ROBERT LOWELL, SETTING THE RIVER ON FIRE
A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
By Kay Redfield Jamison
Seventeen years ago I retired from my academic career as a scientist to immerse myself in poetry: in reading it, in writing it, and in studying it and poets.
Along the way I did encounter Robert Lowell and his poetry and specifically liked a couple of them: Skunk Hour and For The Union Dead. As for the poet himself I came away with the impression that he was a bit of an oddball, but no sense or perspective on what he contributed to poetry until I read Adam Kirsch’s The Wounded Surgeon.
But I still had no appreciation of the full extent what he had done until I read this book. I came away with an entirely new perspective and at the end of the book I have three specific regrets:
—That I never got to meet this remarkable man
—That I was not there in June of 1960 when he read For The Union Dead on Boston Common
—That I was not there for any of his readings at Harvard College.
Now let me talk about this specific book. It is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary poet and written by an equally extraordinary author. Kay Redfield Jamison set out in this book to correct the record about Robert Lowell: to address and characterize his illness and its impact on his poetry and the field of poetry itself. To this task she brings several unique qualifications. In the first place she is a clinical expert, meaning her academic career has been devoted to the study of mood disorders, including manic depression, or what we now know as bipolar disease. Furthermore she brings the unique perspective of she herself suffering from bipolar disease. In addition, though she is not a poet herself, she writes like a poet: succinctness of writing, great metaphors, and magnificent lists, like this one:
“It seemed a uniquely blighted era of writers; manic breakdowns, depression, addiction, alcoholism, or suicide struck, among others, Hart Crane, Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Jane Kenyon, Boris Pasternak, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Styron, Jean Stafford, James Schuyler, James Wright, Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Mary McCarthy, F. O. Matthiessen, Elizabeth Bishop, Edward Thomas, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, John Berry“man, Anthony Hecht, William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, Moss Hart, William Inge, George Mackay Brown, Louis MacNeice, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edmund Wilson, Robert Penn Warren, Franz Wright, James Dickey, and William Meredith.”
Several things about Lowell stand out from her story about him. In the first place, from the beginning he had an incredible sense of purpose, the sense that he was not only meant to be a poet, but that his purpose was to move poetry into new arenas. Secondly, is how much his mania was in the service of this purpose. Third, is an almost serendipitous occurrence which ensured he would achieve his purpose. His parents sought the help of a psychiatrist to cope with what they viewed as their wayward child, but this man, also a poet, had the incredible wisdom to get Lowell connected up with John Crowe Ransom and Alan Tate, two great poets and teachers. One wonders what would have happened to Lowell if he had not found this connection?
The other unique factor about Robert Lowell was that he had an iron willed determination – what he wanted and what he set out to do, he did. Jamison attributes this in part to his unique personality and equally to his New England Puritan legacy and character. More importantly she cited this will as essential, given the nature of his disease. He did not have garden-variety bipolar disease, his disease was so serious that he was hospitalized 20 times in his lifetime. And those hospitalizations were not just for a few days at a time and not just a few weeks—sometimes even for months. It took an incredibly strong will to overcome that amount of distraction and destruction, and he did it, to his credit.
She also observes how Lowell, toward the goal of achieving his stated purposes, changed his style, and poetry in general, with each book of poetry, not just once but multiple times, and his changes were seismic. The first example of this is the comparison of Lord Weary’s Castle, 1944, to Life Studies, 1956.
Her academic research gives her another unique perspective, for she has focused on the relationships between creativity and bipolar disease, among other things. Her summation about creativity, writing, and mania is that mania drives the creativity in a man already skilled as a poet, but does not make a poet out of an uncreative person. Lowell himself affirmed in an interview that indeed his mania did drive his creativity and his poetry, more like the mania gave him the rough outlines and when the mania passed, with the cold eye of depression, he forged it into decent poetry.
Along the way, as she tells this clinical and poetic story, she also documents with comments from friends and acquaintances, what a warm and appreciated friend Robert Lowell was. Not the least of these friendships was the lifelong one with the poet Elizabeth Bishop, their correspondence documented in the book Words In Air. The point being not only was he a great poet but he was a great human and a loyal friend.
My humble opinion is this is not a book and a story to be missed by anyone with any interest in poetry whatsoever.