Turning Pain Into Art

How the poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell became each other’s tragic muses

Jules Julien

Elizabeth Bishop, then 35, and Robert Lowell, almost 30, met in 1947 at a dinner in New York City hosted by Randall Jarrell. They struck up an unusual lifelong friendship fueled by mutual admiration, genuine devotion, and the fact that they rarely saw each other—which meant that in their correspondence they could divulge their best and worst selves, without the friction of actual contact. Each felt that the other had what he or she was missing. Bishop (shy, hesitant) saw “assurance” in Lowell and he (wayward, erratic) saw “unerring” judgment in her. Both led lives marked by tragedy and illness, and as they navigated an era during which American poetry took a sharp turn toward the personal, they became each other’s best reader. “I think I must write entirely for you,” Lowell told Bishop. She agreed, in her dry way: “I feel profoundly bored with all the contemporary poetry except yours,—and mine that I haven’t written yet.”

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Now Bishop and Lowell are once again together, with the release of a pair of unorthodox biographies, Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast and Kay Redfield Jamison’s Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire. Neither is quite the definitive new biography we might wish for. Marshall, who incorporates reminiscences of her own time studying poetry with Bishop at Harvard, makes good use of letters that became available only after the death, in 2009, of Bishop’s lover Alice Methfessel. Her readings of both the poetry and the life, though, can be disappointingly reductive. Jamison has written insightfully before about art and bipolar disorder (and about her own experience of the disease). She focuses usefully on the part that mania played in Lowell’s life and career, and writes about his poetry with thrilling acumen. But she strains too hard to make the case that his illness made him a better poet.

Still, the books vividly dramatize the mysterious relationship between personal suffering and art, and embrace the idea, articulated in Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow, that “genius and disease, like strength and mutilation, may be inextricably bound up together.” As Marshall puts it, “Elizabeth’s shyness—her extreme self-consciousness—may have been the ‘fault’ her existence as a poet depended upon.” Jamison writes that “a germ in the mind, some flaw in the motor” (Lowell’s metaphors) “rocks the lives of poets. Without question, Lowell’s attacks of mania spurred his work.” Both biographies offer a welcome occasion to reconsider two pioneers who left very different marks on the poetry of self-disclosure that flourished over the ensuing half century—and to reflect on how a burgeoning culture of online sharing has revised our views of these two titans of their era.

Lowell and Bishop were writing at a time when, as Marshall puts it, American poetry was witnessing “the stripping away of artifice and sentiment” and embarking “on an inward course toward personal narrative.” Although they were starkly different poets and people, they were just like and unalike enough to goad each other on. Lowell, often described as the leading poet of his generation, was a voluble Boston Brahmin given to what he called “enthusiasms,” symptoms that later elicited a diagnosis of manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder. As a student at Harvard, encouraged to uphold the Lowell name, he rebelled, and after two years he left to study poetry at Kenyon College. Bishop, by contrast, was an introverted, asthmatic all-but-orphan from Nova Scotia. Skeptical by nature, she was often slyly funny in her assessments of herself and others. While he wrote and rewrote copiously, she could take years to put words on the page.

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Perhaps the greatest affinity between them was the way that deep-rooted pain kept surfacing in their work. Lowell’s overbearing mother, as Jamison powerfully depicts her, was a chilly, frustrated woman, consumed by anger at his passive father, whose naval career had failed to thrive. Bishop’s father died when she was eight months old. Her mother became mentally ill, and in 1916, when Bishop was 5, was admitted to a mental hospital, where she lived for nearly 20 years; Bishop never saw her again. Lowell’s manic depression worsened over the years despite eventual treatment with lithium. Bishop was an alcoholic, prone to drinking binges followed by drying-out periods, as Marshall sympathetically portrays. A lesbian in an age when it was difficult to come out, she appears to have felt, at times, the pressures of being half-hidden in plain sight.

With the publication of Life Studies in 1959—hailed at the time as marking “a major expansion of the territory of poetry”—Lowell paved the way for the frankly autobiographical poetry of the 1960s and ’70s. Earlier in his career, he had distinguished himself by writing tightly patterned, highly emblematic poems infused with self-conscious grandeur: “The world out-Herods Herod; and the year, / The nineteen hundred forty-fifth of grace, / Lumbers with losses up the clinkered hill / Of our purgation.” (During his mania, he sometimes thought he was Dante.) Then Lowell and Bishop began corresponding, and in her poetry he found a new colloquial scale, later calling her a “muse who makes the casual perfect.”

Influenced both by Bishop’s conversational tone and, as Jamison points out, by his therapist’s urgings to explore his childhood, Lowell shifted register in Life Studies. The volume traces an arc from formal historical poems to autobiographical free verse describing his hospitalizations, the strains that manic depression placed on his marriage, and his shame—offering up what the critic M. L. Rosenthal dubbed “the most naked kind of confession,” a form of “soul’s therapy.” The revelations were his, but the emotional clarity seems learned from Bishop. “I myself am hell,” Lowell proclaimed in what is arguably his most famous poem, “Skunk Hour,” a masterful lyric whose off-kilter lines and insistent repetitions of -ll sounds mimic emotional destabilization. After the publication of Life Studies, Sylvia Plath declared herself “very excited” by “this intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which I feel has been partly taboo.”


Bishop, too, thought that suffering was crucial to the insights of poetry: “Nobody’s heart is really good for much until it has been smashed to little bits,” she once wrote. But unlike Lowell, she was averse to intimate exposure, Marshall observes. As she wrestled with autobiographical matter that threatened to overwhelm her—her mother’s insanity, the suicide of her long-term partner Lota de Macedo Soares—she kept a disciplined aesthetic distance, striving at the same time for emotional lucidity. Bishop believed that poetry derived power from reticence (she once referred to “disasters, etc.” in a letter to a lover). Interviewed about Lowell and the confessional movement by Time magazine in 1967, she tried to justify confessional poetry’s blunt approach to traumatic revelation, noting that in a sense, “the worst moments of horrible and terrifying lives are an allegory of the world.” But, as Marshall notes, she couldn’t help adding that “the tendency is to overdo the morbidity. You just wish they’d keep some of these things to themselves.”

Bishop’s poems are saturated with personal tragedy, but for her a poem isn’t so much a vehicle for personal expression as it is an object that can dramatically enact loss, through the use of irony and understatement. In “Sestina,” she writes in the third person about a girl drawing a series of “rigid” and “inscrutable” houses as her grandmother looks on. As the poem progresses through its demanding formal twists (a sestina repeats a prescribed series of end words six times), the absence of parents in the domestic tableau becomes glaringly obvious—even if the poem never says as much. “Crusoe in England,” one of Bishop’s most poignant poems, is a dramatic monologue, spoken not by the poet but by Robinson Crusoe on returning home to England. It was finished after Lota died, which, Marshall notes, was nearly 17 years into their relationship:

The local museum’s asked me to
leave everything to them:
the flute, the knife, the shrivelled shoes,
my shedding goatskin trousers …
How can anyone want such things?
—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles
seventeen years ago come March.

Bishop and Lowell are ideal vehicles for biographers hoping to examine the interplay between creativity and suffering. But Marshall succumbs to the temptation to overplay the one-to-one correlation between events in Bishop’s life and her work, quoting poems almost as if they were journals or letters. The question she too often skirts is how a particular wounding event became a poem. The answer lies in the tortured hours Bishop spent not writing and then, once she finally got started, drafting and redrafting until a poem found the virtuosic form that would contain its urgent emotions. Given how fully realized and restrained her published poems are, readers were shocked to discover the rawness of many of her early drafts and unpublished poems, versions of which were gathered in Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments (2006).


Jamison blurs the artistic process too. She fascinatingly suggests that Lowell’s many radical stylistic swerves were connected to his manic breakdowns. That there is a deep relationship between his “elated” states and his literary aspiration seems true. But as richly nuanced as Jamison’s book is, her medical lens by definition leaves some crucial questions unexplored. “I write my best poetry when I’m manic,” Lowell once noted, a declaration she takes seriously. But he also spoke about having to edit what he wrote when manic. One wonders in what ways Lowell’s poetic ambition (a therapist observed that he had “an undue preoccupation with greatness”) was powered by forces other than his mania. Jamison cites studies that show poets are more likely to be bipolar than the rest of us. Yet she leaves the reader to puzzle over why. Does poetry’s compression and intensity draw such minds? Or does the high value that poetry places on figurative language provide the allure, since it dovetails with the tendency of manic people’s speech to display what Jamison describes as “flight of ideas”?

In the decades since the poets died, Lowell’s star has fallen while Bishop’s has risen. You might think that this is odd—that in an era of social media and seemingly endless self-disclosure, Lowell’s bold confessions would feel more modern than Bishop’s almost prim restraint. But Bishop is the more original poet, and nearly 60 years after Life Studies, her challenging irony, her plainspoken tone, and her resigned clarity sound as fresh as ever. By contrast, Lowell’s poems can seem overworked, antiquated in their metaphor making. “I liked your New Yorker fish poem,” Lowell told Bishop in a revealing early exchange. “I am a fisherman myself, but all my fish become symbols, alas!” This tendency to inflate would haunt his work to the end.

Meanwhile, the self-revealing mode that he helped catalyze is by now so thoroughly assimilated into American poetry as to seem staid, unimaginative, even retrograde. Neither Marshall nor Jamison says as much, but taken together, their biographies suggest that Lowell’s and Bishop’s best poems grow out of the ordinariness of suffering, not out of its extraordinariness. In fact, reading Jamison, one begins to see that for all Lowell’s bombastic, grandiose tendencies, he is a great poet of the daily reality of illness, its small degradations.

This view of Lowell is underscored by an insightful introduction by the poet and critic Katie Peterson to New Selected Poems. Returning to Lowell afresh, she finds that alongside the poet of grandeur is a poet writing poems spoken with a voice that “came straight from a human body, in the middle of an ordinary day.” She cites these lines from “Waking in the Blue,” one of his best poems:

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor
of the Roman Catholic attendants.

He continues:

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

Lowell’s project, it turns out, was (and still is) radical in its commitment to the bedraggling horrors of mental illness as a chronic experience of debilitation and loss—loss of time, of self, of possibility. His poems about being bipolar, Jamison understands, are spectacularly unsentimental, indeed almost dreary, in an era when other poets writing about depression (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton) tended to sensationalize the experience.

Ultimately what makes a confessional poem good is not the frisson of revelation but the drama of its voicing—its persistent freshness as an artifact, a verbal creation. “The art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster,” Bishop wrote in “One Art.” The moments that make Bishop’s and Lowell’s work endure—the moments, even, that offer us consolation—are, strangely enough, not the extreme ones, but the modest, inhabited ones.