Yerevan on the Charles: An Homage to Diana Der-Hovanessian
The names one heard from poets coming of age in Boston in the last quarter of the twentieth century were Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Daniel Varoujan, Charles Olson, Eghishe Charents, John Wieners, and of course Siamanto. We were all aware of the heroic generation of Armenian modernists, martyred by the genocidal repression led by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, and the Young Turks. Their tragic deaths forced us all to reflect on the importance of poetry in a time of crisis. We knew their poems and stories largely thanks to the genius of one person, a Cantabrigian by the name of Diana Der-Hovanessian.
The New England Poetry Club, which Diana presided over for decades, was founded by Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, and Conrad Aiken in 1915. When I moved to New England in 1976 I wasn’t prepared for how seriously the region took its name. A starchy Yankee style still characterized literary Boston. Lowell and Bishop seemed to set a tone of louche formality—of high teas spiked with gin, and pregnant mumbling about Henry James in the shadow of Harvard’s towering William James Hall.
While Diana lived around the corner from the childhood homes of both ee cummings and Henry James, she proved a democratic and welcoming steward of traditions both local and international. Thanks to her, NEPC was perhaps the most cosmopolitan literary circle in town. At her home I met writers like Thomas Tranströmer and Yves Bonnefoy, as well as Richard Eberhardt and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It was also where I met the poet Peter Balakian, who has assumed, among several mantles, that of literary ambassador for Armenia.
A person of great warmth, loyalty, and commitment to poetry, Diana often hid behind a persona that made her appear shy and slightly befuddled. But she had clearly taken James’s counsel to heart: she was a person on whom nothing was lost. There were so many ways in which Diana was singular in the literary world. Among other things, she never uttered a mean word about anyone.
For those of us with multiple literary identities, Diana’s loyalty to her heritage was both moving and encouraging. Diana showed the way. She honored her roots while nurturing the contemporary literary scene with passionate generosity, gentle humor, and an unwavering faith in the importance and power of poetry. We are all strengthened by her example.