A special project for the 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Henri Cole writes about a recording of Robert Lowell reading from his work. It was recorded at 92Y on December 8, 1976.
During his final appearance at the Y, he was charming and funny, reading from the newly published Selected Poems (“instead of having about eight rather small thin books to fumble through”). He told the audience that he believed in chronology in everything, rather than having little sections called “friendship and wisdom and divine wisdom.” But on this occasion he had paired off the poems—about homecomings; about his first wife, his “old flame” Jean Stafford (“one of our best writers,” who was quite ill); about Robert Frost (“a man of great magnanimity and generosity and music and intuition”); about William Carlos Williams (“who was terrified of his old mother”); about Stalin (“I suppose Stalin was a Statesman, wasn’t he? He believed in the State”; about his third wife, Caroline Blackwood (“gay, disrespectful” poems), who becomes a mermaid, a “Rough Slitherer” in her ocean caves, in his poem “Mermaid”; and, finally, about the act of writing itself. Lowell ended the night with “Epilogue,” saying that a poem has to be more than memory, “and yet memory, we’re told, is the mother of the muses. Memory is genius—but you have to do something with it.”