STARRED REVIEW
March 2017

Poetic highs and lows

By Kay Redfield Jamison

Robert Lowell’s poetic imagination emerged from the extremes of New England’s weather, its frozen winters and fiery summers. Similarly, his temperament reflected the seasonal extremes of “passivity and wildness” in the depression and mania that afflicted him throughout his life. Scion of an old New England family with a history of mental illness, Lowell was able to transform his illness into art, becoming one of the 20th century’s most significant American poets. In her new book, Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind, brings her medical and personal experience of bipolar disorder to bear on the entwining of Lowell’s poetry and psychology. 

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Robert Lowell’s poetic imagination emerged from the extremes of New England’s weather, its frozen winters and fiery summers. Similarly, his temperament reflected the seasonal extremes of “passivity and wildness” in the depression and mania that afflicted him throughout his life. Scion of an old New England family with a history of mental illness, Lowell was able to transform his illness into art, becoming one of the 20th century’s most significant American poets. In her new book, Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind, brings her medical and personal experience of bipolar disorder to bear on the entwining of Lowell’s poetry and psychology. 

Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character is a compelling and intuitive account of his life and poetry against the backdrop of repeated hospitalizations for mania. Much of Lowell’s -poetry—including important poems like “For the Union Dead” and the collection Life Studies—emerged from a fertile “hypomanic” state, when an elevated mood and quickened mind helped the poems spill out onto the page. As Jamison discusses, many other artists have shared this combination of genius, creativity and illness. But Jamison, who received unprecedented access to Lowell’s medical records, doesn’t glamorize or trivialize the experience of mania or the havoc it caused Lowell’s family and friends.

The poet’s nearly annual hospitalizations were finally slowed late in the 1960s, after lithium was introduced as a treatment for bipolar disorder. The medication gave him a stability he’d never experienced before. But would the same medication have altered his poetry had it been available sooner?

Jamison has been studying the complex relationship between brain chemistry and creativity throughout her career; in Lowell, she has found her ideal subject.

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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