After My Partner’s Death, I Discovered the Full Richness of His Poetry
Megan Marshall Remembers Scott Harney
I met Scott Harney in February 1975, on the first day of Robert Lowell’s spring semester poetry workshop. Scott was 19, tall, bushy-haired, quiet. I was 20, a dropout from Bennington, destined to join Scott’s class at Harvard as a transfer student the next fall when we’d both be juniors. Lowell’s “English Composition: The Writing of Verse,” the course’s official title, was Scott’s second poetry workshop and my first.
We were both public school kids on full scholarship at a college where preppies made up nearly half the student body, both from families made dysfunctional by disappeared fathers—mine into alcohol and mental illness, his into second and third marriages in new homes across state lines where child support laws didn’t then reach. Somehow we’d written poems that satisfied our eminent teacher and gained us admission to a class that would change both our lives.
Lowell’s readings of exemplary poems—Williams’s “Yachts,” Donne’s “The Relic”—and his pronouncements on our own lines, good or bad, were bracing. Hearing our poems read aloud in the poet’s distinctive Louisiana-inflected drawl at the start of critique sessions encouraged us to believe our fledgling efforts might someday be real poems too.
And we’d met each other. A year later in the spring of 1976, when Scott and I lived in dorms on opposite corners of the Radcliffe Quad, we had our fling. A flurry of letters and postcards crossing the continent during a summer spent apart wouldn’t keep us together. The following yearin September 1977 after our June graduation, we both attended Lowell’s funeral in Boston’s Church of the Advent, a high Episcopal mass, missing each other in the crowd of more than 400 mourners.
Our professor was only 60, but his death was not a shock: with his straggling gray hair, shuffling steps, and distracted manner, he had seemed old to us.
When Scott died at 63 in May 2019, he seemed young to me, to everyone who knew him. We’d met again 15 years before, rescuing each other from failed marriages, brought together once more by Lowell, whose collected poems had recently been issued. Scott won my heart this time by offering a clipping he’d saved from the New York Review of Books, May 29th, 1975, that confirmed a hazy memory of mine: a long ago class session in which Lowell read out one of my poems only to stop short, exclaiming, “I just wrote that line myself!”
A meaningless coincidence, really—we’d both written of train rides that took place in 1938. But Lowell vowed to change his line after its magazine publication, and now I couldn’t find the poem in the new Collected. Could I have invented the whole thing? Scott’s clipping provided the evidence; he had what I needed.
Scott didn’t talk about his writing. He just did it.I should have known there was more gold where that clipping came from. Scott told me that he’d continued to write poetry, but it was several years before he showed me any of his new work. Soon after we reconnected he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare type of cancer thought to be imminently lethal. Several rounds of chemotherapy kept him alive until a new drug provided a cure and a respite from treatment for nearly five years. Yet chemotherapy had damaged Scott’s heart.
Like Lowell, he began to suffer the shortness of breath and persistent cough of congestive heart failure. In December 2018 he was given six months to live, and I asked him for the manuscript of the chapbook I knew he’d assembled. Those poems, collected and arranged by Scott as The Blood of San Gennaro, written between the time of his divorce in 2001 and his first bout of congestive heart failure in 2013, form the first part of the volume.
Scott didn’t talk about his writing. He just did it—late at night and on solo trips to Naples each fall while I was teaching and his work as a paralegal in a downtown investment firm slowed. I worried I’d have little to say here about his intentions as a poet. Then a former girlfriend of Scott’s sent me a condolence note quoting a poem by Scott I didn’t know. The lines were so good I thought she might be mistaken, but I was the one who’d misjudged. There were several book-length manuscripts, she told me, offering to make copies.
Many of those poems, written in the 1980s when Scott was in his late twenties and early thirties, working jobs in social services that gave him more time to write, were good too. They sang in a different key, were more searching and metaphorical than the poems of the 2000s I knew, but they were distinctly Scott’s.
Finally I found them all, even college poems and essays, stored away in plastic file boxes in the basement of our rental apartment in Belmont, Massachusetts. This book got larger, and I learned much I hadn’t known about Scott’s development as a poet.
“I get simplicity from Snodgrass, nerve from Hugo, philosophy from Lowell and Bidart, and a commitment to autobiography from all four,” Scott wrote in May 1977 to Jane Shore, the teacher of his final workshop class at Harvard, the last he would ever take, despite his professors’ urging that he go on for an MFA. In a letter appended to the six poems he handed in at semester’s end, he offered “just a little reckless theory to let you know where I’m coming from.”
Scott explained he’d been working to reconcile two profound “but conflicting influences in my work.” First was Lowell, “who taught me how to wrench themes and messages from the plain facts of a life, my own or anyone else’s.” Second was Shore herself: “I think you were trying to help me see the merits of expressing one’s life through perceptions of relatively universal objects and actions—to personalize the universal, rather than follow Lowell’s method of universalizing the personal.
The problem with Lowell’s approach is that artistic transcendence is never fully achieved. He often has one foot stuck in the reality of the subject, severely limiting elevation.” After a recent immersion in the poetry of Richard Hugo, Scott wrote, “I’ve come to discover the place I want to be in now is the stratosphere, not on earth, not in space. I feel that I owe nothing to transcendence and nothing to reality.”
In response to Scott’s letter and portfolio, Shore marveled at the distance Scott had come since he’d taken her introductory workshop as a sophomore. She remembered “with some pain” how Scott’s poems had been “greeted with stony, uncomprehending silence” by his classmates during the semester before he’d studied with Lowell. Now she observed “how excited you made everyone when you brought work in—some of the best discussions in the class, and most perceptive, came out of your poems.”
In between, I learned from Scott’s college transcript, there had been workshops and independent studies with another Harvard faculty poet, Robert B. Shaw, classes on modern poetry with David Perkins and the long poem with Heather McClave. And wide reading—Shore admired Scott’s tendency “to see a poet all the way through, to love certain poets as you do, and to learn as much as possible from their work”—augmented by attendance at Monday night Blacksmith House poetry readings, afternoons browsing in the Grolier Poetry Book Shop and listening to recordings in Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room. He’d availed himself of all the riches Cambridge had to offer a young poet in the 1970s.
Richard Hugo’s Making Certain It Goes On was often in his hands during his last weeks, and always near his reading chair.
I’d often wondered why Scott gave up seats he’d won his senior year in Elizabeth Bishop’s verse-writing class and Robert Fitzgerald’s graduate-level versification seminar, courses that proved influential for many Harvard student poets of the time. I could see now that Scott had known his direction far better than most of us back then. While he could scan a line of his own (“When sin was sin and not a lesser good,” opened a poem in iambs from fall 1975) or any other poet’s, and liked to play with interior rhyme, he knew that cranking out more exercises in English or classical verse forms would not support his vision.
Loose iambs became his customary meter, but he sensed the move toward the New Formalism, and resisted. “I think this current generation of poets has run scared from the graves of Plath, Berryman and Sexton, unwilling to risk the fatal dangers of direct introspection, so proclaiming it worthless,” Scott wrote in his letter to Jane Shore. “Though my sighing, sobbing confessionalism has taken a more oblique angle in my old age,” he joked at 21, “I’m still dedicated to the principles of autobiographical poetry, most important among them the notion that an autobiography is embedded in every work of art. Because this is always true, every skillful attempt to make that autobiography the actual focus of the work of art is valid.”
Scott was already “extremely prolific,” as his professor Robert B. Shaw noted, turning in far more than the required number of poems for class. What could an MFA program give that he hadn’t already discovered—aside from connections in the literary world that Scott was constitutionally opposed to cultivating? Scott nurtured, instead, an aesthetic and a practice that served him through a lifetime in poetry.
Drop Snodgrass and add Philip Levine to his 1977 list and you have the “certain poets” Scott loved, learned from, read and re-read all his adult life. Hugo’s Making Certain It Goes On was often in his hands during his last weeks, and always near his reading chair, along with Levine’s posthumous essay collection My Lost Poets and Lowell’s newly re-issued Selected Poems. Frank Bidart’s Half-Light joined more Levine and Hugo in a small collection beside the bed where he died.
Scott was often too unwell to go to readings and book parties, to travel with me to literary festivals. Many of my friends never met him, and I know that some who did were puzzled by my choice of an unpublished poet for a mate. I refer these people to a 1980 letter of recommendation in Scott’s permanent college file written by Gene Boehne, Executive Director of The Church Home Society of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts: “Scott listens with a seeking and sensitive ear. He loves responsibly, plays hard, and is creative by intention and nature.”
Boehne had supervised and then worked with Scott, whom he termed “my friend,” for nearly a decade as Scott took on various roles in the youth outreach programs of the church in which he’d grown up. Boehne admired Scott’s “distinct ability to integrate feelings and thinking,” inadvertently reproducing Elizabeth Bishop’s definition of poetry: “a way of thinking with one’s feelings.”
And of course Boehne couldn’t resist mentioning that Scott was “a bit of a poet, you know, not an idealist, mind you, maybe that’s why. Anyway, people who care really like him for who he is, as a friend, a hard worker, and as someone who wants more meaning out of life than you find in the Coke ads.”
Boehne knew Scott at a time when I’d lost touch, when he was writing the poems selected here from a 1988 manuscript titled Atget’s Light. What dangers of introspection was Scott willing himself to brave in these years? Scott was handsome, and there was no shortage of girlfriends. He was attracted to beautiful but troubled women, perhaps a legacy of childhood catastrophe: his father’s desertion of the family, leaving Scott and his two sisters to the care of their mother, who for a time was hospitalized for depression.
In the poems of Atget’s Light, Scott explores both a family history of repeated desertions by men—father, grandfather, great-grandfather—and his own sometimes fumbling, frequently misunderstood, but never surrendered efforts to “love responsibly,” to right the record, play the rescuer not the reprobate. His open heart left him vulnerable, and many of his love poems are elegiac, odes of longing. His father’s departure felt like—was—rejection. Would abrupt withdrawal of affection, loss of love, be his destiny?
The landscape of these poems is often Boston’s Charlestown—“before it was fashionable,” Scott liked to say—where his mother took shelter in her abandonment, bringing children raised to suburban softness back to the hard-edged neighborhood where she’d grown up. And nearby Somerville, where Scott lived for much of his twenties and early thirties, working for the Somerville Youth Program and later commuting to work at McLean Hospital as a mental health aide. He traveled with Gene Boehne (and not without female companionship) on church business to the Midwest, and once gave the Southwest a try with a new love; some of his poems found their way west too.
Scott’s poems became more complex and assured when he was writing to please himself, writing for the poetry . . .But return, whether in memory or in fact, is Scott’s theme, not escape. He never found a city he loved more than Boston, despite the harm it inflicted on him. It was Boston that inspired his love for another gritty urban terrain, Naples, where many of his late poems are set, also the port of embarkation for Boston’s Italians who settled in the North End, the nearest Boston neighborhood to Charlestown.
Return to love is another theme in Scott’s writing of the 1980s, and throughout his life. He liked to quote to me the first line of Lowell’s poem, “Obit,” minus the negating “not”: “Our love will come back on fortune’s wheel.”
In one of the basement files I found a sheaf of rejection slips Scott received from literary journals in the late 1970s and early ‘80s—Ploughshares, AGNI, Ohio Review, Antaeus, Poetry Northwest, Ironwood, the Chowder Review, and more—some with encouraging handwritten postscripts urging “try again,” others with pleas to subscribe or donate to help keep the publication afloat. They came to an end with a 1982 card from the judges of the Grolier Poetry Prize, which included book publication—“If your name is not one of the above, we hope you will enter your manuscript again next year.”
Scott was not one of that year’s two winners, but the Grolier’s proprietor, Louisa Solano, had added a note: “your ms. was among the top ten finalists of 271 entries.”
I wish I could ask Scott why he stopped sending out his poems just then. But it doesn’t matter now. The decision seems to have been for the best: his poetry got better. This had not been my experience as a writer. Although, like Scott, I took no more writing classes after college, I gained an education by way of incremental publication. The advice of editors I worked with at magazines and then in publishing houses taught me what I needed to learn about how to communicate; the sense that my words were reaching an audience gave me the confidence to press on.
But Scott’s poems became more complex and assured when he was writing to please himself, writing for the poetry, writing, perhaps, in a one-sided dialogue with his chosen mentor poets. And then in the new millennium, divorce followed swiftly by his terminal cancer diagnosis simultaneously darkened his view and thrust him forward, even as love returned.
The Neapolitan poems from The Blood of San Gennaro and the concluding poems in the “Uncollected” section of this volume speak from his last years. Scott’s awareness that he would be the one to leave brought new control and a fearlessness to his writing. Scott was not afraid of dying, he told me, only worried about how I’d manage without him.
When we met again and I learned Scott still wrote seriously, I bugged him to try the only ways I knew for a poet to get published—a writing group, a low-residency MFA program, literary conferences. I wanted for him what I imagined would be the affirmation that would make his poems—the poems he hadn’t yet shown me—better, bring them to readers. Scott could take only so much of this, and soon silenced me with his typical disarming honesty. “Megan,” he said, “maybe the thing I’m best at is loving you.”
Scott was very good at loving me. He was also very good at writing poetry. Scott wrote his side of our love story in “Days of Waking.” But my favorite lines have come to be the ones that led to so many discoveries in the months since his death, from a 1982 poem, “When the Sky Closes In.” The poet, suffering rejection by his lover, curses the sun that shines too bright, mocking his dark mood:
Sun should make amends, send you
down a ray-slide to my shaking
arms and beat some other continent
down to drought. Then I’d cut
the orbit strings and earth
would ride us out to better stars.
Here was the transcendence Scott claimed to have foresworn, along with reality, in his letter five years before to Jane Shore. He’d found it, even as he cried out for reality, for his beloved’s return:
. . . Praise the road or track,
not the ray, whatever brings you back.
“Days of Waking” by Scott Harney
I remember days I woke before you,
just to watch, as you slept on your side,
the sun begin to pool in the valley of your waist,
a landscape like the one that I imagined
you had come from, and I had to yet to see:
California, still all dreamy lurid vistas
in my gray New England mind, the stuff
of labels slapped on farmers’ crates: Mission Bell
or Westward Ho, the produce combed
in perfect rows on slopes of weedless soil.
Sometime later, I woke among the dead
on a rough edge of Los Angeles, wondering
where you were, where I was, and what it meant
that a single cockroach, climbing up the curtain
at the Motel Mariposa, did not dare to leap
from one pleat to the next and for a moment
the woman that I traveled with was you,
but her valley held no sun, so our only choice
was Tijuana, where I stared down the boys
who stared at her, because I felt like
taking a stand, there being nothing else
to do among the ancient chevys, the open hands.
In a room of golden fleurs-de-lis on burgundy,
I woke before a judge and let him speak
the words that wed me to another. It was October,
warm but stormy, and I could smell the sweet rot
of wet leaves in the street, but the kid I paid
a hundred bucks to play some easy Mendelssohn,
some light Chopin, just wouldn’t stop.
In Sonoma Valley on our honeymoon, it almost
seemed, in certain light, the labels showed it right.
Not long ago, I woke again, from a nap
in a suburban living room, where I slept
each chance I got, as a man might do three weeks
after his wife walks out. The TV that had mumbled
me to sleep still on, I opened my eyes and you
were there, at the end of a 30-second interview,
like some angel that had come to meet the press.
I don’t recall a word you said, but through
the open window, shouts of children in the wind
sounded like the trumpets of the seraphim.
On the first morning of my fiftieth year, I woke
with you again, the sunlight cradled in your waist
not the glow of heaven or even California,
just enough to keep me from the dark.
From The Blood of San Gennaro by Scott Harney. Used with the permission of the publisher, Arrowsmith Press. Introduction copyright © 2020 by Megan Marshall.
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