Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Kay Redfield Jamison, _Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire: A Study in Genius, Mania, and Character_

NOT A BIOGRAPHY, Jamison specifies, but a study of how Lowell's manic-depressive illness (Jamison seems to prefer this term to "bi-polar disorder") and his attempts to manage it shaped his life and work. Lowell's illness was so near the center of his life and work, though, that the book feels like a biography without quite being one.

It also feels like a biography insofar as it is an answer (as Jamison herself points out) to a biography, i.e., Ian Hamilton's. Hamilton unsparingly spelled out the awful things Lowell said and did when manic, to the point that the reader just wanted to get away from Lowell, however impressive a poet he may have been. Jamison suspects Hamilton's biography contributed to the erosion ofLowell's reputation in recent decades, and she is right, I think.

To redress the balance, Jamison frankly acknowledges that Lowell said and did awful things, but does not describe them except in general terms, focusing instead on Lowell's struggle to keep working, to practice his art, in the face of a ferocious antagonist that lived in his own body.

Hard to think of anyone better qualified than Jamison to tackle the question of how Lowell's gift was entangled with his illness, or, more generally, how creativity is entangled with madness. Part V, "Illness and Art," ought to be read by anyone interested in the relationship of those two phenomena, however interested he or she may be in Lowell. Is there a relationship? Jamison's sober assessment is that yes, there probably is, although we are far from really understanding it, and Lowell's life and achievement deserve honor due to the brave and honest way he sought to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of his condition.

Will this book really restore Lowell's standing to what it was in his lifetime, though? I'm skeptical. I'm trying to think of poets under forty I've met who really admired  Lowell, and I can't think of even one. Maybe Adam Kirsch (whom I haven't met), but otherwise...he's just too clotted and veiny, or too messianic, or too much in the shadow of Yeats and Eliot, or too something. He doesn't seem to be a poet contemporary poets think they can learn anything from.

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