DAMARISCOTTA — A Boston College English professor and biographer of poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman said Wednesday night that the writing of his book on Lowell was interrupted by a dream.
“I began writing a biography on Lowell, and one night I had a dream and John Berryman appeared and said, ‘Tell Cal [Lowell] to move over,’” Paul Mariani said to the amusement of the audience at the Skidompha Library. “I left the Lowell biography for a while, did the Berryman thing, and came back to Lowell.”
The Newcastle Historical Society sponsored a panel at the library on Lowell and his wife, writer Jean Stafford, and their summer in 1946 at her home in Damariscotta Mills.
The program was presented in two evenings, with Wednesday’s discussion about the events of the summer of 1946, Lowell, Stafford, their work, the literary circle of which they were a part, and their summer guests.
Thursday’s events included a book signing by Mariani and readings of the works of Lowell and Stafford.
Mariani, Carol Brightman, writer and biographer of author Mary McCarthy, and Thomas Travisano, professor of English at Hartwick College and author of works on Lowell and poet Elizabeth Bishop, led the discussion for two hours Wednesday before a full house of about 75 people.
The couple’s summer of 1946 led to two of Lowell’s collections, “Lord Weary’s Castle,” for which he received a Pulitzer Prize, and “The Mills of the Kavanaughs,” and to Stafford’s short story in the New Yorker, “An Influx of Poets,” based on the many guests who arrived that summer. Stafford received a Pulitzer Prize for her “Collected Stories.”
According to panel moderator Leah Sprague of the historical society, Stafford and Lowell had come to Maine in search of a quiet retreat where they could settle and write. They traveled inland and discovered the village of Damariscotta Mills. Using the money she had earned from her book “Boston Adventure,” Stafford bought her first home on three acres on Damariscotta Lake, and the couple moved in.
The influx of visitors that summer distracted the couple and, along with Lowell’s personality problems related to his bipolar disorder, led to the end of their marriage a year later, according to the panelists.
Lowell was from a well-to-do Massachusetts family that harkened back to ownership of the 19th century textile mills in Lowell, Mass., and Stafford was a “tough, self-made woman” from Boulder, Colo., Mariani said.
Yet two people who had such different backgrounds also were so much alike, said Travisano, who has been working on a collection of letters from the friendship between Lowell and poet Elizabeth Bishop that spanned 25 years.
“The letters between Bishop and Lowell struck me as extraordinary,” he said. “They had a lot to say to each other, and they really were two of the greatest poets of their generation.”
He said Lowell had a gift for friendship and would form close bonds with people. Bishop and Lowell met each other right after events of the summer of 1946.
“One of the reasons their relationship lasted as long as it did was that they didn’t get married,” Travisano said.