. . . he sort of merges them. The big public and metaphysical issues thathe’s interested in are always circulating around an “I” narrator. How hedid it was brilliant. Early Robert Lowell, in poems like “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” was more openly interested in public issues, andthat was a revelation. I didn’t know that poets could take on politicalthings of a contemporary nature so openly. Poems like “For the UnionDead” I took instruction from, and I’d like to think that some of thatinstruction resides in Empires.
I was admitted to Harvard on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to studyOld English and Middle Scots, which I did and really enjoyed, but I remember my academic graduate adviser, who, when I told him I wantedto take Mr. Lowell’s class, said, well, you need to have some backgroundin this and that; you’re a little weak here and a little weak there, and headvised me not to take the class, so I didn’t but instead sat in on Lowell’sseminar on Wednesday mornings, where if you showed him some ofyour poems you could get in. I showed him some of my poems and wentto the informal seminar instead.
WALPOLE: Was Lowell in good shape in those days?
BALABAN: Well, we know now that he never was in good shape. A fewyears after I returned from Vietnam, I was on a Fulbright to Romania,and I ran into a British poet—it might have been Alan Brownjohn. Hehad just had a call from Lowell’s then wife, Lady Caroline, who said,“What happened when you talked to him on the phone?” Brownjohnhad just spoken with Lowell and told her nothing happened; Lowell hadseemed just fine—he was quoting literature, making witty commentsabout poetry. But Lady Caroline said, “He called me after you hung upwith him, and he was bawling over the phone, crying and crying.” Lowell was soon in an institution. So I don’t think things were quite right forhim for a long time. But I never saw it in that seminar.
WALPOLE: You went to Harvard for graduate study. You were a neophytemedievalist, I think?
BALABAN: Yes, I published a poem that I had written in Anglo-Saxonin the Old English Newsletter and later a learned paper on a figure fromfourteenth-century Scotland, whose taken name was Blind Harry,