Saturday, March 03, 2007

Classics challenge--book #4

Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell

I developed an interest in Robert Lowell when I read that he had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Many people have wondered if there is a link between creativity and Bipolar Disorder. The idea is controversial since the long bouts of depression experienced by individuals with the illness are not likely to be productive periods but the concept is still of interest. I also like to read about how people have coped with their illnesses in their memoirs, fiction and biographies. However, a book of Lowell’s poems and a used biography I bought some years ago had languished on my TBR pile until the Classics challenge.
I can happily announce that I read the above book and a few excerpts of the biography by Ian Hamilton. I hoped the biography would help me understand some of the more arcane poems but what I really needed was an annotated version of these poems, as when, in high school, I studied Shakespeare for the first time, or T.S. Eliot. These are not poems to be swallowed whole and regurgitated. Some I doubt I’ll ever appreciate or entirely understand. Some poems make me wonder if they are even worth publishing. Others seem brilliant.
Among my favorites were a series Lowell wrote in Life Studies about his family. Lowell writes with evident fondness about visits to his grandfather in his poems “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” and “Dunbarton.” In the latter he writes:

My Grandfather found
his grandchild’s fogbound solitudes
sweeter than human society.

This speaks to me of a warm if quiet relationship between them and of fond memories.
Of his father, Lowell writes:

In my father’s bedroom:
blue threads as thin
as pen-writing on the bedspread,
blue dots on the curtains,
a blue kimono,
Chinese sandals with blue plush straps.

Again you get a sense of a warm reminiscence of childhood. It feels as though the artistically inclined could recreate this room in watercolor from these few words. Even time spent in the mental hospital is turned into poetry.
The collection’s final poem, “For the Union Dead,” reminds me of my recent wanderings among the skeletons of Chicago’s old buildings. The poem begins:

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Fifteen stanzas later it ends with these words:

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

I could sleep now wondering what he means by “a savage servility.” Certainly the words do slide by like fish, or like silent, well-tuned cars.
Throughout most of his adult life, Lowell cycled in and out of mania, psychosis and depression. He spent many months in mental hospitals. The harm his illness caused to Lowell and his three wives must have been unmeasurable but did not prevent him from attaining a substantial measure of greatness in his craft. I’d love to reread these poems with a good teacher.

1 comment:

Tarakuanyin said...

Have you read _The Midnight Disease_ by neurologist Alice Flaherty? It's in part about the association between mental diseases and creativity. Fascinating book, I thought. If I remember the figure right, she estimates that about 75% of artists have symptoms of various mental disorders.

Here's a link: