Exploring Boston’s Poetic Past—and Present

The feet that walked Greater Boston’s cobblestoned streets from this town’s founding to the present day are those of people who shaped and are shaping the United States’ development as a nation. The development is in all fields—political, educational, and more—and Boston’s importance as a place of innovation and growth is undeniable.

One of the aspects of American growth in which Boston’s influence is inherent is the literary tradition. For hundreds of years, some of the most influential poets of United States’ history stepped onto the T (or into horse-drawn carriages) in the Back Bay, walked the sidewalks of Cambridge, and faced the dark Boston winters and bright Boston springtime just as the current students of Boston University do every year.

The Boston University English Department building on Bay State Road. | Photograph by Ashley Hansberry
The Boston University English Department building on Bay State Road. | Photograph by Ashley Hansberry

Poets of Boston’s intensely literary past include Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, T.S. Eliot, Edward Estlin Cummings, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, and many more. Greater Boston is the birthplace of at least two huge poetic movements: the Transcendentalist movement and the Confessionalist movement. Boston University played a monumental role in the formation of the latter, thanks to a Pulitzer Prize winning poet named Robert Lowell who was a professor of writing at the time.

Why Boston?

Immediately, the question of “why?” springs to mind: why Boston? How is it that so many of the most important names in the history of poetry are tied to this city? Poetry can be created without a restriction of setting. Indeed, the Confessionals born out of arguably the most famous classroom of poetry’s history—that is, Robert Lowell’s seminar—are famous for occupying an internal and deeply personal environment within their poems and not the external, literal setting in which they lived. Is it coincidence, then, that they all lived in the same place?

An obvious reason for Boston’s draw lies in the plethora of universities in Boston. The strong academic tradition of the nation’s first and most prominent college town logically leads to a strong literary tradition. This is half of it. The other half lies in economics.

Robert Pinsky, a BU professor and former United State Poet Laureate, who was a student of Lowell’s during his time at Harvard, suggested to The Quad, “Maybe going further back in history helps explain it? A few generations before those days [of the Confessionals], American poets were mainly from the Northeast—mainly Boston and New York—and from a certain social class.”

To add to Pinsky’s theory, Kevin Gallagher, a BU Associate Professor of International Relations who is in the process of creating Spoke, a Massachusetts poetry annual launching this summer, said during an interview with The Quad that the poetic tradition of Boston is due to its presses: “The poetry that people knew about were where the publishing houses were… Paperback books were hard to get. All books were hardback. In those days, it took a lot of money to have a printing press and make those books.”

The poets formed by Boston in its early years had the money and connections to become published. Gallagher suggested that “Boston was a literary hub because of its presses, because it was close to the port, [and] because it had its own vibrant economy.” The poets who were published and celebrated had to have ties to a city at that time. “There were probably Phyllis Wheatleys in Mississippi,” remarked Gallagher, “but there weren’t publishing presses in Mississippi.”

Robert Lowell, born and raised in Boston, was of the higher class, from a prominent Boston Brahmin family. He, in turn, brought many more poets to the city.

Robert Lowell, Poetic Glue

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was Lowell’s presence that made Boston the place for poetry. Gallagher noted of the two schools of poetry in the 1960s, “In real life these people were all poets and all hanging out in Boston.”

One of those “hanging out” in Boston was a young poet named Kathleen Spivack who came to Boston on an undergraduate fellowship in January 1959 to study with Robert Lowell. She chronicles the experience in a book, With Robert Lowell and His Circle (Northeastern University Press).

Robert Lowell formerly lived at 239 Marlborough Street in Boston's Back Bay. | Photograph by Ashley Hansberry
Robert Lowell formerly lived at 239 Marlborough Street in Boston’s Back Bay. | Photo by Ashley Hansberry

In a typical BU classroom (“The chairs were in disarray around the seminar table, and the windows looked out on busy Commonwealth Avenue below”), Spivack sat with fellow students Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, George Starbuck, and many more big names of poetry as they workshopped and discussed their own poetry and that of others under Lowell’s guidance.  She recalls, “The air vibrated with intellectual excitement. We were living in an era of greatest American poetry, and these poets were living in our midst.”

Lowell, during his time teaching at BU, Harvard, and in his personal “office hours” at his home on Marlborough Street, was a magnet for the poets developing at the time. In a note to Kathleen Spivack in 1988, Roger Rosenblatt recalls that while Lowell was at Harvard, “his office hours were held in the mornings in his rooms in Eliot House. A pilgrimage arrived, made up not only of his Harvard students but of people from all over Boston.”

This pilgrimage was not limited to the residents of Boston, however, and Spivack remembers the constant stream of visitors to her class: “Members of the class were rarely introduced to the visiting poets: it was assumed that we possibly knew them. Afterward Lowell would hastily disappear with them into a distinguished huddle.”

Boston University’s Role

Spivack recalls the dynamic of Lowell’s classroom: “So many violent points of view, in that early class: to listen to Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and George Starbuck (the most voluble members), all talking wildly, all with a high degree of authoritativeness in their voices, stating exactly opposing opinions, was a bewildering but instructive experience.” Without Lowell’s class at BU, these poets would not have met and learned from each other. It is impossible to guess where the American literary tradition would be today if this had not happened, but it would surely be lacking.

The ordinary elements Spivack recalls of this extraordinary class are comforting and compelling–The students were afraid of the professor! A love triangle was forming! The professor favored some students more than others!– while putting them in the context of a classroom that we Boston University students can imagine quite easily. The idea that these grand poets did the same as we look out of our classroom windows onto Commonwealth Avenue is encouraging; the next great innovator of the field may be sitting in our classes, too.

Indeed, it was while at BU that Anne Sexton, who “was at the beginning of her poetic career when she attended Robert Lowell’s class at Boston University in the spring of 1959,” according to Spivack, composed some of her most well-known poems, including “You Doctor Martin.”

Similarly, Sylvia Plath was becoming the poet for which the country would remember her while at BU. In an introduction to Ariel, Plath’s posthumously published collection of poems, Lowell writes: “She showed us poems that later, more or less unchanged, went into her first book, The Colossus. They were somber, formidably expert in stanza structure, and had a flair for alliteration and Massachusetts’ low-tide dolor.” The poems that made these two poets a representative voice for female rage in the sixties were so deeply tied to the Boston and the BU class that they might not have existed or developed without Lowell’s seminar.

The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge's Central Square is an example of Boston's welcoming of spoken word poetry and other such developments.  | Photo by Katy Meyer
The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge’s Central Square is an example of Boston’s welcoming of spoken word poetry and other such developments. | Photo by Katy Meyer

Beyond and after Lowell’s seminar, Boston University continued to play a large role in the formation of Boston’s poetry scene. Since 1987, Agni, an influential literary magazine, has been produced at BU. Agni is still produced twice yearly.

For some time, Agni had a BU contemporary called The Partisan Review, which was another literary magazine at the time, named “one of the most influential literary journals in the country” by this 2003 Associated Press article. It became a Boston University owned publication in 1978. The magazine “introduce[d] Americans to existentialism” and included the poetry of Wallace Stevens and other such influential names. The Partisan Review was discontinued in 2003 because the magazine was losing the university $300,000 a year. This reason for its demise is, sadly, common in the literary and publishing world.

Leaving Boston

Thinking back on Lowell’s BU seminar, Robert Pinsky said that “it’s interesting that Lowell taught that class with Plath, Sexton, Starbuck at BU…in an era when creative writing programs, once rare, were beginning and expanding. Those programs…may have democratized the art, moving it from a traditional geographical center in the Northeast.” Currently, there are hundreds of MFA Creative Writing programs throughout the nation, and not only in Boston or other populous cities. This offers more opportunities to poets, and allows there to be more poets in the country as a whole.

Though the wealthy publishing presses found in only in cities once controlled the poetry cannon, things are changing now. There are more places for poets to publish. Spoken word clips can be found for free on YouTube, and Tumblr’s spilled ink tag offers a space to share poetry. Poetry is not leaving its usual places, but it is now being found in unexpected places as well.

Which leads to another question: will this growing independence change the impact Boston has on American poetry?

Boston, Growing With Poetry

The overwhelming response is, simply, no. Gallagher pointed, again, to Boston’s universities to explain Boston’s continual role in building the American poetic tradition. “You come here to be a poet,” he said. Pinsky agreed, making note of “The Blacksmith House, all these universities, Grub Street writing programs at Emerson and UMass Boston, as well as ours at BU,” all elements of Boston that allow the city to continue being what Adam Zagajewski once called the “American capital of poetry.”

Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge was founded in 1927 and was visited by many of America's most influential poets. | Photo by Katy Meyer
Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Cambridge was founded in 1927 and was visited by many of America’s most influential poets. | Photo by Katy Meyer

Boston will continue to be the prime U.S. locale for poetry because it has the history of its literary tradition and a flexibility that allows poetry to grow in new ways, as well. From where it sits in Cambridge, The Grolier Poetry Book Shop offers a memory of Boston’s literary history. The Grolier was alive in Lowell’s era of poetry and lives into the present era. It is eight-tenths of a mile from the Cantab Lounge, a poetry slam venue that welcomes spoken word poets weekly.

These two places illustrate the future of poetry in Boston—the city’s historically academic view and creation of poetry coexists with the new and open tradition, allowing poetry to transform faster than ever before. (In fact, this summer Boston will welcome slam poets from all over the nation for the National Poetry Slam.) Notes Gallagher, “In a globalized world, it’s important to maintain your identity. And boy, does this place have an identity.”

Boston’s identity is poetic. Poets will always flock to Boston because its cobblestoned streets will always hold poetry.

Cecilia Weddell

Cecilia Weddell (CAS 2015) studies Comparative Literature and Mathematics. She likes poetry, basketball, YouTube videos of baby animals, and tea.

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