Good story from Robert Lowell

LOWELL

I met Ford [Maddox Ford] at a cocktail party in Boston and went to dinner with him at the Athens Olympia. He was going to visit the [Allen] Tates, and said, “Come and see me down there, we’re all going to Tennessee.” So I drove down. He hadn’t arrived, so I got to know the Tates quite well before his appearance.

INTERVIEWER

Staying in a pup tent.

LOWELL

It’s a terrible piece of youthful callousness. They had one Negro woman who came in and helped, but Mrs. Tate was doing all the housekeeping. She had three guests and her own family, and was doing the cooking and writing a novel. And this young man arrived, quite ardent and eccentric. I think I suggested that maybe I’d stay with them. And they said, “We really haven’t any room, you’d have to pitch a tent on the lawn.” So I went to Sears, Roebuck and got a tent and rigged it on their lawn. The Tates were too polite to tell me that what they’d said had been just a figure of speech. I stayed two months in my tent and ate with the Tates.

(That’s a Colemans pup tent.  Here’s a photo of the Athens Olympia restaurant, now closed, from the MIT Libraries flickr.)

This is all from Robert Lowell’s Paris Review interview, which ends with this:

INTERVIEWER

Don’t you think a large part of it is getting the right details, symbolic or not, around which to wind the poem tight and tighter?

LOWELL

Some bit of scenery or something you’ve felt. Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something that you can use as your own. A lot of poetry seems to me very good in the tradition but just doesn’t move me very much because it doesn’t have personal vibrance to it. I probably exaggerate the value of it, but it’s precious to me. Some little image, some detail you’ve noticed—you’re writing about a little country shop, just describing it, and your poem ends up with an existentialist account of your experience. But it’s the shop that started it off. You didn’t know why it meant a lot to you. Often images and often the sense of the beginning and end of a poem are all you have—some journey to be gone through between those things; you know that, but you don’t know the details. And that’s marvelous; then you feel the poem will come out. It’s a terrible struggle, because what you really feel hasn’t got the form, it’s not what you can put down in a poem. And the poem you’re equipped to write concerns nothing that you care very much about or have much to say on. Then the great moment comes when there’s enough resolution of your technical equipment, your way of constructing things, and what you can make a poem out of, to hit something you really want to say. You may not know you have it to say.



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