the poetry of heartbreak

on Robert Lowell:

Lowell insisted that "a poem needs to include a man's contradictions." He himself contained multitudes of contradictions, and he struggled to include them in nearly every poem. Toward the end of his life he observed, "What I write always comes out of the pressure of some inner concern, temptation or obsessive puzzle ... All my poems are written for catharsis; none can heal melancholia or arthritis." Indeed, the poems healed no more than they concluded. In one poem he wrote, sadly, "Is getting well ever an art, / or art a way to get well?"
 The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Even these famous lines escape finality. Lowell's poems seldom find stability, whether or not they are seeking it; nearly every one of a thousand poems ends by making us surer of instability, personal and social. "Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small" ("Home After Three Months Away"). "The disturbed eyes rise, / furtive, foiled, dissatisfied / from meditation on the true / and insignificant" ("Hawthorne"). "I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil" ("Eye and Tooth"). 

Lowell's health gradually declined (by the end of his life he had been treated in dozens of psychiatric hospitals) and his third marriage gradually crumbled, but his dedication to writing and teaching poetry never flagged. He died in 1977 in a New York taxicab, on his way from Kennedy Airport to his second wife's apartment, carrying a portrait of his third wife painted by her first husband.

Blair Clark, a lifelong friend of Lowell's, once wrote,
I remember ... a dozen years before he died, bringing him back to my house in New York in one of his crazed escapes from home. Watching him breathe in heavy gasps, asleep in the taxi, the tranquillizing drugs fighting the mania, I thought that there were then two dynamos within him, spinning in opposite directions and tearing him apart, and that these forces would kill him at last. No one, strong as he was, could stand that for long.
But the most desperate insight, as might be expected, comes from Lowell himself. The critic Helen Vendler has described how one day, discussing the reviews of his late work, Lowell lamented, "Why don't they ever say what I'd like them to say?"

"What's that?" Vendler asked.

"That I'm heartbreaking," he said.
~ excerpted from "The Poetry of Heartbreak" by Peter Davison in The Atlantic


J Cosmo Newbery said...

Sounds a pretty tormented sort of character.

red dirt girl said...

Living with bipolar disorder will do that to you. And considering the time period in which he lived and was treated - he was probably tranquilized to near zombie-like states and then pushed over the top with MAO inhibitors or tricyclics.

Can you imagine the endless cycles of high highs and low lows this man endured during his lifetime ???

Thank god he had poetry. It was probably what kept him 'sane.'


bulletholes said...

This is really great. It makes me want to get married a third time, except that would require me to get married a second time, and I dont think I have the bones for that.

red dirt girl said...

cowboy - LOL !!