In light of all the clacking confessional prose and poetry jockeying for views, it’s hard to imagine people once, quite recently, never spoke of their private lives in public.
It’s hard to fathom how original—how influential—Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977) and his Life Studies would become to modern writing when published in 1959.
They’re altogether otherworldly now,
those adults champing for their ritual Friday spin
to the pharmacist and five-and-tend in Brockton.
Back in my throw-away and shaggy span
of adolescence, Grandpa still waves his stick
like a policeman;
For centuries, confessionals of doubts, worries, malapropisms, and especially sins were best kept between man and God’s agents. Or, at the very least, within a marriage.
That confessional poetry would take root in the buttoned-up 1950s, that it would begin with a man born into Harvard-connected high society, that it would begin with a man at all (surely, women kept diaries, men kept working journals full of insight), is extraordinary.
I used to enjoy dawdling and humming. ‘Anchors Aweigh’ up Revere Street after a day at school… And yet my mind always blanked and seemed to fill with a clammy hollowness when Mother asked prying questions. Like other tongue-tied, difficult children, I dreamed I was a master of cool, stoical repartee. ‘What have you been doing, Bobby?’ Mother would ask. ‘I haven’t,’ I’d answer. At home I thus saved myself from the emotional exhaustion.
Many of vignettes in Life Studies take place in the domestic setting, in Lowell’s family and their Boston home.1
In 1924 people still lived in cities. Late that summer, we bought the 91 Revere Street house, looking out on an unbuttoned part of Beacon Hill bounded by the North End slums, though reassuringly only four blocks away from my Grandfather Winslow’s brown pillared house at 18 Chestnut Street. In the decades preceding and following the First World War, old Yankee families had upset expectation by regaining this section of the Hill from the vanguards of the lace-curtain Irish. This was bracing news for my parents in that topsy-turvy era when the Republican Party and what were called ‘people of the right sort’ were no longer dominant in the city elections.
T. S. Eliot—born into the same Boston high society as Lowell three decades earlier—poured his pain and despair into verse and launched into the world a new, modern way of thinking and writing. He also created the modern character J. Alfred Prufrock, a feckless, forlorn, unrequited, and deeply unhappy man.2
Decades later, Lowell, who felt similar existential emptiness, wrote differently in Life Studies. No more patients etherized on tables; his language was direct, his pain was impossible to miss.
Lowell suffered from manic depression throughout his life and several times was checked in to McLean Hospital in Boston. Lowell’s “Waking in the Blue” captures the essence of this experience:
The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My heart grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)
If you will indulge a bit of confessional clacking, this poem is particularly meaningful to me. Lowell talks about the metal shaving mirrors and remembers blue corridors. I’ve suffered from depression for decades, and, like Lowell, I went to McLean after a failed suicide attempt in college. A heeded cry for help, I call it.
I don’t think of it often and never speak of it, but I remember orange. Walls, uniforms—was I orange, too? McLean was orange. Does color shape our memories?
Anyway, I remember the metal shaving mirror. Bent light into a Francis Bacon portrait. Mental illness does not make one more intelligent, more artistic, or anything of the sort. Let’s abandon that trope.
If mental illness does appear next to creative genius—as it did for Lowell, Bacon, Rimbaud, T. S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, John Clare, Vincent van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf—it is likely because it sets us apart from society in such a way that we can better reflect it. We are the metal shaving mirrors.
Lowell was very much “apart,” from his parents first and foremost. And yet, there is something in his poetry that feels like home. Life Studies is a true gift.