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…
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Were Dorothy Parker’s Ashes Kept in a Filing Cabinet for Two Decades?

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: Dorothy Parker’s ashes sat in a filing cabinet for nearly two decades.

Dorothy Parker was one of the leading humorists and wits of the 20th Century.

After selling her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1914, Parker eventually went to work for that magazine as well as Vogue as she became famous for her presence as a founding member of the gathering of New York wits known as the Algonquin Round Table.

In 1925, Harold Ross founded the New Yorker and Parker was one of his star writers. She wrote more than 300 poems for the magazine, specially in viciously dark poems, with suicide being a common topic. In 1926, Parker released the first volume of her poems titled ENOUGH ROPE : POEMS. It sold well.

Eventually, Parker moved to Hollywood where she became a successful and acclaimed screenwriter. Her left-wing politics though resulted in her eventually becoming blacklisted.

She returned to New York City where she worked for various magazines, perhaps most famously doing book reviews for Esquire. She had two separate “stints” being married to fellow writer Alan Campbell that ended with Campbell’s suicide in 1963 (from a drug overdose). However, her later years were mostly noted by her problems with alcoholism and after Campbell’s death, Parker did not have very many close friends.

This, therefore, led to the sad, strange fate of Parker’s ashes.
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Was The Word “Bull” in a Longfellow Poem Really Bowlderized to “Gentleman Cow”?

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: Thomas Bowdler “bowdlerized” Longfellow’s “Wreck of the Hesperus” by editing “bull” to “gentleman cow.”

Thomas Bowdler was a physican at the turn of the 19th Century who is much more famous for the work he did with his sister, Harriet, in editing the works of Shakespeare into a form that would make it appropriate for women and children to read. Bowdler recalled when he was a child and his father would entertain the family with the plays of Shakespeare, his father would surreptitiously omit parts of the plays that he felt were inappropriate for the ears of his wife and children. Bowdler felt that many people would appreciate an actual text version on these omissions, so that they did not have to do the omitting on their own.

So Thomas and Harriet set out to edit Shakespeare (with Harriet taking the lead). Eventually roughly 10% of Shakespeare’s words had been expunged, with some of them replaced by other words and some words (and characters) omitted entirely. One of the most famous changes in the collection (titled The Family Shakespeare) was the edit made to Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth’s famous cry “Out, damned spot!” was altered to “Out, crimson spot!”

As you might imagine, even over 200 years ago their actions drew derision from the literary community, and soon the term “bowdlerize” was coined to describe inelegant edits designed to cut out “offensive” material.

As the story goes, one of the most egregious edits Bowdler ever made was when he edited a reference to a bull in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s classic poem, “The Wreck of the Hesperus”

She struck where the white and fleecy waves
Looked soft as carded wool;
But the cruel rocks, they gored her side
Like the horns of an angry bull.

from “bull” to “gentleman cow.”

And so “gentleman cow” has become a famous term for when someone is trying too hard to be inoffensive about a reference.

So, did this happen?
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Did Wallace Stephens Convert to Catholicism Before He Died?

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: Poet Wallace Stevens converted to Catholicism before he died.

The idea of someone converting to another religion is a pretty commonplace situation.

And someone converting while on their death bed is even MORE conventional.

And yet, in the case of award-winning poet Wallace Stevens, his conversion was treated quite unconventionally…


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Were Some of Shel Silverstein’s Poems for Children Originally Published in Playboy?

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: Some of Shel Silverstein’s poems for Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic originally appeared in the pages of Playboy.

Reader Jeff asked:

I know that Shel Silverstein, now most famous for his illustrated books of poems for kids, was a songwriter and contributor for Playboy as well. I think I heard a rumor that some of the poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends or A Light in the Attic started out in Playboy, as odd place for a children’s classic to sprout from. Any truth to that?

As Jeff notes, Silverstein did, indeed, get his start in the entertainment industry working for Playboy.

While he did not start with the company, he got involved very early on, in 1956, to be precise, when the magazine was not even two years old.

A cartoonist, Silverstein first contributed cartoons to the magazine before gradually adding more material, including a popular travelogue series.

Soon, Silverstein was the second-most popular feature of the magazine – trailing only, well, you know, the naked ladies.

Eventually, he expanded his work into books.

His first Playboy-influenced work was 1961’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, an “adult primer.”

It was basically a satire of children’s book from an adult perspective.

Silverstein clearly was not thinking about children’s work at this point in time. Heck, later that year he released the more explicit A Playboy’s Teevee Jeebies oh la la.

However, his editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom, felt that Silverstein’s sensibilities would work well with stories for children.

So she convinced Silverstein to try to do children’s books.
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Was the Famed Poet Marianne Moore Hired to Name the Car That Would Ultimately be Known as the Edsel?

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: Marianne Moore was asked to come up with a name for the brand of car that eventually became known as the Edsel.

Marianne Moore was one of the most acclaimed Modernist poets of the 20th Century, with a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award on her mantelpiece.

A darling of the New York literary circle, Moore branched out into other areas, as well, particularly the sports world.

Moore was a major supporter of the New York Yankees, and even threw out of the first pitch for the 1968 season (she had a stroke later that year, and would pass away in 1972 after a series of strokes).

She also was a big fan of Muhammad Ali, even writing the liner notes to his spoken word album, I Am The Greatest…

But perhaps the oddest area where Moore lent her services was as an auto marketer!!
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Was Djuna Barnes’ Novel, Nightwood, Named By T.S. Eliot?

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: The famed poet T.S. Eliot came up with the name for Djuna Barnes’ classic novel, Nightwood.

Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is one of the most acclaimed and well known poets of pretty much any century, but certainly the 20th Century.

Born in 1888, by the time Eliot became part of the English publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber) in 1925 he had already written most of the works of poetry that people would regard as his “classic” works, including The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland.

Eliot would work at Faber and Faber for the rest of his life. Perhaps the most important piece of work he did at that company was to aid in the publishing of Djuna Barnes’ classic novel, Nightwood.


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Did the Founder of the Modern Olympics Also Happen to Win the First Olympic Gold Medal for Literature?

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: The first winner of an Olympic Gold medal for Literature went to a poem written by the creator of the modern Olympics.

In 1924, Oliver St. John Gogarty (from this earlier Poetry Urban Legend) won an Olympic medal.

What did he win it for?

Why, for a poem he wrote called “Ode to the Tailteann Games.”

You see, for a number of years, the Olympics actually gave out medals for ARTISTIC competitions as well as athletic ones!

The idea was first proffered by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man who actually (more or less) founded the modern Olympic Games, in 1894, at the formation of the International Olympic Committee, a Committee he would be President of from 1896 to 1925 (and Honorary President until his death in 1937).

de Coubertin felt that artistic competition should follow alongside athletic competition at the Olympics.

His early pleas went to no avail for the first three Olympics in 1896, 1900 and 1904, but in 1906, the Committee finally agreed with him and scheduled to have them at the 1908 Olympics in Italy. However, due to financial issues, Italy had to back out of hosting the Olympics, and London instead held them. Given the time crunch (they had about a year to prepare), there was no time to plan artistic competitions, as well.

Undaunted, de Coubertin finally got them to have artistic competitions in 1912.

These competitions would continue until 1948, at which point the IOC determined that artists were, almost by their very nature, professionals and should not be able to compete in the Olympics, which were intended to only be for amateurs. As a way of making up for it, every Olympics ever since has had attached to the Games a series of cultural exhibits for those who are interested.

But during the time of the art competitions, the categories were Architecture, Literature (all kinds), Music, Painting and Sculpture. The works all had to be brand new for the Games and they all had to do with sports somehow.

So fair enough, but hilariously enough, the very first Gold Medal given out for Literature (and in fact, the ONLY medal given out, as they did not award any Silvers or Bronzes for the category that year) in 1912, the very first art competition at the Olympics, went to none other than the Baron Pierre de Coubertin himself!!
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Did an Irish Poet Sneak An Insult Into a Seemingly Patriotic Poem?

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: Oliver St. John Gogarty wrote a poem dedicated to the returning Irish soldiers from the Boer War that contained a hidden, less celebratory, meaning within.

Oliver St. John Gogarty (1878-1957) was an Irish physician who was also a poet and author and was especially prominent in literary society as being quite witty and funny.

A contemporary and one time friend of James Joyce, many scholars believe that Gogarty is the basis for the character of Buck Mulligan in Ulysses. One of Gogarty’s poems does make its way into Ulyesses, or at least a reference to one of his poems, that is (the poem, The Ballad of Japing Jesus, appears in Ulysses as The Ballad of Joking Jesus).

Here’s Gogarty at the age of 21…

Gogarty was, like many Irishmen, a proponent of a free Irish state, and like a great deal of Irishmen, he was not happy with the Boer War (really, the second Boer War, but whatever), which involved England and the Boers, who were European settlers (mostly Dutch) who had migrated to South Africa years earlier and had co-existed with England in a state of mutual distrust. Like many Irishmen, Gogarty found parallels in the way the British treated the Boers to the way that the British treated the Irish, and it did not help that Irish soldiers were enlisted to help fight the war!

So Gogarty had an interesting response to the war…
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