Kay Redfield Jamison: Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire (2017)
Roughly seven years ago, I wrote a post detailing my views on the work of Robert Lowell's then two principal biographers, Ian Hamilton (1982) and Paul Mariani (1994).
Paul Mariani (1940- )
Now, however, there's a new book out, by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, herself a sufferer from bipolar disorder, and therefore uniquely placed (one might think) to give us insights into the true nature of Lowell's mental illness - both its nature, that is, and the effects she alleges it had on his own creativity.
Kay Redfield Jamison (1946- )
I remember when I first discovered Robert Lowell's writing, back in the early eighties, remarking to my then guru, Prof. D. I. B. [Don] Smith of Auckland University, that it sounded as if Lowell must have been a horrible man. This was based on my reading of Hamilton's biography, then freshly out, hence the major source of information on the subject.
"I'm sure that's quite untrue. Who wrote the biography?" responded Don.
"Ian Hamilton," I replied.
"Oh, the shit!"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, we prescribed a selection of Robert Frost's poetry a few years ago with an introduction by Hamilton. Instead of talking about Frost's poetry, he went into lots of detail about what a terrible person he was: completely unnecessary! Even if it's true, it didn't need to be said."
Ian Hamilton (1938-2001)
Don generally had a new angle on virtually any topic one raised with him. Part of it came from his long years of study and teaching in the UK and Canada, which seemed to have resulted in his meeting virtually every significant literary figure of the time (he had some original views on Alan Bennett, whom he'd met at Oxford - on Auden, as well - but that's another story).
"Lowell was a delightful man," he went on to say.
"How do you know? Did you ever meet him?"
"No, but I've just been reading his essay on Ford Madox Ford, and the man who wrote that must have been a wonderful man."
Ever dutiful, I went off and duly read the essay on Ford, and started to see what Don was driving at. His point was, I think, that whatever the arc of one's biography - moving from misery to happiness to pain, or whatever pattern we impose on it from a distance (the diachronic view, if you prefer that terminology) - the actual experience of being that human being, or even meeting him or her - i.e., the synchronic section cut across that larger chronology - can be completely different.
The Lowell of the Ford essay came across as kindly, relaxed and wise (quite a lot like Don Smith, in fact, if the truth be told). I began to realise that a person only really exists as a series of moments, and the artificiality of any tragic arc - the largely malign one drawn by Hamilton, for instance - should always be taken with a grain of salt.
It's not, mind you, that people always come out better taken moment by moment, or (alternatively) that tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner [to understand all is to forgive all]. It's just that one should never take any biographical construct too seriously, particularly if it's been concocted by someone who never met - or met only fleetingly - their subject.
Meeting Lowell - just like being him - could clearly be hellish at times, but Lowell-on-paper does not come across like that. He reads like someone who found life, not death, an 'awfully big adventure,' and who never gave up on its possibilities, even in the extremes of despair.
Gerard Malanga: Lowell in London (1970)
Since Hamilton's book in the 80s, the only really significant biographical studies have been by Mariani (mentioned above), as well as the tireless Jeffrey Meyers, author of 25 or so biographies to date, among them books on Hemingway, Mansfield, and a host of others, including no fewer than three volumes on Robert Lowell and his circle.
Jeffrey Meyers (1939- )
The first two of these appeared in the late 80s, but his most recent effort is Robert Lowell in Love (2015):
Jeffrey Meyers: Manic power: Robert Lowell and his Circle (1987)
Jeffrey Meyers, ed.: Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs (1988)
Jeffrey Meyers: Robert Lowell in Love (2015)
It's safe to say, then, that the actual incidents of Lowell's life have had a fairly thorough airing in the various accounts above. Jamison begins wisely, then (in my opinion) by stressing that what she has written is "not a biography." Instead of that, she goes on to say:
I have written a psychological account of the life and mind of Robert Lowell; it is as well a narrative of the illness that so affected him, manic-depressive illness. ... My interest lies in the entanglement of art, character, mood and intellect. (5)Quite a tall order, one would think. After all, when in doubt, a standard, common-or-garden biography can always take refuge in a bit more detail: a few more addresses, a few more laundry lists and bank receipts. Once one has thrown away that crutch, it's hard to know exactly what to fall back on.
Jamison (unfortunately) has a tendency to fold in pages of pretentious waffle about the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, or any other uplifting subject whenever she runs short of material. Mainly, one is forced to conclude, because she has to admit to knowing little about poetry, and is therefore at the mercy of the contradictory critical assessments of even Lowell's major works, let alone such late books as Day by Day (1976), which she alone seems to see as ranking with Lord Weary's Castle (1946) and Life Studies (1959) as one of the jewels in his diadem.
What expertise she does have lies elsewhere:
My academic and clinical field is psychology and, within that, the study and treatment of manic-depressive (bi-polar) illness, the illness from which Robert Lowell suffered most of his life. I have studied as well the beholdenness of creative work to fluctuations of mood and the changes in thinking that attend such fluctuations. Mood disorders, depression and bipolar illness, occur disproportionately often in writers, as well as in visual artists and composers. Studying the influence of both normal and pathological moods on creative work is critical to understanding how the mind imagines. (5) [my emphases]I don't have a problem with this agenda per se. There's always something new to be learned from any new approach, and Jamison's close scrutiny of Lowell's psychological records - allowed here for the first time by kind permission of Lowell's daughter Harriet - might certainly be seen to justify a study on this scale (if, like me, you persist in seeing Lowell as one of the most significant twentieth century American poets, that is).
I have underlined out those two statements above, however, since I think they demand further attention. The first appears to posit a link between creativity and mania which one would have thought had long since fallen casualty to the romantic notion of the artist-creator.
The lunatic, the lover and the poetJamison is careful to buttress it up with endless clinical details and citations, but she is, it appears, genuinely of the opinion that occasional bouts of mania were of assistance to Lowell in his writing, and provided "material" for him to work over later in the depressions that inevitably followed them.
Are of imagination all compact ...
As her strange saga proceeds, moreover, one begins to realise that its basic postulate is that Lowell can do no wrong (possibly because she too is a sufferer from the same debilitating condition, and therefore can't bear to think otherwise). Even though Lowell himself castigated himself profoundly after each period of madness for the verbal and physical cruelties he had inflicted on those dearest to him, this is - to Jamison - simply proof of his superior "character."
Luise Keller: Friedrich Hölderlin (1842)
And, of course, there's a certain truth in these ideas. One can't really assess Lowell (or, for that matter, Hölderlin, or John Clare, or Christopher Smart) without factoring the influence of their "madness" on the totality of their work (thus perhaps justifying the second bolded-out sentence above). But was it of genuine advantage to them? I think a very strong case could be made for the negative in each case, though of course a final decision on the matter is not really attainable.
John Money & Janet Frame (2003)
It's all very perilous, however: I would see it as a profoundly dangerous way of thinking. It's the kind of stuff John Money spouted when he was trying to persuade the young Janet Frame to commit herself (voluntarily) for psychological treatment: Schumann, Van Gogh, Hugo Wolf were the examples he used to see madness as an essential part - almost as proof - of an artist's character.
That didn't work out so well, and I have to say that Lowell was probably better off with the doctors he had at the time than with one as starry-eyed as Jamison. While (fortunately) a strong believer in the virtues of lithium, she does seem to believe that "poets" are some kind of arcane race of superhumanly gifted beings. Even if that were so (and I don't believe it is), it's rather pointless to use that as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to charting their biographical progress.
There are many things to like and admire in her account. It's very interesting at times. However, with the best will in the world, I'm unable to award it, as a whole, even the qualified thumbs up I conceded in my earlier post to the Hamilton-Mariani double-act. One explanation for this lies in the immense amount of redundancy weighting down her book. As an example of the kind of padding she far too often permits herself, savour these parting words about Lowell's funeral:
A foot of snow lay on the ground outside the church and the wind blew to the bone; it was winter in Cambridge. Had the mourners looked up at the bell tower of the church as they left the service for Robert Lowell on that March day they would have seen the bell that tolled for him. But they would not have been able to see the words carved into the shoulder of the bell. Words for the dead, they had been chosen by Lowell's cousin nearly fifty years earlier, when, as president of Harvard, he donated the bell to the college church. In Memory of Voices That Are Hushed, the bell read. In memory of the dead.Not, I think, since Carl Sandburg's six-volume hagiography of Abraham Lincoln has an American writer permitted herself to go quite so far as this into the realms of footling hyperbole. I remember once reading a long quote from The Prairie Years (1926) about the significance of Lincoln's rocking cradle which did indeed rival the above on the bullshit meter, but it was a pretty close call.
The voices of the living could be hushed as well. Lowell's great-great-grandmother had lived a silent death in madness; her son had said that only as much of her remained as "the hum outliving the hushed bell." The poet's voice speaks for the dead, the hushed, the valorous. It signifies the hours, reminds of death. It gives depth and resonance to blithe times, solace in the dark.
The bells cry: "'Come, / Come home ...,' Robert Lowell wrote. "'Come; I bell thee home.' " (403-4)
Unfortunately Jamison has failed to learn the distinction between poetry ("the best words in the best order" - S. T. Coleridge) and the poetic (vague, dirge-like words strung together for some kind of solemn - or somnolent - effect).
Robert Lowell: The Dolphin (1973)
[cover by Sidney Nolan]
I'm afraid, however, that where Jamison really falls down for me is in the ethical colour-blindness which continually undermines her version of Robert Lowell's life. Take, for example, her account of the controversy over Lowell's use (without permission) of extensive quotes from his then-wife Elizabeth Hardwick's letters in his 1973 collection The Dolphin, which, as a whole, chronicles the beginning of his new relationship with wife-number-three Caroline Blackwood.
The precise details of the argument to which this has given rise - over the limits of poetic "licence" (as it were) - are a bit niggly. I've chronicled the matter in rather more detail in a lecture originally given in a university course on Life Writing, so I won't bother to rehearse it all again here.
Suffice it to say that Lowell's close friend and poetic colleague Elizabeth Bishop took great exception to this act for the following reasons (as she explained to him in a long, fascinating letter):
One can use one's life as material - one does, anyway - but these letters, aren't you violating a trust? IF you were given permission - IF you hadn't changed them ... etc. But art just isn't worth that much. I keep remembering [Gerard Manley] Hopkins's marvelous letter to [Robert] Bridges about the idea of a "gentleman" being the highest thing ever conceived - higher than a "Christian," even, certainly than a poet. It is not being "gentle" to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way — it's cruel.Not only had Lowell not received permission to quote from the letters; he'd even taken it upon himself to rewrite them substantially (all within quote marks, mind you), and thus put things she never actually wrote or said into his wife's mouth.
[Letter of March 21, 1972]
Elizabeth Hardwick: Sleepless Nights (1979)
When I mention this in class, along with various other examples of Lowell's playing fast and loose with other people's words, I've noticed that most students tend to take Bishop's side. Jamison doesn't see it that way at all, however. Her reasons for this are interesting, to say the least.
First, it was all a long time ago:
It has been more than forty years since the publication of The Dolphin, and the indignation over Lowell's taking lines from Hardwick's letters has lessened but not disappeared. Time has a blanketing effect on outrage. (344)No doubt time does "have a blanketing effect on outrage," but that seems a particularly foolish extenuating cicumstance for a biographer to advance. If outrage wears so thin over time, how about our interest in the minutiae of Lowell's clinical diagnoses and treatment?
Second, it wasn't that bad in the first place:
In many respects, as literary and historical controversies go, the appropriation is not particularly egregious. The issue was an important one to many of those most involved, however, including critics, friends, and, of course, Elizabeth Hardwick, Caroline Blackwood, and Lowell himself. Elizabeth Bishop's burning words to Lowell ... "Art just isn't worth that much" - are repeated still. They raise general questions about the use of private observation in art; they also raise questions of hypocrisy. (344)So if it's still being discussed, as well as having had the effect of galvanising everyone involved, even peripherally, at the time, then I'd have to say that still sounds pretty important: even, perhaps, "egregious" - to me, at any rate.
Like ex-NY Mayor Rudy Giuliani skating around the latest porkie from his client, the President of the United State, Jamison proceeds to pour even more fuel on the flame, with her admission that "for years he had taken bits of conversation and correspondence from his friends" [a long list of friends and other public sources follows].
Lowell [she informs us] had a poet's magpie eye and an imprinting ear: he spotted, snatched, rejected, revised, incorporated. Words of others became part of his available stock. But it was his imagination that picked, sorted and built. That created poetry. (345)No doubt he did. But were any of the people she mentions the opposite party in an increasingly acrimonious marital dispute, soon to culminate in divorce? No, they weren't: he may have quoted from Eliot, Pound, Homer, Sophocles, Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all on many occasions, to little controversy, but that was under completely different circumstances.
You might as well say that Lowell had written and published poems before - to no particular objections - so why were they all protesting now? It's deliberately misleading chicanery on Jamison's part, in other words.
Adrienne Rich (1979)
Perhaps the most devastating attach on Lowell's behaviour over The Dolphin was expressed in a contemporary review by former friend and fellow-poet Adrienne Rich:
What does one say about a poet who, having left his wife and daughter for another marriage, then titles a book with their names [For Lizzie and Harriet - also 1973], and goes on to appropriate his ex-wife's letters written under the stress and pain of desertion, into a book of poems nominally addressed to the new wife? (346)"The book," she went on to say, was "cruel and shallow," and the "inclusion of the letter poems stands as one of the most vindictive and mean-spirited acts in the history of poetry."
Ouch! That must have stung a bit. But not for Lowell, who never seems actually to have understood what all this controversy was about. In his reply to Bishop's letter (quoted above) he said only:
Lizzie's letters? I did not see them as slander, but as sympathetic, tho necessarily awful for her to read. She is the poignance of the book, tho that hardly makes it kinder to her. ... It's oddly enough a technical problem as well as a gentleman's problem. How can the story be told at all without the letters. I'll put my heart to it. I can't bear not to publish Dolphin in good form.In other words, yes, it is a bit rough on her, but the alternative would probably be to scrap the book entirely, and that's just not going to happen. He enlarges on this a bit in another letter to his friend, the eventual editor of his Collected Poems, Frank Bidart:
[Letter of March 28, 1972]
I've read and long thought on Elizabeth's letter. It's a kind of masterpiece of criticism, though her extreme paranoia (For God's sake don't repeat this) about revelations gives it a wildness. Most people will feel something of her doubts. The terrible thing isn't the mixing of fact and fiction, but the wife pleading to her husband to return - this backed by "documents"
[Letter of April 10, 1972]
Frank Bidart (1939- )
And what is Jamison's response to all this? Rather than attempting to engage with them, she is content to call Adrienne Rich's strictures 'a stretch':
Whatever legitimate criticism of Lowell's including excerpts from Hardwick's letters, it is far from the one of the most vindictive acts in the history of poetry. There is too much competition. (346)In other words, sure, it was bad, but it wasn't the worst - worse things happen at sea. And the culminating point of all this havering around the point is the following piece of pomposity: "Scandals blaze; they die down. Art lasts or it doesn't."
Two years after Lowell died, Elizabeth Hardwick told an interviewer that Lowell was "like no one else - unplaceable, unaccountable." Unplaceable, unaccountable. Perfect words: wife to husband, writer to writer. (348)Do you see what I mean? The net result of 400 pages of this kind of thing is, unfortunately, to obscure all the paradoxes stated so starkly by Ian Hamilton (in particular), and to make one alternately yawn and gag as one turns the next page to ever more egregious excesses of Lowell-worship.
"Art lasts or it doesn't" - what a crock of shit. If anything in Lowell's art looks likely to last, it certainly isn't that mad rush of sonnets from 1967-1973, culminating in the weird biblioblitz - History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin - of 1973. And, in any case, how could that ever be the point?
The point for my Life Writing students is that they have to make their own decisions on what personal and family details they choose to reveal in their writing. There are precious few signposts on this particular road, and one of them is this particular controversy between Bishop and Lowell. How dare Jamison refer to it simply as some old, dead "scandal"!
True, that's pretty much the line taken by her hero Lowell, who clearly - in his letter to Frank Bidart, at any rate - sees it as more of a technical challenge than a moral one, and goes on to attributes the vehemence of her reaction more to Bishop's "paranoia" about revelations than to any real problems with his own behaviour.
There are no special rules for artists: no special code of conduct that excuses 'great' poets from the normal codes of conduct that apply to the rest of us. Do you hear that, Kay Redfield Jamison, through the blinkered spectacles of your Carlylean "great man" theory of history?
"How far can I go?" is a real, practical problem, which applies to writers - and not just ones in the fields of memoir, autobiography and confessional poetry - every day of their lives. Am I justified in letting the cat out of the bag when it comes to family skeletons - or only about my own misdeeds? Can I really write all those mean things about people without getting ostracised?
Lowell took it pretty far. That's one of the reasons he remains interesting, and still well worth reading (imho). Jamison thinks he's worth reading because he found interesting metaphors and descriptors for the particular madness he suffered from. That may well be true, also. But don't obscure that simple, basic point with a whole lot of palaver about "character" and "moral fibre," as if a self-indulgent, womanising drunk were really some kind of unsung Saint. If he had been he would be boring - it's his flaws that sell him, as he himself knew all along.
"In the kingdom of the dumb, the one-track mind is king." Jamison's hagiography has, it seems, reaped a certain amount of praise from those equally ignorant of the true nature of Lowell's work, but even the most sympathetic reviews acknowledge a certain failure to edit: to cut out all those long apostrophes about Captain Scott (another exemplar of moral heroism, it would appear - you know my views about that), bio-sketches of distant relatives who also ended up in asylums, and - really - just random blah.
The way she writes off Rich's and Bishop's concerns about playing fast and loose with other people's lives and reputations is terrifyingly slick, however - "Satan hath made thee mighty glib," as my old Dad used to say whenever anybody looked likely to best him in argument.
It sounds, in fact, uncomfortably like what we've become used to from PR spokespeople and other paid apologists for any unpalatable view: racism, genocide, fraud, or just plain old lies in general - there's nothing, really, you can't massage with those old cons about how "it was a long time ago and let's hope it never happened. And if it did happen it wasn't my fault. And if did happen and it was my fault then I'm sorry you feel that way about it - let's move on, what's the point of dwelling on it? You really are pathetic in still wanting to drag up that old stuff. Get a life!" I think you all know the kind of thing.
In short, then, I'd like to like Jamison's book, but I just can't. Nor can I really conscientiously recommend it as a valuable contribution to Lowell studies. For the moment, I'd say that those of you still curious about the poet would be far better off reading the fine, comprehensive editions of his poetry, prose and letters which continue to appear forty years after his death.
Saskia Hamilton, ed.: The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005)
Robert Traill Spence Lowell IV
- Land of Unlikeness. Massachusetts: The Cummington Press, 1944.
- Lord Weary's Castle. 1946. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947.
- Lord Weary's Castle and The Mills of The Kavanaughs. 1946 & 1951. A Harvest / HBJ Book. San Diego, New York & London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1974.
- Poems 1938-1949. 1950. London: Faber, 1970.
- Life Studies. 1959. London: Faber, 1968.
- Life Studies and For the Union Dead. 1959 & 1964. The Noonday Press. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.
- Selected Poems. 1965. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1969.
- Near the Ocean. London: Faber, 1967.
- Notebook 1967-68. The Noonday Press N 402. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
- Notebook. 1970. London: Faber, 1971.
- History. The Noonday Press N 513. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973.
- For Lizzie and Harriet. London: Faber, 1973.
- The Dolphin. London: Faber, 1973.
- The Dolphin. 1973. The Noonday Press N513. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
- Raban, Jonathan, ed. Robert Lowell’s Poems: A Selection. 1973. London: Faber, 1974.
- Selected Poems: Revised Edition. 1976 & 1977. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981.
- Day by Day. 1977. London: Faber, 1978.
- Hofmann, Michael, ed. Poems. London: Faber, 2001.
- Bidart, Frank & David Gewanter, with DeSales Harrison, ed. Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003.
- The Old Glory. London: Faber, 1966.
- Phaedra: A Verse Translation of Racine’s Phèdre. 1961. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1971.
- Imitations. 1961. Faber Paper Covered Editions. London: Faber, 1971.
- ‘Poems by Osip Mandelstam.’ The Atlantic Monthly, 211 (June, 1963): 63-68.
- ‘Poems by Anna Akhmatova.’ The Atlantic Monthly, 214 (October, 1964): 60-65.
- The Voyage and other versions of poems by Baudelaire. Illustrated by Sidney Nolan. London: Faber, 1968.
- Prometheus Bound: Derived from Aeschylus. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
- Prometheus Bound: Derived from Aeschylus. 1969. London: Faber, 1970.
- The Oresteia of Aeschylus. 1978. London: Faber, 1979.
- Giroux, Robert, ed. Collected Prose. London: Faber, 1987.
- Hamilton, Saskia, ed. The Letters of Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.
- Travisano, Thomas, & Saskia Hamilton, ed. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
- Axelrod, Stephen Gould. Robert Lowell, Life and Art. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.
- Hamilton, Ian. Robert Lowell: A Biography. 1982. London: Faber, 1983.
- Mariani, Paul. Lost Puritan: A Life of Robert Lowell. New York & London: W. W. Norton, 1994.
- Jamison, Kay Redfield. Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire - A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character. 2017. Vintage Books. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2018.
Saskia Hamilton, ed.: The Dolphin Letters: Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell (2019)