Monday, 25 August 2014

Returning to Lowell

Memory comes from nowhere, in a flash. Suddenly I am in sixth-form and my great great teachers John Adams and Alan Hurd are introducing us to the mastery of Robert Lowell. 'Waking in the Blue': that BU sophomore in the mental hospital. The statue in 'For the Union Dead'. Then I am an undergraduate, in a little book-lined room in Portugal Place close reading 'Skunk Hour' with my poet-teacher Glen Cavaliero ("for Elizabeth Bishop" - thus taking me to her for the first time). And then I am a grad at Harvard, where the name Lowell is in the fabric of the place. Finding a copy of Life Studies second-hand in the Harvard Square Bookstore, seeing how it changed poetry for ever. That was the time when I was directing a production of Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait in a tiny space in one of the houses - was it Lowell, I forget now? - called Explosives B. Not knowing then that 35 years later I would be writing the biography of Ted Hughes, trying to bring alive the time when he and Sylvia were loved up, writing well and sitting in Cambridge, Mass., at Lowell's feet.

Why is it that writers who mean so much to us at some particular point in our lives then drop off our radar for years and years? Sometimes we consciously react against, but more often we just move on, and then we forget. For twenty, thirty years, I've barely re-read a line of Lowell. So I've been going back to him, getting deeper and deeper into his greatness, which was so inextricably linked to his mental illness. Re-reading the Ian Hamilton biography too, perhaps because I fear that my Hughes bio will go the way of Hamilton's Salinger.

And then a couple of weeks ago I had lunch with Frieda Hughes and the extraordinary Grey Gowrie, and Lowell's end came back to me: a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977, aged just sixty. I remember the news report: it was just a few weeks before I began my student life. Hamilton tells us he was carrying a brown paper bag containing Lucien Freud's portrait of his wife Caroline Blackwood (how he loved and wrestled with those wives!), which Grey had obtained for him.