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MADONNA OF THE CELLO: POEMS Hardcover – January 1, 1967


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Robert Bagg, born on 21 September 1935, grew up in Millburn, New Jersey. In high school he played varsity golf, JV football, and began to publish humorous sketches (modeled on those of Robert Benchley) in the school newspaper.

Fascinated by the extreme poems, exotic personality, romantic adventures, and harsh death by drowning of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Bagg decided to make poetry his own line of work. His parents did not disapprove, but sent him to Amherst College (his father's alma mater) thinking that its faculty would either endorse or discourage their son's chosen vocation.

At Amherst Bagg studied first with Walker Gibson and then with James Merrill, who told him to forget Shelley and write about the adventures of his suburban youth. He alarmed Robert Frost, who chided him for writing about sex, noting that Yeats waited until old age to broach that aspect of experience. In 1957 Bagg won the Mount Holyoke College Glascock Memorial Poetry Prize, judged that year by Howard Nemerov, Anthony Hecht and Andrewes Wanning.

Bagg's Greek professors at Amherst, John Moore and Thomas Gould, became lifelong friends who fostered his self-confidence and the necessity for self-criticism in equal measure. Both Moore and Gould urged him to translate a short satyr drama, The Cyclops by Euripides, for his roommate Ralph Lee to direct as a senior project; Lee crafted gorgeous papier-machê masks for the play's huge one-eyed monster and directed it with gusto. Just before graduation Bagg and Lee collaborated on an original play, based on the Nausicaä episode of Homer's Odyssey. That undergrad exposure to Greek drama set Bagg on a lifelong career vector: translating the Athenian playwrights into contemporary speech.

Immediately after graduating from Amherst, Bagg spent two years in France and Italy on fellowships (from Amherst, then from the American Academy of Arts and Letters) with his first wife Sally Robinson and a growing family. (The first two of the couple's five children--Ted, Christopher--were born respectively in Cap d'Antibes and Rome; Jonathan, Melissa, and Hazzard were born stateside.) While abroad he wrote his first book of poems, Madonna of the Cello (Wesleyan University Press, 1961), which was a finalist for both the 1962 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in poetry. The experience of hanging out with expats and natives in France and Italy--and of immersing himself in two sophisticated ancient cultures--provided Bagg subjects and perspectives that he developed in his later work.

After Europe, Bagg went for a semester to Harvard, studying Antigone in Greek with John Finley and Yeats with John Kelleher. He then won a Sputnik-inspired National Defense Fellowship to the University of Connecticut, where he earned a PhD in English literature. There he met the poet, essayist, and translator James Scully. In July 2011 HarperPerennials published The Complete Plays of Sophocles, Bagg and Scully's new translations of these seven celebrated dramas.

Bagg taught briefly at the University of Washington (1963-65), and for the rest of his career at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he served as graduate director (1982-86) and English department chair (1986-92). He specialized in teaching English Romantic poetry, modern poetry, and lots of great books--from Homer to Merrill, Wilbur, and Plath. In 1996 he retired, making up for time lost as an administrator by translating more Greek plays and writing essays and poems.

As of 2012, Bagg has published six full-length books of poetry, of which a selected volume, The Tandem Ride and Other Excursions, is the latest. Oxford University Press published Bagg's translation of Euripides' Hippolytos; the University of Massachusetts Press published his translation of Euripides' The Bakkhai and the Oedipus Plays of Sophocles. The seven Harper Perennials volumes of Bagg's Sophocles translation his versions of Women of Trakhis and Elektra. In February 2012 Harper Perennial issued the three-play Oedipus Cycle in one volume, and in August 2012 each of the seven plays from The Complete Plays of Sophocles volume will appear individually, five by Bagg and two by James Scully.

Bagg's translations of Euripides' Hippolytos and The Bakkhai and of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, Antigone, and Women of Trakhis have been variously staged in more than 60 productions worldwide. Three recent and/or upcoming productions include: Hippolytos at Barnard University in October 2008 and The Bakkhai (with a rock opera score) in September 2009 at the University of Utah.

Over the years Ingram Merrill, Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and NEA fellowships have supported Bagg's projects. In 2007 he received a "We The People" Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in support of his critical biography of the poet Richard Wilbur. Excerpts from the latter will appear in Fall 2012 in the Amherst alumni/ae magazine and The Common, a biannual.

Robert Bagg lives in Worthington, Massachusetts, with his wife Mary, a freelance editor and writer. They married in 1997.

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