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
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
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
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 email@example.com.