Detail

Looking Back at the Legacy of St. Mark's Poets for Poetry Week

Posted: April 23, 2012

Poetry Week at St. Mark's is here: from April 23-28, the School will recognize the art and craft of poetry in all of its varied voices, as part of the 17th annual National Poetry Month celebration. Poetry Week kicked off on campus with the presentation by renowned poet Mark Doty, co-sponsored by the Gray Colloquium series. But St. Mark's itself has a rich legacy of poetry and poets, and it is revealing to look back and encounter the stories of poets important to St. Mark's over its first century as a School. Two graduates, two teachers, and two visitors are among the most prominent of these.

  • JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL (1819-1891) – A Harvard professor and later U.S. Ambassador to both Spain and to England, he was an American romantic poet, associated with the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who were among the first American poets who rivaled the popularity of British poets (besides Lowell, the main figures from this group were Longfellow, Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Cullen Bryant). His brother, Robert Traill Spence Lowell, was the third Headmaster of St. Mark’s School. James Russell Lowell often visited St. Mark’s, accompanied by his only child to survive infancy, his daughter Mabel. In 1871, Mabel Lowell (daughter of James Russell Lowell and niece of the St. Mark’s Headmaster) married Edward Burnett ‘67, son of the School’s Founder and the first St. Mark’s Head Monitor. The wedding took place in Southborough, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. The Headmaster officiated and his brother, the poet, gave away the bride.

  • James Russell Lowell was an abolitionist, who believed that any truly good poet had to be radical in his perspective. He once wrote that “I believe that no poet in this age can write much that is good unless he gives himself up to the radical tendency ... The proof of poetry is, in my mind, that it reduces to the essence of a single line the vague philosophy which is floating in all men's minds, and so render it portable and useful, and ready to the hand ... At least, no poem ever makes me respect its author which does not in some way convey a truth of philosophy.”

  • Here is one of James Russell Lowell’s poems, “MAY IS A PIOUS FRAUD”:

MAY is a pious fraud of the almanac.

A ghastly parody of real Spring

Shaped out of snow and breathed with eastern wind;

Or if, o'er-confident, she trust the date,

And, with her handful of anemones,

Herself as shivery, steal into the sun,

The season need but turn his hour-glass round,

And Winter suddenly, like crazy Lear,

Reels back, and brings the dead May in his arms,

Her budding breasts and wan dislustred front

With frosty streaks and drifts of his white beard

All overblown. Then, warmly walled with books,

While my wood-fire supplies the sun's defect,

Whispering old forest-sagas in its dreams,

I take my May down from the happy shelf

Where perch the world's rare song-birds in a row,

Waiting my choice to upen with full breast,

And beg an alms of springtime, ne'er denied

Indoors by vernal Chaucer, whose fresh woods

Throb thick with merle and mavis all the years.

  • Lowell also wrote poetry in the vernacular, using slang and dialect to convey impressions. Both Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken said that Lowell’s poetry inspired them. One of his best known poems in dialect is entitled WAR:

EZ fer war, I call it murder,--

There you hev it plain an' flat;

I don't want to go no furder

Than my Testyment fer that....

They may talk o' Freedom's airy

Tell they'er pupple in the face,--

It's a grand gret cemetary

Fer the barthrights of our race;

They jest want this Californy

So's to lug new slave-states in

To abuse ye, an' scorn ye,

An' to plunder ye like sin.

  • Finally, his poem “ONCE TO EVERY MAN AND NATION”, written to oppose the Mexican War, later was set to music as a hymn, and could be found in many church hymnals.

  • ROBERT FROST (1874-1963) was an American poet known for his poems realistically depicting rural life, often with New England settings, and (like Lowell) effectively using colloquial speech. Early in 1916, the whole of the St. Mark’s community assembled in the Schoolroom to hear forty-one year-old Robert Frost read from his poems. Among the works Frost shared with his St. Mark’s audience was a new one, as yet unpublished, entitled “The Road Not Taken”. He also read his “Mending Wall”, reminding his listeners that “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost went on to advise the St. Mark’s students not to “try to write verses.” The only real poetry, he said, “is that which comes spontaneously” when someone “feels that he has something in him which must find outward expression in words.” Frost then told his hearers that proficiency in prose should be the first goal of any writer, and that a writer should never forget the importance of tone. The Vindex account of Frost’s visit called him “the most brilliant of modern American poets” and noted that the evening was “unusually interesting.”
    • “The Road Not Taken” would be published later in 1916, as part of Frost’s third collection of poetry, Mountain Interval.
    • Frost would receive four Pulitzer Prizes for poetry.

  • HENRY GREW CROSBY ’17 (1898-1929) Harry Crosby was a young poet, publisher of poets, and for some the epitome of the Lost Generation in American literature. A second generation St. Marker (his father, Stephen Van R. Crosby, Class of 1887, was the first-ever recipient of the Fearing Athletic Prize), he was known as a talented descriptive poet during his time at St. Mark’s (although he did not win the Poetry Prize; just a prize for punctuality). Immediately after graduation Harry Crosby joined the American Field Service (A.F.S.), becoming an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer at the front lines during the last year of the First World War. Writing about the war in a letter back to St. Mark’s, he said:

Every village that the Germans have passed through is a mass of ruins. To see whole villages, towns, and even cities, where, before the war, all had been peaceful and where everyone had plied his trade, nothing but masses of debris, is a sight that one cannot easily forget. Through the Somme district not even a lone wall is left standing. Even the trees have been torn to pieces by shell fire. They stand, gaunt and bare, their tops, barks, and branches completely lopped off. Everything for miles around is weird and desolate. Barbed wire lies about heaped in tangled masses, all rusted and battered. Old caved-in dugouts… are scattered all over what was once a peaceful land. The battlefield of the Somme is literally pock-marked with vast gaping holes now filled with the waters of countless rainstorms. It shows the utter uselessness of the whole thing.

In late November, 1917, a shell exploded ten feet from Harry Crosby’s ambulance, sending shrapnel tearing through the wounded men he was transporting to safety. Crosby was rattled but unhurt. His best friend, however, lay dying at the side of the car. There was nothing he could do. “From that moment,” Crosby would later write, “I changed from a boy to a man. From that moment,” he declared, “I never feared death.”

For two days in early November, 1918, a French infantry division was pinned down under heavy attack. There were hundreds of casualties and the call went out for volunteers to assist in evacuationg the wounded to safety. First to step forward was Harry Crosby ’17, an A.F.S. veteran, who went out under fire to tend to the wounded and help bring back injured and gassed soldiers to the nearest Base Hospital, saving countless lives. For his efforts during the last week of the War, Harry Crosby would, at nineteen, become one of the youngest Americans to receive the Croix de Guerre, along with the American Field Service Medal for his work as an ambulance driver and attendant in combat. A.F.S. Director Stephen Gallati ‘06 would present his fellow St. Mark’s alumnus with the latter honor. Honor, however, was not what Harry Crosby was seeking. Perhaps he himself had no idea of what he wanted. Survival, after all, had been his only goal over the last few months. In his letters to Dr. and Mrs. Thayer (the SM Headmaster and his wife), he included fragments of poems which painted powerfully illustrated his churning emotions of anger and despair.

I wonder, could the slain ghosts walk some night
Upon the cratered hills about Verdun,
If they would mingle there, the French, the Hun,
Glare, fleshless face to face, in lurid light
Of obus, spreading death in hustling flight? ---
Red screams of hate, mouthed out by hidden gun ---
Take up again the battle left half-won;
Incarnate now, complete the carnal fight?
Or rather, rising out of bloody sleep,
The scattered skeletons together blown,
Would not they, German, French, together sweep
Across the Rhine, say grimly: "Thou hast sown
The ruthless wind; therefore the whirlwind reap!"
And day's next dawning find an empty throne?

  • Greatly disturbed by his wartime experiences, Crosby rejected his privileged Boston family and sought solace in reckless behavior. About this time in his life, he wrote that he wanted to flee from “the horrors of Boston and particularly of Boston virgins”. He ran off with the wife of the Groton headmaster’s grandson, then married her after she divorced her husband. They travelled the world together, leading a life of wild debauchery. Their adventures filled the gossip pages of newspapers around the globe with titillating innuendo. But Harry Crosby also took up writing poetry in earnest, publishing several volumes of his own work. He started an avant garde publishing house in Paris. Called the Black Sun Press, it published early works by Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, Hart Crane, Kay Boyle, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and many others, along with special illustrated editions of works by Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde.

  • Crosby continued to correspond regularly with Dr. and Mrs. Thayer, sending copies of his books to the School, containing poems like the following:

My soul has suffered breaking on the wheel,
Flogging with lead, and felt the twinging ache
Of barbéd hooks and jagged points of steel,
Peine forte et dure, slow burning at the stake,
Blinding and branding, stripping on the rack,
The canque and kourbash and the torquéd screw,
The boot and branks, red scourging on the back,
The gallows and the gibbet. All for you.

These tortures are as nothing to the pain
That I have suffered when you gaze at me
With cold disdainful eyes. You do not deign
To smile or talk or even set me free-
Yet once you let me hold your perfumed hand
And danced with me a stately saraband.

That was “Temple de la Douleur”. His “Salome” was even more suggestive, with references to “her flesh-entangled dreams” and “red-shadowed lust”.

  • On December 11, 1929, the New York Times was delivered to the Headmaster’s study at St. Mark’s. The front page headline stared coldly out at Dr. Thayer: “COUPLE SHOT DEAD IN ARTISTS’ HOTEL”. He saw the name—Henry Grew Crosby—and sat there stunned, immobile, only his eyes moving as he read the story. The Times was calling it a murder-suicide pact. Crosby was found in a New York hotel with a Boston woman ten years his junior, not his wife. The lurid details did not unduly shock William Thayer. He had half-expected this kind of end for the fragile young St. Marker, so scarred by the Great War. But he grieved for the lost boy that was Harry Crosby, and he knew he must tell his wife. Violet Thayer was shaken by Crosby’s death, but perhaps she was not so surprised herself. Interestingly, and perhaps understandably given the nature of his demise, Harry Crosby was the first St. Mark’s alumnus not to have his obituary published in either the Vindex or Alumni Bulletin.

  • RICHARD EBERHART (1904-2005), on the St. Mark’s faculty, teaching English, from 1933-1941. He was an American poet who published more than a dozen books of poetry and approximately twenty works in total. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Selected Poems, 1930-1965 and the 1977 National Book Award for Poetry for Collected Poems, 1930-1976. He published his first book of poetry, A Bravery of the Earth, in 1930. It was based on his experiences as a deck hand on an ocean freighter. At St. Mark’s, he chaired the English Department. After leaving St. Mark’s, he served in the U.S. Navy. Following the war, he wrote a number of poems based on his wartime experiences. Perhaps the most famous of these is “The Fury of an Aerial Bombardment”—

Was man made stupid to see his own stupidity?

Is God by definition indifferent, beyond us all?

Is the eternal truth man's fighting soul

Wherein the Beast ravens in its own avidity?

Eberhart continued to write poetry, receiving national and international acclaim. His reputation as a more modern poet was so strong that in the mid-1950s Eberhart was sent to San Francisco by The New York Times to report on the Beat poetry scene. Eberhart wrote a piece published in the September 2, 1956, New York Times Book Review entitled "West Coast Rhythms" that helped call national attention to the Beat generation, and especially to Allen Ginsberg as the author of Howl, which he called "the most remarkable poem of the young group." Ginsberg credited Eberhart's article with "breaking the ice" for the Beats in regard to getting them published.

  • Eberhart was the Library of Congress’ U.S. Poet Laureate for 1959-61.

  • Eberhart had an impact on two important St. Mark’s poetry connections. One of his earliest students was Robert Lowell (himself an aspiring poet), and Eberhart was instrumental in bringing to St. Mark’s the English poet Wystan Hugh Auden.

  • W.H. AUDEN (1907-1973), an English poet (later an American citizen) considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. His work is noted for its stylistic expression, its engagement with moral and political issues, and its variety of tone, form and content. The central themes of his poetry are love, politics and citizenship, religion and morals, and the relationship between unique human beings and the anonymous, impersonal world of nature. (wikipedia). On the St. Mark’s faculty in 1939.

Just 32 when he arrived in Southborough, W.H. Auden was already established as a major figure in modern English literature, although some described him as “sensational”. Other critics still saw him as something of an enfant terrible. Auden had recently observed first-hand the Spanish Civil War and Japan’s invasion of China. His experiences produced the poem “Spain, 1937” and eventually a book, Journey to War, which he co-authored with Christopher Isherwood. Auden was fully aware of the growing European crisis. While an anti-fascist, he was ambivalent about his role. In 1935, he had married German actress Erika Mann, daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, in order to provide her with a British passport and the means to escape the Nazi regime. But in January of 1939 he emigrated to the United States, in order to distance himself from the worldwide conflict he saw as inevitable. Some saw this as a cowardly betrayal of his native Britain, but Auden generally ignored his critics. He had a background in teaching (from 1930-1935 he had supported his writing as a schoolmaster in Scotland and England), and he announced that he was desirous of “gaining direct insight into Secondary education” in America, according to the Vindex. He put out inquiries, and Richard Eberhart responded. Three years Auden’s senior, the St. Mark’s master was beginning to be nationally recognized as a poet himself, and Auden knew his work. Eberhart was thrilled with the opportunity of bringing a writer of Auden’s greater reputation to St. Mark’s, and he convinced Dr. Parkman to bring the expatriate poet to the School for the Spring Term.

W.H. Auden arrived at Southborough in May of 1939, and for the better part of seven weeks he made a distinct and lasting impression on the St. Mark’s community. The “well-known and highly-regarded English poet,” wrote Dr. Parkman (SM headmaster) in his end-of-year report for the Alumni Bulletin, “has taught in all our English classes, and they have been as refreshingly keen to profit by his being here as he has been to help them.” Auden certainly cut a memorable figure, wearing felt slippers instead of shoes and clothes that “were generally as rumpled as his face”, according to Bill Ziegler ’42. The Vindex said that Auden had an “effervescent personality”, and in class he gave out “unusual” homework to “bewildered St. Markers.” Struck by the general passion for baseball, he assigned a poem to be written about the American pastime in Sapphic meter. Well understanding the sometimes devious minds of mischievous boys, he also asked for a composition with a lie in each sentence. Sometimes his methods were designed to shock and amuse. In charge of Frederick Weed’s Third Form English classes for a day, he took chalk in hand to illustrate the difference between doggerel and poetry on the blackboard with the exhibitionistic examples.

Auden also met with small groups of Sixth Formers on two or three occasions in the Headmaster’s study. Discussions there were thought-provoking, as Auden would throw out questions to the St. Markers and then ask for their response. One time, recalled Robert Sturgis ’39, “I don’t remember exactly what the question was, but it stimulated me to think about what kinds of music appealed to kids at different stages of growth. At four or five something like folk songs about simple fanciful characters, perhaps; at ten or twelve Sousa marches; early teens the popular bands (we listened to Benny Goodman every night it seems); and at sixteen I had just discovered Schubert’s C Major Symphony. So I described that sequence and he seemed to accept it with some interest.” Another question was about conformity, testing the Sixth Form’s beliefs in societal conventions as opposed to the prioritization of self expression.

One evening, Auden invited a group of Third Formers to his apartment on the second floor of the School building. It was, recollected Bill Ziegler, “a pajama party.” The poet set out lemonade and biscuits for the boys, while he himself sat in the center of the room, smoking a large hookah pipe, still wearing his felt slippers. It was at times like these that the School’s English visitor got to know his hosts and pupils, and when the Vindex asked him to write an original poem for its pages, he penned an Ode to the School, peppering its sixty lines of anapestic trimeter with various schoolboy nicknames and references to local idiosyncrasies. He signed his St. Mark’s opus with “a somewhat unbecoming nom de plume”, calling himself “The Feather Merchant”. [the complete text of Auden’s St. Mark’s satire can be found by visiting Mr. Noble at the School archive in the basement of Thieriot].

Thus was W.H. Auden’s farewell to St. Mark’s, although he made one more gesture of gratitude to the man who had brought him to Southborough. He arranged for a poem by Richard Eberhart to be published in English editor John Lehmann’s book-length periodical New Writing, in order to help expose the rising American poet to a wider international audience. [Eberhart’s poem, called “The Human Being”, was excerpted in the June 1939 Vindex, and his is a tour de force of alliteration, particularly focusing on the letter “f”. In fourteen lines of free verse he celebrates “fingers”—part of the human being indeed. The complete poem appeared that same year in New Writing].

Auden would move on to New York, where he would live at the February House art commune in Brooklyn Heights with Benjamin Britten (then twenty-seven and a musical collaborator with Auden the librettist) and Carson McCullers (just twenty-three, with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter on the verge of publication). In looking back at St. Mark’s, Auden was somewhat more arch than his successful time in Southborough might have indicated. The School “sets out to be a sort of American Eton,” he wrote to a friend. He is said to have also remarked about the “dimness of the boys and the reverence of America for the average.”

  • Today, perhaps Auden’s most famous poem is his "Funeral Blues" ("Stop all the clocks") was read aloud in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994); subsequently, a pamphlet edition of ten of his poems, Tell Me the Truth About Love, sold more than 275,000 copies. After 9-11-2001, his poem "September 1, 1939" was widely circulated and frequently broadcast.

FUNERAL BLUES


Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public
doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew

All that a speech can say

About Democracy,

And what dictators do,

The elderly rubbish they talk

To an apathetic grave;

Analysed all in his book,

The enlightenment driven away,

The habit-forming pain,

Mismanagement and grief:

We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air

Where blind skyscrapers use

Their full height to proclaim

The strength of Collective Man,

Each language pours its vain

Competitive excuse:

But who can live for long

In an euphoric dream;

Out of the mirror they stare,

Imperialism's face

And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar

Cling to their average day:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash

Important Persons shout

Is not so crude as our wish:

What mad Nijinsky wrote

About Diaghilev

Is true of the normal heart;

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark

Into the ethical life

The dense commuters come,

Repeating their morning vow;

"I will be true to the wife,

I'll concentrate more on my work,"

And helpless governors wake

To resume their compulsory game:

Who can release them now,

Who can reach the deaf,

Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

  • ROBERT LOWELL '35 [Robert T.S. Lowell IV] (1917-1977) an American poet, considered to be one of the founders of the confessional poetry movement. He was appointed the sixth U.S. Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, where he served from 1947 until 1948. He won the Pulitzer Prize in both 1947 and 1974, the National Book Award in 1960, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977.
    • Both the third St. Mark’s Headmaster and the poet James Russell Lowell were among his forebears.
    • At St. Mark’s he met and was influenced by the poet Richard Eberhart who taught at the School.
    • Also at St. Mark’s, Robert Lowell played on the undefeated varsity football team in the autumn of 1934, he starred on the soccer team (the soccer season did not begin until after the football season in those days, and only a 4-game schedule was played). Coach Gaccon singled him out, saying that Lowell “saved us from many difficult situations by his fervent play at fullback.” He was on Coach Gaccon’s crew squad as a VI Former, and he was an Editor of the Vindex.

  • Lowell was a conscientious objector during World War II, explaining his position in a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt: Dear Mr President: I very much regret that I must refuse the opportunity you offer me in your communication of August 6, 1943 for service in the Armed Force." In the letter, he goes on to explain that after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, he was prepared to fight in the war until he read about the United States' terms of unconditional surrender which he feared would lead to the "permanent destruction of Germany and Japan." He spent time in Federal prison. Before Lowell was transferred to a prison in Connecticut, he was held in a prison in New York City which he later wrote about in the poem "Memories of West Street and Lepke" from his book Life Studies.

  • Here’s just one of his poems:

EPILOGUE

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme--
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter's vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All's misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.

Robert Lowell was in the first group of recipients of the St. Mark's Distinguished Alumni Award.

Of course, there have been many more poetic St. Markers over the almost 150 years of the School's existence, but these six are perhaps the most prominent from the first century-- two graduates, two teachers, two guests.

*much of this article was adapted from research by Nick Noble '76 and manuscript drafts of his upcoming history of St. Mark's School*