With Robert Lowell and His Circle by Kathleen Spivack (Northeastern University Press, 2012) is a veritable who's who of poets over the last 50-plus years. As a memoir, similar to Ted and I recently published by Gerald Hughes, it is not without some faults. Spivack writes, "What I have tried to record in this description of Robert Lowell and his circle were some aspects of the journey as I lived it" (213). However, the remembered memories written over the course of many years - some of those "aspects" - are false. And even just the smallest, misremembered fact throws the entire book under suspicion in what is a very tricky genre. Such as Spivack's comment that during the spring semester of 1959, in Lowell's classroom which faced Commonwealth Avenue, "each class extended longer than scheduled, and the afternoon got colder and darker" (34). However, in springtime, the afternoon light actually extends by a minute or so each day. I understand what she was trying to say, it's just that as a prose writer her imagery lack veracity.
Naturally I gravitated to Spivack's memories of Sylvia Plath. These I digested eagerly, but not without some discomfort. I want to believe the quoted conversations took place but cannot. If these are drawn directly from Spivack's journal/diary written directly after the events took place - that is another story, but there is nothing to suggest this is the case. If I am wrong: tell me then in the text that you're quoting from your diaries. References to Plath dot the book entirely, but the largest section is "Sylvia Plath 1959-1960" on pages 31-42. Spivack's memories of Plath are partly her own, and partly Lowell's, and partly Plath's own words from her journals and other writings. Needless to say this is problematic. Spivack "met" Plath in print before they even in person, as she recalls reading Plath's poem "Doomsday" in Harper's (May 1954). I find this more interesting than anything else in the section because it shows Plath being read on a national level. Many of Spivack's impressions of Plath are not new, but there is an occasional bit that provides a glimpse of the type of person Plath was, such as "The achievement of her poetry at the time  seemed to lag behind the scholarly achievements of her mind and critical ability" (33). We largely consider Plath in terms, solely, of her writing. But few have spent much time and effort on her education.
One of the statements in the memoir section on Plath that is outright false involves a poem Spivack says "appeared in the class": "The Manor Garden" (32). This is a lie. If a lie is considered an exaggeration, this I hope we can agree it is wrong, at least. If Plath attended Lowell's class in the spring of 1959, there is no possible way Plath presented a poem she wrote in, circa, October 1959. It is more likely Plath brought in "Point Shirley", "Suicide Off Egg Rock", or even "Electra on Azalea Path" which seem far more inspired by both the events Plath lived that spring, as well as being topically relevant to the course, the instructor, some of the classmates (Anne Sexton, in particular), and as the products of Plath's resumed therapy with Dr. Beuscher. When I read this part, the truthfulness of the book, and my expectations, fell precipitously and, I admit, I lost interest. Another poem apparently discussed in class is Plath's 1957 poem "Sow". But I do not know what to believe at this point.
Later, on page 38, Spivack discusses how she was at West House, Yaddo, in the same room where Plath wrote The Bell Jar. But, Plath didn't write The Bell Jar there, she wrote The Bell Jar in London, largely if not completely at 11 St. George's Terrace in the house of W.S. Merwin. And on the following page, Spivack claims that Ariel: The Restored Edition is Frieda Hughes's arrangement of poems. Whoa nelly. This is not even worth further comment.
The impulse to write this book as opposed to Gerald Hughes's Ted and I is different and as such the expectations are different. Gerald Hughes is a man who has primarily lived a private life, and so the expectations for his sort of memoir are vastly different to Spivack's, who has largely (creatively) lived a more public one. That Spivack worked on this book for years illustrates her labor of love over the contents and speaks volumes over her friendship with Lowell, and acquaintance with the others mentioned in the book. It is a good, friendly, easy-to-read book. Additionally, this is the impression I get from Spivack herself. But there is periodic, significant repetition that damages the narrative flow of the book; and likewise, there are enough examples of the faultiness of memory, in even the smallest of sections (like the Plath, which is strangely longer than the Sexton section even though she had a longer relationship with Sexton) that casts doubt over everything else within the covers. It is possible the memories of Robert Lowell are more true, or less false, but I would not necessarily know. As a reader I want to trust the writer and what the writer has written, but in With Robert Lowell and His Circle I simply cannot.
Publications & Acknowledgements
- BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
- Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
- Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
- Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
- Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
- Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
- Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
- Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
- Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
- Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
- Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
- Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
- Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.