04 December 2012

Some Aspects of the Journey: A Review of Kathleen Spivack's With Robert Lowell

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 [1959] 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.

11 comments :

George Fitzgerald said...

Thanks for the review, saving me the bother of reading this one.

Peter K Steinberg said...

George! Thanks for your comment. The book just wasn't for me, didn't grab & convince me, but it certainly will be of interest to many others. Sometimes I think my expectations are too high. Certainly with this book they were, hence the disappointment.

pks

Laura Cherau said...

I haven't read the book, so I have no idea how I'd feel about it after having read it. However, I am interested in what you say about the dating of the poems. I see no reason for Spivack to lie or fabricate. Error is always possible. I think it is possible that Plath brought "Sow" or probably some early version of it to the workshop. I think this because my research suggests that Plath had very long-standing relationships with her poems. "Epitaph for Fire and Flower" which Plath wrote in 1956 is an early attempt (however different it may seem) at "Sow." Both poems feed off of the imagery collected in Dante's Inferno, Canto V. As far as Spivack saying that the restored edition of Ariel was Frieda's arrangement (you don't give the exact quote only paraphrase) could that be a syntax error? A "you-know-what-I-mean" error by the author? I'd like to read that sentence to see if it is as bad as you say it is. Not because I doubt you, but for clarity.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

I'm about 3/4 of the way through Spivack's book, and in defense of the author, I must say that I am enjoying it. While I agree that there are some factual errors regarding Plath, I see this as a solid memoir of a very special time and place, a coming together of some of the great poetic minds. Of course, I too came to this book with a main interest in Plath. I soon realized that Plath is just one of a series of characters, and certainly not her favorite. Understanding that, she clearly did not put her attention to getting the specifics right. I can forgive this, because the sins are not too terrible, and I think it gave me yet another picture of Plath and how she carried herself. I too loved the new understanding of her fame already in 1958. But I love what I've read about Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, et al. As a teacher of Humanities and Creative Writing, this book has expanded my own understanding of the scene, and I love the juxtaposition of these classicists with the simultaneously growing Beat Generation.

If this book has done anything negative for me, it has most definitely soured me on the climate of Boston, which she continually portrays as cold, damp, and miserable. Ha.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Laura: Thank you for the comment. I haven't the book on me at the moment but will try to type up the Frieda/Restored Ariel bit tonight.

I have no doubt Spivack wasn't lying about "The Manor Garden", just mis-remembering. Certainly an error on her part. Rather than presenting it as fact... While the poem may not be dated, the chronology is very clear about how it came to be created: after that class took place. But, she's not a Plath scholar so perhaps I should judge so harshly. Then again, she put it out there and has to be called on it.

As for "Sow", it was more or less complete by the time she may have brought it into that class. Again, I want to trust Spivack here that Plath did bring it in for workshoping. Stephen Tabor, in his Analytical Bibliography, lists two changes between its appearance in Poetry in July 1957 and its publication in Plath's Collected Poems but there is no indication as to when these changes were made (their publication in The Colossus matches that of Collected Poems. It is possible that handwritten annotations, or dated typewritten annotations, may exist on in an archive (probably the Lilly Library, but copies exist also in the University of Chicago and University of Washington, St. Louis.

To make "Sow" more interesting, when Plath read the poem in June 1958 (before the class) one of the changes that Tabor notes was already made (line 11) and one had not (line 30).

Julia, thank you for your comment too. Plath seemed displeased in general to the climate in both Northampton and Boston; she seemed much happier with what was going on in London.

Though I still think a writer owes it to his/her readers to both write effectively and accurately, and to do their homework. You are right that these sins are not too terrible, but they are careless. We are in an age where information is prevalent and easily accessible, both good info and the bad. And the careless comes into play when bad information needn't have been put out there when that good information is readily available. Oh well, as you well know, I'm picky.

It's a good read, especially alongside Peter Davison's Half-Remembered and The Fading Smile. He and Spivack are peripheral voices.

pks

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

As we're being picky ;-), just a quick correction that it's Washington University in St. Louis, not the University of Washington.

Oh, and I meant the actual weather climate, not the literary one, although you're right, that does apply too.

Thanks, Peter!

Laura Cherau said...

Peter, I've been decking the halls all day and only just saw your response. Thank you for responding. "Sow" strikes me as a poem that has been workshopped. It's one of her longer more convoluted ones, don't you think? Maybe she got lots of feedback! I have poems that I've workshopped that start out simple and once shopped evolve into octopi. It's a pitfall of workshops. In the Divine Comedy these types of errors you speak of are considered to be sinful by Dante; worthy of punishment. If you get a chance you can email me the quote or post it here. Thanks again.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Laura, thank you for the comment back. If you want my address to mail me my gift...ha ha ho ho ho.

Here is the unequivocal paragraph in question.

First, regarding the 1965 edition of Ariel: "Her husband, Ted Hughes, organized the book after her death, and it was published. The force of the poems was amazing. In his original arrangement of the poems in Plath's Ariel, Hughes showcased Sylvia's rage, disappointment, and madness."

"Much later, long after her death, Sylvia's daughter, poet Frieda Hughes, reissued her own arrangement of Plath's Ariel. Frieda Hughes wrote a beautiful and very fair-minded, I thought, preface to her edition of the book [...] However, in Frieda Hughes's rearrangement, the order of the poems is entirely changed. Her version of Ariel ends with relative peace and happiness, as Sylvia gives birth to her daughter, Frieda, and celebrates new life."

Naturally we're all allowed to read the collection as we choose, but the basic facts regarding Ariel and Ariel: The Restored Edition are heinously wrong and almost laughable. In fact, I did laugh...Especially considering the first sentence of Frieda Hughes's "beautiful and very fair-minded" Foreword (not preface, mind you) reads: "This edition of Ariel by my mother, Sylvia Plath, exactly follows the arrangement of her last manuscript as she left it." And, the Foreword goes on to detail some of the history of the manuscript (as best we can know from when Plath assembled it) and the decisions Ted Hughes made in publishing the first editions in 1965/1966.

As for "Sow", Dante stuff aside, if it was workshopped it was done so prior to the Lowell poetry course as there are so very few differences between its 1957 appearance in Poetry and 1960 publication in The Colossus. The only thing I think we can say for certain, in the absence of drafts, is that Hughes and Plath likely worked on the poem together to get it into the format it was when Plath submitted it to Poetry. (The poem was accepted on 15 March 1957 by Henry Rago.)

pks

Laura Cherau said...

Now THAT is unfortunate. Umm, yeah. Ok. I can see why you raised your eyebrows at that one (I would have too, in fact, I just now raised my eyebrows). That is more than just awkward phrasing. I see...

I still think it's believable that she may have workshopped "Sow," even AFTER it had already been published in POETRY and for various reasons ranging from perfectionism to intellectual curiosity to self-consciousness, to get it "ready" for book publication or to test the quality of Lowell, Sexton's, et.al., feedback or perhaps their knowledge of her work, etc. I find that extremely interesting to contemplate and I hope it is a detail that Spivack got right. I will be emailing you my "gift" Peter ;) Happy Holidays, Plathies!

Jenny said...

I think it would be helpful of you to state how you know when certain poems were created, updated, etc. since you are dismissing the parts of the memoir that mention them and calling the author a liar. I believe that you would have a better sense of what was written when than Spivack does, but being able to go to the source you're thinking of would be helpful for your audience. (Are you basing everything on Tabor?)

I have not read this book; I got the sample from Amazon and wasn't drawn in. I read an article Spivack published on Plath a few years ago (I believe it appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review--it's online somewhere) and it sounds as though she didn't change much for the book. The cold, dark afternoons you mention appear here also as a straightforward metaphor for Lowell's mental state at the time. The darkness she mentions is *inside* the classroom, unrelated to actual weather.

The article mentions "Sow" and says Lowell didn't comment on it in class beyond saying it seemed complete and ready to publish (with a bit of slyness there, as though perhaps he knew it already had been). Is that included in the book? There is no mention of "The Manor Garden" in the article, so perhaps it was included in some of her notes or diaries after all--or perhaps she imagined it into the class later. I guess we'll never know.

Thank you for reviewing this book. I feel I made the right choice in deciding not to buy it.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Jenny - Thank you for the comment. The article as you describe is largely reprinted in the book, yes. It was originally published - your memory is spot on - as "Some Thoughts on Sylvia Plath" in the Virginia Quarterly Review 80:2. Spring 2004: 212-218. The bit about "The Manor Garden" is in the book, yes, but not in the article. Likewise, there are bits in the article not in the Plath chapter of With Robert Lowell and his Circle.

As for your first paragraph, did I not in my review state that the poem ("The Manor Garden") could not have been workshopped in the spring of 1959 because it was written in the fall of 1959? I believe I did but it might not have been as clear as it could have been? I am sorry if this was the case. Perhaps the word "lie" was too strong. As for the poem itself, "The Manor Garden" is steeped in specifically Yaddo imagery. From the beginning "The fountains are dry and the roses over" describes the formal rose garden there which is dotted by statuary and fountains.

Tabor I use for publication information only, not necessarily for the verification of poem & story composition. In the absence of dated drafts of poems (primarily for pre-1960/1961 poems), the best source would be Plath's submissions lists, which first shows "The Manor Garden" going out on 3 November 1959.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Publications & Acknowledgements

Interviews