BACK in the '90s, when I was at my most ravenous about learning about poetry, I read a number of very fine memoirs about poets. Eileen Simpson's Poets in Their Youth (with its unforgettable portrait of Delmore Schwartz) was one, Donald Hall's Their Ancient Glittering Eyes (Dylan Thomas!) is another. Both are classics, but my favorite may be Peter Davison's The Fading Smile, set in Boston/Cambridge in the late '50s as American poetry was going through an important transformation.
Only a few hours remain in National Poetry Month, but I'll put aside my instinct to mock these official cultural holidays and discuss Davison's wonderfully distilled memoir-of-sorts for a moment.
The Fading Smile's subtitle is "Poets in Boston, 1955-1960, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath," and it's largely a series of profiles of the poets who flourished, competed and quarreled at a time when Frost was fading from the scene but holding forth on the outskirts of Harvard. Besides the poets above, it looks at Richard Wilbur (the most Apollonian of the bunch), the minister's son W.S. Merwin, Anne Sexton (!!), Plath (who Davison, a poet and important poetry editor, briefly dated before she fell into the burly arms of Ted Hughes), feminist "daughter-in-law" Adrienne Rich, the overlooked ad-man poet L.E. Sissman, and Stanley Kunitz (a generation older than the rest but just as tormented.)
Lowell of course acts as a cross between a maven who brings everyone together and a sort of Mad Hatter. Like many of the poets here, he went through a metamorphosis during this period, and his late-'50s work helps inaugurate a wilder, more visceral, less European, less New Critic-driven poetry that came to be called Confessional.
Of course, each figure had his or her own trajectory, as Davison's portraits make clear. He mostly stays out of the way of the action, except when his appearances are useful, resisting the urge to settle scores of make himself into the book's hero.
Part of what I like, too, are the well-chosen selections from each poet's work, and the sense of literary context that it all adds up to. That is, there was a back-and-forth between this scene with developments in the UK -- several of them put in brief stints in England -- as well as the Beat action in San Francisco.
I'll just close by recommending this book -- so soon after the tragedy of the Boston Marathon -- to anyone who cares about American literature. And now, go read some poetry.
Next Letter in the Mail: Allyson Hoffman
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