Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Bottom of the World

Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison

Robert Lowell was a photogenic man--patrician, handsome, introspective and yet gregarious--there are hundreds of photos; this is among my favorites. The cigarette, the no-nonsense, black-framed glasses, thinning hair only serving to show off the high and brainy forehead. Lowell, it is reported, had read everything--they all had in those days--aside from drinking and teaching there were few things to keep the bookish from their books. Poets in the halcyon post-war (I and II) days were immersed in all of literature--they might have felt guilty about their obsession, but literature was worth living for, worth more than interest, worthy of devotion.

Do you feel it yourself sometimes, feel that great poems and plays and novels are enough, that all else seems measly, unworthy of your attention? And why not? Did Glenn Gould prattle on about politics, great chefs, ice hockey, or--heaven help us--pop culture? The great ones have been obsessives--Bobby Fisher with chess, Gould and recorded music, Heifetz and his fiddle, Einstein and his blackboard.  Nowadays we are enjoined to become "well-rounded," to "take an interest in many things," with an implied warning that not to do so will lead to "neurosis," the modern equivalent of Burton's melancholy, the malady of those who sit for too long, think too deeply, focus too much, care more than is seemly. Our mantra: "relax, enjoy yourself."

Not Lowell. He was a great obsessive, deeply conflicted for reasons that Kay Redfield Jamison teases out of his past--a Mayflower ancestry, a difficult childhood, Brahimhood, Harvard.  Lowell hated Harvard--he left for Kenyon and John Crowe Ransom, much to his parents' chagrin:

"'We are having trouble with our boy,'  Lowell's parents told [Boston psychiatrist Dr. Merrill] Moore. 'We don't know what to do. We want to see if psychiatry can help us.' His chief difficulties, they said, were his attitudes toward his parents, life in general, and Harvard.....'We tried to explain to him what we thought he should be like in order to live up to the expectations of what would be demanded of a member of our family, but he paid no attention." [my emphasis]

"What would be demanded." Such a strange and off-putting formulation--not "hoped" or even "expected," but demanded. Lowell's life-long rebellion against "what was demanded" explains a great deal about not only his bouts of depression and mania, but perhaps also a great deal about his art, his stripping bare of the self, his painful-to-regard private life made public, his self-flagellation.  Lowell wrote often about Jonathan Edwards, America's finest theologian during the age of the Great Awakening, and there is something Puritanical about Lowell, but only in the sense of his being deeply introspective--he wasn't a moral prig, nor did he find in himself the hopeless depravity that drove Edwards to think of himself as unredeemable.

"We drank and eyed / the chicken-hearted shadows of the world." No, Lowell wasn't a life-denier but a life-embracer--his lovely poems to Harriet, his late-in-life daughter, display a touching and deeply moving attachment, a gentleness and love. His tributes to the wide range of poets and public figures with whom he was intimate--from William Carlos Williams and Randall Jarrell to Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy--demonstrate Lowell's compassion and capacity for friendship--"I love you so...." begins the sonnet he wrote to the anti-war, poet/Senator McCarthy. Jamison is brilliant in her depiction of Lowell's multiple sides, his kindness, his capacity--limitless--for friendship, his thoughtfulness. I loved reading the volume of his letters of Elizabeth Bishop earlier this year; they display sides of both poets we'd never come to know were it not for the richness of letter writing (now, alas lost to us forever).

"We were surprised to find that, though tall and powerfully built, he seemed the gentlest of mortals, clumsily anxious to please," wrote W.D. Snodgrass. "I always found him gentle, sweet, and considerate--if somewhat wild," was William Phillips' [of the Partisan Review] comment.

And yet he was ill. As Lowell put the case himself, his depression was a "formless time of irresolution, foregetfulness, inertia," "the bottom of the world." But, as Helen Vendler noted in her book on Lowell--and this seems both an obvious and profound point--Lowell used his art to impose order on his inner life, to lift himself out of the doldrums when he could, to shape a way to carry on living when living seemed pointless.

Lowell with Eugene McCarthy, 1967

On a deeper level, what can we say of madness and poetry? Was Lowell a great poet who was mad, or mad because America drives poets mad, or does poetry, more than paining or composing tend to unhinge its practitioners? That Lowell was periodically subject to debilitating bouts of mania, that he was hospitalized at regular intervals, that he was subject to blackouts and hallucinations, that he required regular administrations of ECT in order to function--all of this is well documented by Jamison, whose access to Lowell's medical records makes her book invaluable for the student of Lowell.

But I have no deeper insight into the relationship between mental illness and poetry after reading Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire than I had before I read it. This failure to understand isn't Jamison's fault--no, her accounting of Lowell's cycle of intense poetic creativity followed by headlong rushes into incapacity and institutionalization is meticulous and well-documented. It's simply that I can find no convincing causal relation between Lowell's creative life and his therapeutic history.  Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, James Wright--distinguished contemporaries of Lowell, poets and critics and teachers--all suffered from clinical depression, morbid alcoholism, and suicidal tendencies (or committed suicide). But then there's Wallace Stevens, arguably America's greatest poet, trudging off across a snowy park each morning in overcoat and galoshes to administer the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.

No, poetry and madness are not "near-allied*," except in the Romantic sense that the poet becomes a conduit for the gods, the "lamp" described by M.H. Abrams, rather than the "maker" of beauty, pure and simple. The daily struggle with language is like any other--concentration opens the world in both its beauty and terror, the strong-willed make art and survive; those who dive especially deeply, who are unable to feign detachment, might fail to come back from the bottom of the world.

"We are poor passing facts,
Warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name."

*Of course Dryden's word was 'wit', but he would have no objection to 'poet.'

George Ovitt (5/13/2017)

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