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

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