Early this year, days after my dog died and before I became lit up with the pale-blue fire of a bout of mania, I became fascinated again with the work of Robert Lowell. As a young man, I had encountered the poet in the corners of a classroom I went spectacularly mad in, my nose always bleeding, and found him stodgy. He was another one of those fuckers who makes you work, I thought, and who unravels himself only when you begin applying the thumb-press of analysis. That wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted poetry that was rude; that made no sense at all; that hit the side of the head like a baseball bat. From where I sat, Lowell was in the canon, and I thought the canon could go fuck itself.
Most of all, I was obsessed with David Berman, the lead singer of the Silver Jews, and a writer of verse who made the whole game of ‘interpreting poems’ seem cock-eyed and boring. In ‘If There Was a Book About This Hallway’, Berman paces little circles around a corridor, aimlessly deciding that if ‘Christ had died in a hallway we might pray in hallways’. What more to say than that? No greater themes to unpack. Just a hallway with a crucified man in the centre of it, dying for our sins.
By comparison, Lowell seemed impossibly still. I didn’t like how carefully he painted his pictures of the New England streets he spent his childhood wandering. Where was the urgency? The first stanza of the poem ‘Buttercups’ seemed like a tranquiliser:
When we were children our papas were stout
And colorless as seaweed or the floats
At anchor off New Bedford.
But Life Studies was the hook that got into my side, as it does for so many of us who find ourselves limping after Lowell’s genius. It was a doctor at my first psychiatric hospital stay who recommended the tome to me. He called my glasses, small and circular, ‘Lowell glasses’.
‘He explained a lot of what happens in places like this’, the doctor said, handing me a paper cup of pills.
Divided into three distinct sections, Life Studies alternates between nostalgic childhood sequences and accounts of the ravages of mental illness. Lowell spent much of his life in and out of psychiatric care wards, unwelcome interruptions that he captured through a strange, sideways approach to writing verse about torment.
Rather than someone like Sharon Olds, whose poetry takes suffering in its hands, Lowell always appears to be looking at it from the corner of his eye. ‘Skunk Hour’, the story of a night that Lowell spent watching for ‘love-cars’, suddenly cracks open with a revelation, without warning:
My mind’s not right.
When Lowell returns again to his illness, it is a full stanza later:
I myself am hell;
Only skunks that search
In the moonlight for a bite to eat.
He does not return to his torment for the rest of the poem—he finishes the verse by watching a mother skunk fussing over her kittens. There are no easy conclusions; no diagnoses. ‘Skunk Hour’ has the uncanny feeling of listening to a friend who has revealed more than they want to, and who suddenly changes the subject.
Poets do not often write this way, least of all ‘confessional poets’, the tag that Lowell has been uneasily branded with for most of his career. We expect, often, that a writer of verse will expand their interior life, not shrink it down. Anne Sexton is the model of this kind of writer, someone who climbs the gutters of their mind, and returns to the ground with handfuls of soggy detritus: the point of such a game is not to avert your gaze, but to stare madness straight in the face. Consider Sexton’s poem ‘Noon Walk on the Asylum Lawn’, which ends in a state of fevered paranoia:
The sky breaks.
It sags and breathes upon my face.
In the presence of mine enemies, mine enemies,
The world is full of enemies.
There is no safe place.
Sexton and Lowell both walked the lawns of asylums. But Sexton always made a note of where she moved. She is there, beneath the sky, encircled by enemies. There is something of the form of the blueprint to a poem like ‘Noon Walk’. Here I am, it says, and here is the world as it stands in relation to me.
And yet that kind of writing, as excellent as it can be, captures only one aspect of mental illness. Bipolar disorder, which I suffer from and which Lowell suffered from too, is by its nature cyclical; I hold a laundry list in my heart of every psychiatrist that has warned me what goes up must later come down. Certainly, manic periods are vicious, and sharp-edged and distinct, drawing blood in all sorts of ways. But much of the life of the sufferer of bipolar disorder is spent safe-guarding against, and preparing for, mechanistic fluctuations of mood. It is like being the security guard stationed at a sea wall, preparing for another high tide, which will take more away.
And that’s boring. It’s the kind of work that makes victories seem few and far between. ‘And so I survived’, is a term that only holds temporary relief; the sufferer knows that there will be more to survive from. Most of the time, when I feel the beginnings of mania stirring—when the world smells very good to me, when speech and writing come easily, when a pain like the loss of a beloved dog feels beautiful, in its own way—I flinch like someone bit by a bug. Even a sense of scale gets lost. Yeah, yeah, I think.
Lowell’s poetry captures this boredom in a way that most other confessional poets do not. He only rises himself to what it is absolutely necessary to rise to, and always with a sense of the scattershot. The most interesting thing about his verse is always what is left out of it; the creeping shadows of figures captured on the edges of a photograph. In ‘Man and Wife’, a paean to Elizabeth Hardwick, the woman he married and later spectacularly cheated on, falling in love with an Italian mistress, reverses the usual confessional point of view. It is a reverse shot. Lowell does not describe himself; he projects himself forward, into Hardwick’s eyes:
All night I’ve held your hand
As if you had
A fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad—
Its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye—
And dragged me home alive.
Where is Lowell? He emerges properly only in the last line, stumbling up to the weight of Hardwick’s words.
Sleepless, you hold
Your pillow to your hollows like a child;
Your old-fashioned tirade—
Loving, rapid, merciless—
Breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.
Reading ‘Man and Wife’ on the upswing of another episode, I was struck anew by the clarity of a line like ‘dragged me home alive’. How many others had I asked to drag me home? How many had done it without needing to be asked? Lowell had somehow captured not the great, grand horror of bipolar, but the ways it manifests itself every single day, in the little burdens we place on those that we love. A manic episode is a shopping trip for which you don’t have enough bags; a flat tyre; a vole in the baptism basin.
A few days after the lines clamped my head in place, I took my lighter to an engraver, and asked him to etch ‘drag me home alive‘ into the metal side.
‘What does it mean?’ he said, his head cocked.
‘It’s to remind me of something’, I replied. Now the lighter sits in my pocket, jangling against my keys.
Joseph Earp is a poet, philosopher and journalist. He is currently undertaking his philosophy PhD at the University of Sydney, writing a thesis on the ethics of care.