A Night at the BSS

Receptions With the Poet

published in Cumberland River Review

The poetry of William Carlos Williams used to be obscure to me. Now it’s hard to remember what was so difficult about it back in college, when I sat cross-legged on a shag rug in the farmhouse of the poet Theodore Howland, who held his writing seminar at his home a few miles from campus in Connecticut.

Age forty-eight, he wore brown corduroy jackets and soft flannel shirts and lived with an apricot-colored standard poodle. As a young man, he had been a bomber pilot in World War II, and later in life he had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Logs crackling in the fireplace, he sat in a leather armchair smoking cigarettes as he taught us how to read from a writer’s point of view, showed us the choices writers make. For instance, Shakespeare used the word never five times for King Lear’s description of when he would see his dead daughter Cordelia again. Never, never, never, never, never. Say it four times, it’s different. Say it six times, it’s different in another way.

My fantasies about Theodore Howland were odd even to me at the time, sitting among the other girls gathered in his cozy living room. I imagined myself in his bathtub, the old-fashioned kind with feet, though I’d never seen his bathtub. Mr. Howland comes in, picks me up out of the tub, and dries me off. I rehearsed that scene over and over as he sat in his armchair listening to my classmates. Sometimes I tried to force my daydream out of the steamy bathroom and into the bedroom, but even there it was chaste. He put me to bed under fluffy eiderdown, tucked me in, and I drifted blissfully to sleep. It did not occur to me that the comfort I derived from imagining Mr. Howland taking care of me like a baby might have something to do with feeling too alone in the wide world.

I assumed everyone felt cast adrift at college. You made yourself tough. Those girls freshman year who had to return home seemed unbalanced to me and made me glad I didn’t have a home to tempt me. I couldn’t give in to homesickness because my mother was traveling in Europe and my father now lived with his mistress. Mr. Howland was my trusted older person. He gave me A’s, and I believed myself to be his pet.

One of our assignments was to write in a journal every day. Some of the girls in the seminar filled in their journals the day before they were due. I had been keeping a daily journal for years. It was irrelevant that Mr. Howland wanted to see it once a month.

It was jarring to see his handwriting on my pages. Handwriting is as distinctive as body smell, and he made his a bit too pungent by using red ink. “This is wonderfully unselfconscious,” he wrote after one of the entries, and I wondered what he meant. Why would I be self-conscious writing in my own journal? I liked putting into words what went on with my boyfriend when I visited him on weekends at the Yale Medical School dorms, how we made chocolate pudding on his hot plate and ate it with vanilla ice cream melting on top, how we listened to a kitten’s heart going a mile a minute with a stethoscope, how he studied at his desk with his right leg jiggling up and down while he hunched over medical books full of alarming illustrations.

The joke back in the sixties was that girls went to college to earn an MRS degree, but it wasn’t funny to those of us who graduated without it. It felt dire not to be chosen, not only because it meant we were not loveable but because nothing in our liberal arts education could translate into rent money. That I would have to take care of myself became clear senior year. How could I love my boyfriend so much more than he loved me? How could I want to get married to him when he didn’t want to get married to me? Could anything hurt more than this? Could anything be more humiliating?

Since getting married was the goal, the best plan was to go where the most boys were. Harvard was full of boys, so I applied and got in. One week I went out with eight different ones. I’d gone from famine in New London to feast in Cambridge. What had I been thinking going to a girls’ school? I’d been in a nunnery and hadn’t even known it. I must have been out of my mind. But it was worth it, I told myself, because I had been able to study with Theodore Howland.

I had no intention of having my heart broken again. So the man I spent the most time with at Harvard was not only married with a son but was a foreign student who intended to return to Athens at the end of the term. I mention this marriage-defying affair only because of what that boyfriend said about Theodore Howland, who arrived in Cambridge one weekend to read at the Houghton Library.

I wondered what was so special about the Houghton Library that female students were not allowed to use it. I expected something mysterious, like you might find at a séance, but it was just a bookshelf-filled, hushed space like any other small library. I was excited to see my teacher again after a lapse of six months. I’d spoken fondly about him to my Greek boyfriend, who came with me to the late-afternoon reading.

There, at the podium, was Mr. Howland, with that cleft in his chin and a bit more gray in his bushy eyebrows. He had a straightforward way of presenting his poems, no drama, just the words with whatever power was in them. When the reading was finished, I had no luck getting close because Mr. Howland was surrounded by admirers. I was miffed because I thought of him as mine. I turned to retreat, raised my hand to wave a quick goodbye, and he called, “Wait. You’ll go with me to the reception.”

I worked my way through the crowd to find my boyfriend. “Did you like it?” I asked him. “No,” he said. “That guy’s got no balls.” This seemed an odd thing to say after a poetry reading, and I wondered if I was blind to something about Mr. Howland. This was the second disparaging thing I’d heard about my teacher. At college graduation my older sister had said, “That’s the one you like so much? That guy with the degenerate face?”

His reception was held at one of those charming antique houses that line the side streets near Harvard Square. The place was packed with students and with the luminaries of the Harvard English department. I sipped wine, lifted canapés off a tray held by a butler who circulated from guest to guest, and listened in on conversations. I kept hearing the words Mrs. Bernard DeVoto. I think we might have been in her house. The words were said with reverence, and I wondered how a woman could disappear so entirely that she would acquire the prominence earned by her husband’s work and would become known only by his name. I loved those words, Mrs. Bernard DeVoto, and said them to myself over and over instead of striking up a conversation with someone. I milled around for an hour or so then searched for Mr. Howland to say goodbye. He said, “No. You’ll stay for dinner.”

I imagined a banquet table with dozens of place settings, but there were only eight of us, and I was the only young person. We sat in straight-backed chairs in a circle in the living room in front of the fireplace, balancing plates on our laps. The Longfellow scholar told us about the time he and Doris had traveled by train to Chicago, where he was supposed to teach. Susie had just been born, and they didn’t know what to do with Susie’s dirty diapers, so the Longfellow scholar told us that he went to the back of the train and tossed the diapers out onto the tracks. Then he roared with laughter and so did the others. The Milton scholar announced that his colleague at Princeton had not gotten tenure. The Victorian literature scholar said that when his colleague had gone to his summer home in Pomfret to finish the book he had promised Little Brown, the roof had been infested with bats, which he had tried to kill with his tennis racket. As the evening wore on, the talk became exclusively about people I didn’t know, and some of it was so catty I had to rearrange my idea of the loftiness of intellectuals.

It was obvious by the flush on Mr. Howland’s face that he’d had a lot to drink. As we were finishing dessert he said, “Hey. Listen to this,” and the separate conversations stopped, and we all turned to him sitting in his chair. “I have to tell you something.” He laughed and groaned and took another sip of wine. “Oh, God, it’s so embarrassing. Listen to this.” He looked to the ceiling and took a deep breath. “I’m standing by the door and I see Perry Miller. Jim, you told me Perry Miller was coming. Didn’t you? You know how I admire him. Didn’t you tell me Perry Miller was going to show up? So I go up to him and I wring his hand and I say, Mr. Miller, this is indeed an honor, and he says, I’m not Mr. Miller I’m the butler.” We all laughed, and someone said, “But didn’t you notice his uniform?”

Mr. Howland gasped for air. “Yes, yes, but I thought it was a tuxedo!”

Later, both of us bundled in our winter coats, he drove me to my dorm in his tiny Volkswagen and slowed to a stop on Mass Ave in front of Wyeth Hall. He said that once in a while a student comes along who makes teaching fun, makes you remember why you became a teacher in the first place, and I was one of those students, and he was grateful to me. I was so embarrassed I just sat there wishing to evaporate. “Thanks for coming to that thing with me,” he said. “Was it too awful?”

“No.”

He waited for me to find some words, and when I couldn’t he said, “Well, off you go,” and he leaned across me and opened the door, and I went out and hurried on the slushy sidewalk to the dorm, not knowing what to make of the evening except that it seemed I’d been privileged to witness something most people never see, a bunch of famous scholars acting like everyone else.

Months later, when the crocuses were fully up and forsythia was blooming, I heard that the poet Robert Lowell was going to read at my alma mater. I didn’t understand Robert Lowell’s poems, and I’d read that he was mean to Sylvia Plath, but I wanted to see Mr. Howland. It had been a year since my college graduation and six months since our reunion in Cambridge.

I was proud of my teacher for knowing famous poets. Robert Frost had come to the college and had seemed interested in what we’d had to say. James Merrill had taken over one of our writing seminars. He had seemed afraid we might pounce on him. Our hearts had gone out to him so much we had opened our journals and read aloud from them right in front of each other. I had not known that the world could accommodate such a mouse-like man.

Robert Lowell fit into that same category, man in excruciating pain, except that Robert Lowell wasn’t made of twigs. He was tall and slender, and even the intense worry on his face could not diminish his appealing masculinity. I still didn’t understand his poetry, but now at least, having heard him, I could pick out some of the rhymes. The reception after his reading was in a private home in New London. In a room of overstuffed furniture and velvet drapery, Lowell sat cowering in the corner of a sofa, shrinking from the eager New London matrons who converged on him hoping to engage in brainy conversation. This was a big event, and lots of planning by various New London clubwomen had gone into it. They didn’t seem to care that they might be talking too loudly or laughing too shrilly for his comfort. He belonged to them for that evening. They intended to make good use of this once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a literary giant. They fired questions at him about his writing style, his work habits, the meaning of this or that poem. His eyes were wild with fright, but he endured. This had happened to him dozens of times. It was part of the job.

There were forty or fifty people at the reception, a scattering of young people but mostly the prominent citizens of New London—trustees of the art museum, members of the historical society, officers of the Jane Austen Society. I munched from the buffet, sipped wine, and decided that I’d leave once I’d had a chance to say hello to Mr. Howland, who was continually surrounded by people. I had always thought of him as belonging to his students on campus, but now I saw that he was just as comfortable, maybe even more comfortable, with the adults who lived in New London. How did he know them? They were quite familiar with him, and a lot of laughter came from that corner of the room. Robert Lowell kept looking over there, pleading with his eyes to be rescued. After a couple of hours, he begged to be taken to his hotel, and that was the end of him, though not of the reception. The reception had a life of its own and, if anything, became livelier because the sofa that had been dominated by Lowell was now free, so three women, tired of standing in heels, sat down and started having fun together.

I crossed the oriental carpet to Mr. Howland’s armchair, intending to greet him and say goodbye at the same time. He was laughing and drinking, holding court, and I felt too young to interrupt, so I just stood in the middle of the room, caught his eye at last, and raised my hand in farewell.

“Wait a minute,” he said in a voice loud enough to still everyone else. They turned to see who had captured his attention. “Whatever happened to that doctor?” My poor heart cracked at the mere mention of him. Nothing at graduate school had soothed that pain. Now it seemed as if the pages of my undergraduate journal were spread open before the entire room. “I was afraid you were going to marry him,” Mr. Howland said. “I bet your father was worried, too.” My father? What did he know about my father? My father didn’t know what I was doing from one month to the next, much less who I was dating, although it was true that he didn’t like that medical student, had described him as arrogant. But this was never in my journal, so how did Mr. Howland know? “He was too domineering,” Mr. Howland said. Everyone in the room was quiet.

I stood rooted. “Well…” I whispered.

“You’re the kind of girl,” Mr. Howland said, “who could be an old maid.”

“Ted!” one of the women protested, and some of the others chimed in, “How silly, such a pretty girl.”

“Too demanding,” he said.

“Of course she’ll get married,” one of the women muttered, and another said, “Really, Ted, come on now,” and when I could move I turned and walked with as much dignity as possible out the front door and into the warm night. He had betrayed me. Mr. Howland had betrayed me.

Nevertheless, I decided to say goodbye to him the next day before I drove back to Cambridge. Maybe I’d misunderstood. Maybe he could still be my trusted adult. I drove to his farmhouse, and as I was heading across the lawn the front door opened and a young black man in skin-tight clothes came toward me, waving his hand like a girl happy for company. Under his T-shirt was a muscular torso, and the bulge in his tight trousers was remarkably large. Today’s young woman would be far from shocked, would have noticed the clues over the years. But even if he was that way, why would Mr. Howland choose this man, who was walking toward me in a comically dramatic way? Was this a prostitute? Can men be called floozies? “Is Mr. Howland here?” I managed to say.

“No, Sweetie, he’s not here. He’ll be back soon if you want to wait.”

Driving back to Cambridge, I remembered my Greek boyfriend’s comment. Do men sense this sort of thing about each other?

Years later, it was Mr. Howland’s influence that made me flip to the poems first when The New Yorker was delivered to my house in the suburbs of Boston, where I lived with my husband and two children. If I wrote in a journal, it was only to record the cute things my children said.

One day, I read a poem in the magazine written by a woman with the same last name as my best friend from high school. The poem described the poet’s garden, how she found a caterpillar and called to her mother, who came out and said words that showed an appreciation of the mysteries of nature. The mother’s words sounded exactly like my friend Lynn, so I wrote to the poet at The New Yorker and asked if she was my friend’s daughter. She wrote back that my letter had made her weep. She had no idea she had gotten it so right. She gave me her mother’s phone number in New York.

The perfect opportunity for a reunion presented itself a few months later. Theodore Howland was going to be honored at the New York Historical Society. He had served as America’s Poet Laureate, and several well-known poets were going to read his poems. The reason that Mr. Howland was not going to read his own poems was that he had had a stroke. Lynn and I made a date to go to the ceremony with her daughter, who was a fan of Theodore Howland.

Something came up that prevented Lynn and her daughter from going with me, however, so I drove from Boston and went to the ceremony by myself. The auditorium was full. Who were all these people? How did they all know Mr. Howland? On the stage were several men sitting in chairs near a podium. From the wings came a crippled old man being guided by a younger man, and I burst into tears and couldn’t stop, even though I bit the insides of my cheeks. I was glad my friend and her daughter were not with me, because I was overcome seeing my giant so shrunken. He shuffled behind a walker, his head tipped too much to the side, and was guided into a chair to the sound of thunderous applause from the hundreds of people who had leapt to their feet. He smiled at us from a twisted mouth and made a horrible gesture that was supposed to be a wave of greeting.

Each speaker read poems from Mr. Howland’s several volumes and reminisced about their friendship. Several were former students, men with gray hair, who expressed their gratitude to him. How had they managed to stay friends with Mr. Howland over the years? Could I have stayed friends with him? I would have at least known that he’d had a stroke before reading about it in the alumni magazine. Instead, I knew almost nothing about Theodore Howland. All these people praised him for being a great teacher. Was he different with male students?

At the end of the tributes, Mr. Howland was helped to the podium, and there he attempted to talk to us. What came out, however, was just grunts, so we sat frozen until his companion started clapping, and we all clapped as if we’d understood what he said, and I was crying so hard that cheek biting didn’t help.

Some of the people in the audience formed a crowd waiting to go backstage. My heart was racing because I didn’t know what I’d say to Mr. Howland or even if he would remember me. I would extend my hand, tell him my name, say I was happy to see him again, and make room for the next person. I could do this, I said to myself. Makes no sense to travel all the way from Boston and not let Mr. Howland know I was there to see him honored. But when it came my turn, I was so overcome with sadness that I couldn’t say one word but just stood there as Mr. Howland continued to twist his head this way and that in response to the shouts of greeting coming from various places in the room. I was helpless. A dignified man who was Mr. Howland’s helper came close to me and whispered, “Please come to the reception. There are shuttle buses outside. Just get into any one.” Then he added, “It’ll be okay. No, no wait. Here. Take this,” and he fished a ticket out of his pocket and handed it to me, “just in case.”

As luck would have it, I climbed into the van containing a witty man. From the minute my bottom touched down on the seat next to him and we agreed that we were lucky to be going to this reception, it was as if the sun had broken out. Together, we piled up our plates from the buffet in the cavernous ballroom of one of New York’s ritzy prep schools; together we sat at one of the dozens of tables in a wood-beamed room and had a lively time. He said if he ever wrote his autobiography it would be called Everything Should Have Been Different, or else Enter Complaining. I felt sprung from household cares, from the tedium of domestic life. At this reception I was not someone’s mother, someone’s neighbor, someone’s wife, but a writer among writers. Here I was in New York, the hub of everything, and I must surely belong because the man who was making me laugh was a reporter from The New York Times, and he could have been sitting with anyone but chose to enjoy himself with me. But it did come to an end after the desserts. My new friend and I hugged goodbye. Then I went searching for Mr. Howland.

He was sitting alone at a table. “Hello, Mr. Howland,” I said and sat down next to him. I told him my name. He just sat there, the muscles of his face too loose. I told him I was a student from the days when he had had that apricot poodle and that I was sorry to hear the dog had died. I hadn’t planned what to say, and now I wished that I had because I was talking nonsense and there was no one to rescue me. Mr. Howland’s helper was across the room chatting with other people. I fell silent. Suddenly, Mr. Howland put his hand and on mine and said, “For … a … long … time … I … couldn’t … talk.” Then we just sat there holding hands. We sat like that, just loving each other.

Reader Comments

I must dash this e mail off to you immediately to say how much I enjoyed reading your piece, Receptions With the Poet. It was sensational and serves as a perfect example of memoir at its best as indicated by the way you handled time, reflection and detail.  I was there with you in among those scholarly, privileged intellectual circles sharing every moment of innocence, curiosity, suspense, inferiority. I enjoy the sly, careful way that you balance wisdom and nostalgia. Your candor skillfully brings both the reader familiar and unfamiliar with this world into your experience. Bravo.

– Geraldine Salvatorelli

 

 

Diana Altman

Diana@DianaAltman.com

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