Robert Lowell and the Poetry of a Suffering Mind

Robert Lowell was the last of his kind: a New England aristocrat of Olympian thunder and civic weight, dead-set from boyhood on artistic greatness, “the pure air of the mountain peak,” he said.  All the while he was beset by certifiable madness: crippling peaks of mania and depression.  He knew the humiliation of the straight jacket and the padded cell: 20 hospital stays in 20 years, he counted at one point.  And through it all the man of grizzly-bear force and delicate nerves, of Puritan constraint and manic recklessness, kept writing.  The turn underway in Robert Lowell’s reputation is not the wheel of fashion at work; it’s a creative insight that lets all of us see Lowell’s art and suffering in the context of his character.  In dread and terror, remorse and courage, this is Lowell’s hour on Open Source.


Kay Redfield Jamison is the muse of this hour – doctor, writer, psychoanalyst and teacher, who lives with the same manic-depressive illness that afflicted Lowell.  In her recent book, Setting the River on Fire, she’s written a biography of Lowell’s “simmering brain,” what the poet called his “triple conflict of madness, death and life.”  She stopped by our home studio to discuss Lowell’s life, both the personal history of his illness and its treatments.

Kay Redfield Jamison (Illustration by Susan Coyne) 

Dan Chiasson is a poetry critic for the New Yorker and professor of English at Wellesley College, walks us through the modern day reconsideration of Lowell: not just as poet of tremendous privilege but also of suffering. Stephen Burt, similarly, asks that we remember Lowell as “our great American poet of self-reproach, of violently mixed feelings, of disowning power, which he knew that he had sonically, rhetorically and also of course socially.”

But of course, Lowell’s legacy was not made by him alone. One of the key figures buoying his spirits and his work was his friend and fellow poet, Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop’s reputation in recent years has soared, while Lowell’s has, for many, been lowered. Megan Marshall—who wrote the new Bishop biography, A Miracle for Breakfasthelps us understand the divergent paths of these two closely matched poetic competitors. 


Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, 1962 (Illustration by Susan Coyne)

We also include a reading of one of Bishop’s poems by the great Irish author Colm Tóibín, recorded earlier this year. (You can also listen to the full podcast with Tóibín here).

And finally, we should also remember Lowell as a poet of place, particularly his place in the heart of Boston. Lowell’s greatest testament to his own complex relationship with his hometown comes in the poem, “For the Union Dead.” That poem, arguably Lowell’s masterwork, was inspired by the Boston monument to the Abolitionist Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers who fought fight and mostly died in the Civil War.  Now, 40 years after Lowell’s death, we asked the Somali-born, Boston pubic school teacher, Abdi Ali—who teaches “For the Union Dead” to his students—to recite the poem for us in front of Shaw’s monument (and just across from the State House).

Chris Lydon, Abdi Ali, and producer Becca DeGregorio in front of the Shaw monument 

If you want to check out some of Lowell’s work before listening to the show, here’s a partial list of recommended poems:

1.“Waking in the Blue”

2. “Skunk Hour”

3. “July in Washington”

4. “Soft Wood”

5. The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”



Guest List
Kay Redfield Jamison
clinical psychologist at Johns Hopkins and Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
Dan Chiasson
a poetry critic for the New Yorker and professor of English at Wellesley College
Stephen Burt
professor of English at Harvard University and author of The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them
Abdi Ali
teacher at the Mission Hill School

Related Content

  • Lowell found a useful melancholy; prefer Wallace Stevens, who also fav’d Klee and Cezanne.

    And they said then, “But play, you must,
    A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

    A tune upon the blue guitar
    Of things exactly as they are.”


  • Pete Crangle

    The Designated Sisyphus

    Cy Twombly, “Fifty Days at Iliam. The Fire that Consumes All before It”, 1978

    “In poetry’s gallery of diverse ways of thinking, diverse aspirations, and diverse desires, we come to know periods and nations far more intimately than we can through the misleading and pathetic method of studying their political and military history. From this latter kind of history, we rarely learn more about a people than how it was ruled and how it was wiped out. From its poetry, we learn about its way of thinking, its desires and wants, the ways it rejoiced, and the ways it was guided either by its principles or its inclinations.” – Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744 – 1803)

    Amid the growing credibility gap within our public and private institutions, we can summon the arts and humanities so we may speak and hear our truth; a truth alluded to by von Herder. Through the arts and humanities, we can dream wide awake and out loud, imagine the unimaginable and unspeakable, draw upon the reservoir of our humanity, and of course, create a space so “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.”

    Market ‘innovation’ has become a fetish, parsed into units of mediocrity and commodification. Robert Lowell’s poetry is a reminder, there are other psychic veins of existence. A consideration of an artist, such as Lowell, may be considered a retreat from the currents of incompetence, madness, and corruption that run through our institutions. This is not the road to escapism. The arts and humanities are not a vacation from where the rubber meets the road, but are yet another means to unclutter the clutter, and provide an opaque clarity, one that is felt more than seen, or heard, or understood a priori. However opaque this clarity may be, it is candid in its expression. There is skin in its game.

    We live in a time of a relentlessly mediated, quasi-fabricated, chaotic reality. In such a era, there is little room to speak from the soil and grit of the human condition, from it’s worst proclivities to it’s endless virtues. Candor exists largely outside of the mass produced hallucination. In our neoliberal train wreck, the sacred is drained from us and packaged into proprietary units of faux shiny objects. The abattoir of capitalism is slung with suicide nets, and one can ask among ‘legitimate’ society: Should I invest in suicide net makers, and do they bundle monitoring into their product services? There is more to be learned from the ruins of a mad poet or painter, or an urban landfill for that matter, than most, if not all, the chatter exhaled by the political commentariat and economic charlatans. The words of Lowell, and many poets and artists, pierce through the BS of our epoch, and if we are condemned by events to circle the drain, far better to tune into The Poet archetype than Trump’s latest Twitter rage and the neoliberal fog making show.

    With each hellfire missile, with each ‘targeted’ kill, with each indefinite detention, with each fragment of collateral damage, the borders of empire push not outward, but squeeze inward. The imperium streams through the simulacrum, and tightens its grip. The residue of the age of commodity is madness and depression. And sometimes, the residue of madness, of sorrow, of chronic depression is a precarious lucidness found in the artist, or any truth teller. Resistance is not a commodifiable fetish, and as we move more towards extremity, it will not be hashtags that provide a clarion call.

    I consider myself to be a lout, taking a journey that goes nowhere. But, it’s mine to take, and I can pump Robert Lowell, and other poets and artists, into my ear buds and betray, however briefly, the lords of the fungible transaction. A toast then, to Robert Lowell, and all those who answer the desperate moment with a generous effervescence. To our Designated Sisyphus …

    Francis Alÿs Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing

    Thank you Chris and team ROS. Wonderful discussion, superb guests.

  • Gordon Adams

    His father was ineffective? How is the parent of a manic-depressive child expected to be a parent?

  • Potter

    In different moods I will get more from the Lowel poems I know. They are not easy. This is also about madness itself. I know true madness from my (late) sister’s schizophrenia which forever helps my compassion and attempts at understanding. Not having one’s sanity is very tragic. I kept trying to make sense of her when there was no sense, but then she would have a piercing insight. She could be very direct as well.

    Madness is often paired with insight and creativity. It may be the search for pleasure in beauty to come out of the pain, the pain of trying to sort out meaning, the pain of confusion. The constantly re-cleansed mind of madness, cleansed of all the thoughts and emotions we “normal” people clutter it with is an advantage in that way…. a thought. Still I would not wish to be mad.

    The guests were wonderful. I love Elizabeth Bishop’s “Poem” and Lowell’s “The Hard Way” and “Skunk Hour”
    Thank you.

    Somehow this show made me think of Samuel Beckett’s play about madness and pain, “Not I”…