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RICHARD EDER

A Place for Poets : THE FADING SMILE: Poets in Boston, from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, 1955-1960, By Peter Davison (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 346 pp.)

August 28, 1994|RICHARD EDER

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. The New York Times has bought its flagship paper, the idiosyncratic Globe; and though it still has a railroad, the long-distance trains all run to New York, apart from one shaky departure daily to Chicago.

Yet Boston has an undeniable hold on the nation's imagination. There is history's nostalgia, of course; and the fact that Boston manages to look and act so much the way nostalgia wants it to look and act--not like a theme park but cockily, and enjoying it. 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--on a cultural foreshore small enough to boil up at a weather change, and too big for an umbrella. There is, still, the literary legend.

Once in a while, legends reignite. Peter Davison's "The Fading Smile" 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, for longer or shorter periods, with profound or more casual attachments and interactions, 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, Adrienne Rich and a half-dozen others. And although Elizabeth Bishop didn't settle in Boston until somewhat later, she was something of a presence through her vital poetic links with Lowell.

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, 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--Wilbur, Merwin and 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. 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 women poets seriously and tended to ignore her. Later, after a close relationship with Donald Hall, she abandoned the poet-pack, disappeared, and re-emerged in her fiercely lucid feminist splendor.

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."

At work on "Life Studies," the lurching, patrician Lowell--who consulted everyone on his first drafts and itinerant lines as if the world of poetry were his yacht and all hands were expected to turn to--forged a close link with Kunitz, a generation older. Richard Wilbur, whose subtle celebratory writing made him the golden poet of the early 1950s, was eclipsed by his gut-busting confessional juniors. They couldn't disregard him but they were patronizing. "Mr. Wilbur never goes too far yet he never goes far enough," Randall Jarrell wrote. Sylvia Plath remarked that to read Lowell after Wilbur "is like good shocking brandy after a too lucidly sweet dinner wine."

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. 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 faithful and discriminating poetry editors in the United States.

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