Whenever Anne Sexton received a rejection letter from a magazine, she would add it to an ever-growing stack she kept in a filing cabinet. Sexton used to say that God was monitoring her rejections pile, waiting for the moment when she reached maximum discouragement and He could finally command, “Take her. She’s got a file cabinet full of rejections. Time for a little mercy.” In other news, Robert Lowell’s nickname, “Cal,” was apparently short for “Caligula,” a schoolyard reference to his frequently disruptive behavior. These are the sorts of obscure, endearing factoids you’ll find throughout Kathleen Spivak’s new memoir, With Robert Lowell and His Circle. Spivak was a student of Lowell’s at Boston University in the late 50s and early 60s, and she has collected her memories of that landscape into a scattered and entertaining look at literary friendships.
What perhaps struck me most about this book was the slim chapter entitled “Robert Lowell’s Appearance,” in which Spivak lets us see Lowell as his students did. The first adjective we’re given to describe Lowell is “untidy”; Spivak goes on to call him “pale, with a high forehead and thick glasses,” “hunched,” and “usually a bit rumpled.” When he moved around, “he slouched, shambled rather than walked.” Then, another two references to his glasses.
This description of Lowell comes in sharp contrast to the pictures we get of the female writers in his orbit. Sylvia Plath, sitting in that same workshop room, was “perfectly composed,” with a “neat, co-ed prettiness.” Spivak recalls Plath’s “pleated skirts and buttoned-down, pink long-sleeved shirts and a little pin; a kind of frozen woman student’s uniform.” Almost every time we encounter her, Plath has with her a camel hair coat, meticulously draped over either her chair or her shoulders.
Anne Sexton, another fixture of the scene, looked like a cross between Lauren Bacall and Hedy Lamar: “wedgie sandals, longish hair, long legs, full skirts, plunging silk blouses, creamy lipstick, eye makeup.” Her arms were so “draped with charm bracelets” that she made noise when she fidgeted during class. She smoked “like a movie star,” even in the classroom. (We get a quote from Sexton about unauthorized smoking in workshop and how you could use your shoe as an ashtray–apparently, everybody was doing it.)
In this brief snapshot and others, it’s hard not to notice how the guy poet gets away with being a total tweedy schlub, while the women are spending hours pressing their pleats or adjusting the plunge in their blouses. It’s not exactly a new observation, nor is it one unique to the workshop context, but it’s nonetheless a dynamic that remains frustrating for many of us who are drawn to writing, in part, because it’s a mode of communication and engagement that doesn’t require the use or display or regulation of the body. Or does it? Reading this book has reminded me how Plath and Sexton’s respective schoolgirl chic and sexpot affect were so much a part of their power and personae as writers as to become inseparable, in my mind and in the minds of many, from who they were on the page.