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Robert Lowell's Lightness

A daughter considers her father’s lifelong friendship with the poet he once called "the most unlovable man ever."
Robert Lowell with Frank Parker

I have only one memory of meeting Robert Lowell, though I’m told he visited my childhood home a lot. Lowell (or Cal, as he was known in our house) and my father, Frank Parker, were close friends. My father made most of the images that illustrate Lowell’s books: theirs was a word and picture collaboration they began as teenagers.

In my only extant memory, Cal has come for dinner and is sitting on our hard bottle-green sofa, talking to my father. I am four. Lamplight shines on Cal’s messy hair and reflects off his glasses so I can’t see his eyes. I am cutting squares of paper from a puzzle in a kids’ magazine with safety scissors, and my father asks me to show the pieces to our guest. I bring them over in handfuls, which he accepts with grave interest.

This is what I remember. What I now know is that I was a year younger than his son, whom I played with a few times, and more than a decade younger than his older daughter. He and my father had both had late second families. On this evening they were men near 60 who’d just seen out the toddler years again, creakier but hopefully wiser.

Almost 35 years have passed since then, and my career has taken me pretty far from poetry and even painting. Yet: I am the voice that introduces the Poetry Foundation's Essential American Poet podcasts, so I’ve been crossing paths with Lowell again.

* * *

Lowell and my father met at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts (class of ’35). It was here that Lowell got his nickname “Cal,” a shortened version of both Caligula (the despised Roman emperor) and Caliban (the monster of The Tempest). My father always described his best friend as someone other boys seemed instinctively to shun. Watching my father attempt to explain this on tape—in an early 1980s interview on British television—makes me anxious. As a broadcaster I feel for the host, facing a source who speaks in elliptical metaphors. As the source’s daughter I think: Oh no. But he pulls it off.

“Can you imagine,” he says, looking brightly at the interviewer, “have you ever seen, um, those drawings by patients where there’s sort of a long barrack room with a figure in the end, sort of—and then it’s darkened? And the devil and so on. . . .” And here my father waves his fingers quickly from side to side, as though putting in the intense cross-hatching he used in most of his own drawings.

“That’s rather what Cal was like at St. Mark’s,” he says, leaning forward. “There was a darkness wherever he went.”

The two recognized something in one another. Photos from this era show a brooding Cal, long limbs confined in his suits, while my father sports Alfred E. Newman ears and shredded, formerly white Keds. Here they are, unsmiling, in the staff photo of the Vindex, the St. Mark’s magazine. (Cal was associate editor, my father art editor.) Here they are looking semi-hale as counselors at Brantwood Camp, a New Hampshire retreat that St. Mark’s ran for underprivileged boys.

In this black-and-white snapshot, they are a symmetrical but opposite study of darkness and light. Now Cal wears the dingy Keds, paired with a dark shirt and a pensive downward gaze. Next to Cal’s washed-out sneakers, Dad’s feet appear to swelter in inky leather boots. But his shirt is pale—and a striped sweater drapes his shoulders with incongruous Preppy Handbook ease. In this moment, as throughout their lives, it’s in my father that the lightness dominates. Here it’s his face that’s raised toward the camera, squinting with sunlight or pique or both, and he is speaking. He is looking out for both of them.

My father appears again and again this way in articles and books about Lowell and in letters from Lowell and others: somehow present for moments of transformation, danger, and happiness. Dad and their friend Blair Clark accompanied Lowell to Nantucket in 1935 to form their three-person crucible of an art camp. Dad was best man at Lowell’s wedding to Elizabeth Hardwick. He also visited Lowell at McLean, the psychiatric hospital featured in “Waking in the Blue,” and declined—as gently and respectfully as possible—when his friend pressed him to sniff his pajamas: to see if Dad, too, could smell the sulphur Cal was sure was emanating from him—“the brimstone of Hell,” as my father put it to me.

This symmetry lasted their whole lives. Dad was a pallbearer at Lowell’s funeral. And when my father died five years ago, Lowell was in the headline of his obituary.

* * *

A number of Dad’s prints and drawings appear as covers and frontispieces of Lowell’s finished collections. These were images he made specifically for, and in response to the poems: the woman spinning headfirst into a whirlpool (for The Dolphin, 1973) or a lion snarling in an infinite hallway (Life Studies, 1959). But in History (1973), their roles reversed. Lowell included a poem inspired by a painting of my father’s, calling it “Death and the Bridge (From a Landscape by Frank Parker)”:

Death gallops on a bridge of red railties and girder,
a onetime view of Boston humps the saltmarsh;
it is handpainted: this the eternal, provincial
city Dante saw as Florence and hell. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The red scaffolding relaxes and almost breathes:
no man is ever too good to die
. . . .
We will follow our skeletons on the girder,
out of life and Boston . . .

The painting described here dates from after World War II. My father spent three years of it as a POW in Germany after his capture at the Dieppe Raid, a disastrous Allied attempt on the Normandy coast in 1942. He'd enlisted secretly with the Canadian Forces before the United States entered the conflict—illegal for an American citizen. After several close calls as a prisoner, he made it home alive. But by the end of the war, his younger brother and their father had both been killed.

My father's first full year of captivity was 1943. In this, he and his friend were again symmetrical yet opposite. That same year, Lowell—who had also defied the law for his convictions—was sentenced to spend the following 12 months in an American prison as a conscientious objector. After news of Dieppe reached him, Lowell wrote to my grandmother that “. . . Frank’s disappearance depressed me almost more than anything I have ever experienced.”

I’ve learned that Lowell regarded my father’s ordeal and our family’s service with awe. But I don’t know if he compared Dad’s imprisonment with his own—or if they spoke of it. He did admire Dad's choices, both political and artistic. In the letter to my grandmother, he continues: “I want to go on record as saying that I think the people who sneeringly spoke of Frank as eccentric or a ‘problem’ were talking through their hats . . . while almost everyone else was resting, Frank was literally sweating blood to learn his craft. I never worked a tenth as hard myself, and imagine the same could be said of almost anyone I have met.”

Lowell wrote a handful of poems about Dad. The last one, called “To Frank Parker,” appears in Day by Day (1977). It’s been called an affectionate elegy, a good-bye in a book full of similar good-byes to friends—some who’d already died as well as some, like my father, whom Lowell feared he might soon leave behind. But it’s often unsettled me—not only as a daughter but as a reporter, nosy about facts:

you are so much younger than your face,
I know I am seeing your old face—
the hampered Henry James
mockery of your stutter,

your daily fear of choking, dying—

in school, loudness not words
gave character to the popular boy’s voice.

It's almost impossible for me to read this poem academically. I’m really just looking for recognizable glimpses of a parent. So I think hyperliterally: “but Dad wasn't popular . . . but wait, the popular boy is someone else?” These feelings date from my first reading, and unfortunately they’re hard to shake: I was a young teenager like the boys in the poem, and looking everywhere for myself. That day I held the book and flushed, slowly. Whoever that popular boy was supposed to be, I recognized the type. I was decidedly not popular, and mockery punctuated my school days. I was also deeply protective of my father, who at the time of my reading was struggling with illness and other demons. Yet I saw painfully how he could also be a figure of fun. It dawned on me that Cal, supposedly a great friend, might be mocking him—even just by writing about his mockery by others. I registered the first stirrings of an uncertain dislike.

But those lines were nothing compared to these:

"I want to write." “I want to paint."

Was it I wanted you to paint? . . .

At the time I thought, and still think, “No, it wasn’t—as even you’ve said.” Years later, when I’d done more reading, it started to rankle in tandem with a line in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell—where Hamilton suggests that my father may have painted in “obedience” to his friend. Others have long refuted this. But to me the poem’s question rang like a musing revision of their lives, of the sort Lowell did with the lives of other loved ones in other poems. Then there’s the fact that, as published, this poem comes right after “St. Mark’s, 1933,” which ends “even now / my callous unconscious drives me / to torture my closest friend. / Huic ergo parce, Deus.” [God, in mercy spare him.] Perhaps I’ve listened to too many concept albums to feel like that’s a coincidence. But there it is.

Recently I sat with this poem for several days, trying and failing to hear it in other ways inside my head. So on a recent sweltering day I sat in the cool of one of the Harvard libraries, listening to tape of Lowell reading it. I wondered if Lowell’s emphasis could affect my interpretation.

It may. It was a relief just to have his voice as an alternative to my own. Lowell is gentle as he reads this, in an echoey, wood-paneled theater on an April day in 1977, about five months before he died. He sounds neutral when he asks the question that’s bothered me so much in print: “Was it I wanted you to paint?” It’s actually slightly anticlimactic, this listening, in terms of the poem. What my radio ears get more clearly is the intimacy of the recording itself: of a man who’s performing but isn’t well. He breathes with effort into the microphone, which can hear much more than the faraway audience—even catching the lectern’s slight groans as he leans and shifts. I’m inches from his face, but he can’t see me. He says the poem is “to my oldest friend really . . . who draws pictures for my books. . . . It’s a sort of schooldays reminiscing poem.” It’s also the last poem of the reading, which turned out to be the last public reading of Lowell’s life. He finishes and says “Thank you,” and the room erupts with thunderous applause.

* * *

At home the next day I referred back to more tape: the British documentary I quoted earlier. In it my father is the pink, robust version of himself that I haven’t seen since childhood. To me his answers sound unfiltered, but deliberately so. At one point his blue eyes narrow as he’s asked why a man who treated him and many others badly, who was nicknamed by his peers for monsters, deserved his devoted friendship.

“Why did anyone love Lowell,” he answers, and smiles, “not only from other people but from his own account the most unlovable man ever . . . on the face of the earth.” My journalist heart beats faster. It’s the kind of tape you hear and think, “Well, that’s going in.” But the bite is visibly edited here, and picks up with him acknowledging what he’s just said and done.

“Here’s this man,” my father continues urgently, “who commands affection and respect, and has changed lives—and yet when we’re asked chapter and verse, all we can do is tell stories about how dreadful he is. It’s trying to get the other that’s so hard. And I can only say that—the world became larger, that Rembrandt—somehow, things glowed, that Beethoven, you know—that everything became more, when we were doing it.”

I think “the other” was partly Lowell’s charisma and partly this inarticulable sense he transmitted that anything was possible. They and their friends could attain artistic greatness, and as artists they could—they had to—both experience and convey extremes of feeling. “The splendors, the terrors,” as my father used to say. 

This is probably why “To Frank Parker” upset my mother and other family and friends, while Frank Parker himself wasn’t much bothered. I think he better than anyone had the context of a lifetime to put it in, as both an interpretation of the past and a work of art. It’s not testimony—if the past can ever be captured definitely in that way. My father himself had a very particular sense of time, which he saw as a river: to him the past and the present moved together in one direction. Feelings and experience flowed along the same continuum, overtaking one another and mingling. In “To Frank Parker,” Lowell writes of “the very old”:

We will have their thoughtful look,
as if uncertain
who had led our lives.

The past changes more than the present. 

Indeed. But some things don’t change.

Two letters my father wrote Lowell, years apart, include almost the same line: “I don’t need to tell you that it means a lot to me to appear with you in print.”

But he did tell him, twice—also in print. This is meaningful in part because my father was a grudging correspondent, to put it mildly. Legal or business matters aside, he wrote only to people he cared deeply about. Lowell, an avid letter writer, accepted this as yet another way they were each other’s opposite number. He even tried to reassure my grandmother about it. “I hope you are not too distressed by [Frank’s] failure to write letters,” he wrote in that same note to her after my father’s capture. “That is only a personal quirk and not at all indicative of his feelings.”

I’m glad Lowell saw this; I think he was mostly right. It was something he could be generous about, just as he knew my father was generous about him. Lowell was a supremely challenging and demanding friend, but he was a loyal and grateful one to the end. This constancy was part of Lowell’s lightness, the side of him my father wished more people understood.


  • Diantha Parker is an independent reporter and producer. Her work airs on National Public Radio, where she worked for many years, as well as on Marketplace, the BBC and other outlets. A New Englander, she lived for more than a decade in Chicago, where she covered police issues and federal...


Robert Lowell's Lightness

A daughter considers her father’s lifelong friendship with the poet he once called "the most unlovable man ever."


  • Diantha Parker is an independent reporter and producer. Her work airs on National Public Radio, where she worked for many years, as well as on Marketplace, the BBC and other outlets. A New Englander, she lived for more than a decade in Chicago, where she covered police issues and federal...

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