This is one of Robert Lowell's answers given during an interview:


"Can I get you back to Harvard for a minute? Is it true you tried out for the Harvard Advocate, did all the dirty work for your candidacy, and then were turned down?"


I nailed a carpet down. I forget who the editor was then, but he was a man who wrote on Frost. At that time people who wrote on Frost were quite different from the ones who write on him now; they tended to be conservative, out of touch. I wasn’t a very good writer then, perhaps I should have been turned down. I was trying to write like William Carlos Williams, very simple, free verse, imagistic poems. I had a little group I was very proud of which was set up in galleys; when I left Harvard it was turned down.

Can you explain what "I nailed a carpet down" means?

  • Is it perhaps oblique for "hammering tacks" which would be like "hammering coffin nails", the criticism of the sort of monotonous, heavy piano playing typical of a neophyte? Later in the interview Lowell says that after a conversation with Frost, he realized his own poetry was monotonous. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Apr 27 '17 at 19:45
  • I've never heard that expression before and had I been the interviewer would have had to ask Lowell what he meant. It's not a well-known idiom, so small blame to you if you don't know either! – MMacD Apr 27 '17 at 19:55

"Nailed down a carpet" is literal here. The poet Donald Hall writes of his own attempt to get onto the Advocate’s editorial board:

A candidate made public judgments on submitted manuscripts and was required to do housework. When Robert Lowell tried out in 1936, he performed janitorial duties, tacking carpets, before he failed election and transferred to Kenyon College. In 1948 I painted woodwork . . . —Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry, 76.

The story is echoed at several other places on the internet; the primary source is often given as the Harvard Advocate Centennial Anthology, to which I have no direct access. But Lowell seems to corroborate it in the interview you link, and the fact that the interviewer did not press Lowell for an explanation suggests that he was familiar with it, as does his mention of the “dirty work” Lowell performed.


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