When Boston was a center of poetry

September 21, 1994|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

We think of our major cities as metropolises -- New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle -- and by that measure, Boston doesn't begin to qualify. It is relatively small by population and economic clout. It has bounce but not much bounce-back; and the booms and rebirths it manages, from time to time, dissipate as inevitably as early season Red Sox leads.

Yet Boston has an undeniable hold on the nation's imagination. There is history's nostalgia, of course; there are the universities and the tidal vigor of tens of thousands of students washing in from all over the world and washing out again.

There is, still, the literary legend.

Once in a while, legends re-ignite. Peter Davison's "The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960," is a chronicle of a notable instance. In the mid-1950s, as he writes, Boston became "one of the most vital milieux for poetry in the history of the century."

For six or seven years, the Boston area -- including Cambridge, of course -- saw a remarkable confluence of poets. There was Robert Frost from the generation of the Titans. And there were many of the principal figures of a later generation: Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Stanley Kunitz, Donald Hall, W. S. Merwin, Baltimorean Adrienne Rich and half a dozen others. Although Elizabeth Bishop didn't settle in Boston until somewhat later, she was something of a presence through her vital poetic links with Lowell.

Mr. Davison, a poet and editor who was one of the group, centers upon the five years between 1955 and 1960. For some of the poets -- Lowell, Sexton, Plath, Ms. Rich -- it was a time when they would achieve or begin a transition from older styles of work into the intense, stripped-down emotion of what has come to be called confessional poetry. Others -- Mr. Wilbur, Mr. Merwin and Mr. Hall, for example -- were writing quite differently.

It was not a school but a set of trails converging on a water hole, diverging afterward and marked by the meeting. Mr. Davison and Philip Booth were among the young writers regularly enlisted for "Getting Frost Home Before Midnight." The old poet was so revved up after his readings that he had to be walked up and down Cambridge "talking his way back to earth again." The young Adrienne Rich would regularly attend upon Frost, who didn't take female poets seriously and tended to ignore her.

Sexton and Plath studied writing under Lowell and met afterward for martinis at the Ritz, along with George Starbuck. When Lowell began one of his terrible breakdowns in class, Sexton was quick off the mark to put it in verse. "I find this boily creature in your place," she wrote, "find you disarranged, squatting on the window sill, irrefutably placed up there, like a hunk of some big frog watching us through the V of your woolen legs."

Richard Wilbur, whose subtle celebratory writing made him the golden poet of the early 1950s, was eclipsed by his gut-busting confessional juniors. "Mr. Wilbur never goes too far yet he never goes far enough," Randall Jarrell wrote. Like Britain's Bloomsbury, they are strenuously documented. They wrote letters, memoirs and sketches about themselves and each other; so did their friends, spouses and lovers. Mr. Davison avails himself of what has been published and attributes it scrupulously. But he does more. "The Fading Smile" is the work of a man who revisits his college class 30 years later. He has his own stories and memories, and the shared memories of his old classmates. He has his own perspective, that of someone who for half a lifetime has been one of the most discriminating poetry editors in the United States.

Son of a minor English poet who ran the writing program at the University of Colorado, Mr. Davison was brought up as a PAP (Poetical American Prince.) All the leading poets came to his home; he recalls his mother expelling the young Lowell for rudeness. Dinners were continual recitations by his father and others.

Mr. Davison portrays his brief affair with Plath compellingly and with a touch of comedy. She seems to have found him insufficiently scary. He found her too scary; after she told him of a suicide attempt, he took to his bed for two days.

When Mr. Davison showed Frost his poems, the old poet grunted out a memorable caution to a young poet's self-important pain: "Not too much sadness. Not so much of the sadness." There are sympathetic portraits of Merwin, Sissman, Booth and Kunitz, among others; and edgier accounts of Wilbur, Sexton and Donald Hall. Mr. Davison is best when edgy.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960"

Author: Peter Davison

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 346 pages, $24

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