Did Robert Lowell Once Live in a Tent on His Mentor’s Lawn?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to poetry and poets and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of all poetry legends featured so far.

POETRY URBAN LEGEND: Robert Lowell famously responded literally to a joking suggestion by famed poetry professor Allen Tate that Lowell could live in a tent on Tate’s yard.

Robert Lowell, the father of “confessional poetry” was one of the most celebrated poets in the history of American poetry. The Boston-born poet was the sixth U.S. poet laureate and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.


Lowell originally studied at Harvard University, but he changed his mind when he met famed English author Ford Madox Ford at a party in Boston after Lowell’s second year in school. The Good Soldier novelist remarked that he was headed to go stay with famed poet Allen Tate (the SECOND U.S. poet laureate) in Ohio, where Tate and John Crowe Ransom were teaching at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

Lowell actually ended up in Ohio before Ford. This led to an amazing exchange between he and the Tate’s that Lowell later recounted to the Paris Review in 1961…

It’s a terrible piece of youthful callousness. They had one Negro woman who came in and helped, but Mrs. Tate was doing all the housekeeping. She had three guests and her own family, and was doing the cooking and writing a novel. And this young man arrived, quite ardent and eccentric. I think I suggested that maybe I’d stay with them. And they said, “We really haven’t any room, you’d have to pitch a tent on the lawn.” So I went to Sears, Roebuck and got a tent and rigged it on their lawn. The Tates were too polite to tell me that what they’d said had been just a figure of speech. I stayed two months in my tent and ate with the Tates.

Eventually Lowell moved to dormitory housing and was soon on his way to a storied career in poetry.

Pretty amazing, huh?

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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