Like his acolytes Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell is remembered today as much for his mental illness as for his remarkable poetry. This legacy is an understandable, if regrettable, consequence of our fascination with the tortured and tragic in art. By the mid-1950s, Lowell’s bipolar disorder had reached a crisis point. While committed to Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, he began a therapeutic regimen that helped him attain a measure of equilibrium. One element of that therapy was a writing project, which Lowell continued over the next three years by working on an autobiography of his family roots and childhood. This narrative, unfinished and unpolished, composes the first part of Memoirs, a gathering of Lowell’s unpublished writings about his life, edited by Steve Gould Axelrod and Grzegorz Kosc.
For better or worse, Lowell could not escape his lineage, which dated back on both sides to the founding of New England. His dominant mother, Charlotte, put particular stock in this background, and when his father’s naval career dragged the family away from Boston, Charlotte was never silent about her dissatisfaction. Conversely, in Lowell’s words, his father was “a gentle, faithful and dim man.” That ruthless paternal appraisal comes from the second section of the writings collected in Memoirs, which the editors call “Crisis and Aftermath.” These pieces are anchored by an essay, “The Balanced Aquarium,” that recounts Lowell’s time at Payne Whitney. Written in the wake of his mother’s death, the essay also recalls the earlier circumstances of his father’s final days. Shifting seamlessly back and forth in time—to childhood, to the recent past and back to the time of his ancestors—Lowell attempts to make sense of these threads with customary biting observations wrapped in elegant phrases, as he watches the traffic far below the window of his hospital room.
Lowell, of course, mined this material a few years later in one of his finest (one might even say iconic) poetry collections, Life Studies, turning the anarchy of his mind into clear-cut verse. Indeed, the best approach to “My Autobiography,” “The Balanced Aquarium” and the other pieces here is perhaps to view them as dry runs for something far greater and enduring yet to come. These writings give us added glimpses into the life of a poet who made a new art form out of baring the soul, even while expertly keeping his words measured and precise.
The final section of Memoirs collects short pieces Lowell wrote about poets he knew: Plath, Sexton, William Carlos Williams, Allen Tate, John Berryman, Ezra Pound and others. The often sordid specifics of his complicated marriages and romances are skirted, but those coals have been well raked elsewhere. Memoirs should not serve as an introduction to Lowell and his work as much as a supplement, inviting us to discover or revisit his peerless poems.