in with the sturdy New England air. And its effect on its writers can be felt in every aspect of their work.

There is the physical setting. "I've been walking through the city since 1956," Davison says, "writing in notebooks wherever I went. There is a sense of Boston being all around you." In his "Poem in the Park," you recognize the walk "through the bricky streets" to the Public Garden, and "... the sky of the public park,/its gates ajar, its paths cast wide in welcome..." In another, a diner at the Ritz contemplates the swordless statue of George Washington. His ever-shifting walk to his North End office inspired, "Walking Through the Big Dig."

And the layer of tradition. Davison can point out where the city's publishing houses were once grouped around the Common. He can tell the stories of how Julia Ward Howe had her "Battle Hymn of the Republic" first published in The Atlantic in 1862--they paid her about eight dollars--and that Samuel Eliot Morison always turned in his stories a little ahead of deadline.

But the city's most profou “nd influence on writers is undoubtedly its rich history as home to legendary writers and the lessons they handed down. The city's size made it more likely that young writers who wanted to learn those lessons could. Davison, for example, recalls walking down a Beacon Hill street and having a lively argument with the poet Robert Lowell about Macbeth.

"Lowell was such an extraordinary figure," says Davison, "and his "For the Union Dead" is one of the great city poems."

Lowell was also an influential teacher and creator of a poetry community that drew writers and held them here. Lloyd Schwartz, the author of three books of poetry including Cairo Traffic, and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning music critic, became part of that community.

Schwartz expected to return to to his native New York when he finished his graduate work at Harvard in the late 1960s. That didn't happen. What did were things he feels could never have happened anywhere else.

Schwartz's "Cambridge was the Cambridge of the poets," as Peter Davison wrote, about a different poet in a different Cambridge. It was a time when Lowell held his famous "office hours," where anyone could drop in to talk about poetry. Those who did included soon-to-be-major poets like Frank Bidart, Robert Pinsky, Gail Mazur, Jonathan Galassi, and Richard Tillinghast. Jean Valentine Íor Elizabeth Bishop might stop by if they were in town.

"There was an attitude toward poetry that was really thrilling," says Schwartz. "It had to do with everything I loved about poetry--with intellectual and emotional ambition. It was not just spinning words and inventing images, as beautiful as that can be. There was a sense that poetry was an important thing to be taken seriously. There were possibilities and we were helping each other realize them."

Schwartz remembers when his first poem was accepted for publication. "It was a dramatic monologue, probably not the type of poem I would have written in New York." But what also would not have happened in New York was that, when Schwartz excitedly called Frank Bidart to tell him, Lowell was at Bidart's apartment.

In the Henry James story, The Jolly Corner, a man visits a house haunted by the ghost of the person he might have been. Schwartz finds that the story's echoes are with him whenever he thinks of the New York job he didn't take after graduate school. Whether it was his involvement in the theater, his becoming a music critic, his teaching career, or his work as a poet, everything he has done has been shaped by the fact that he has done it here.

"Everything good that ever happened to me," he says, "happened because I stayed in Boston." Robert Lowell and the others would, no doubt, be pleased to hear it.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

 
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