In 1947, Elizabeth Bishop and “Cal” Lowell met at a dinner party that led to a long and vital correspondence. Devotees of poetry and each other, and despite struggles with mental illness, alcoholism, love affairs, they endured through an era in which American poets were both visible, and visibly tortured. Megan Marshall’s “Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast’’ and Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire’’ offer fresh insights into two of the most important literary figures in midcentury America, one by widening the lens and the other by tightening the focus.
Pulitzer-winning biographer Marshall, who entered easily into the narratives of the Transcendentalist Peabody sisters and Margaret Fuller, fluently captures Bishop. Still, despite new information from the Vassar archive, there is something that resists exposing. Perhaps that’s why Marshall chooses to frame her biography with autobiography: young, insecure Megan, eager but unable to connect with Bishop, her writing teacher at Harvard, the problem as much the teacher as the student.
Even so, as biographer she probes Bishop’s psychology, love life, and feelings about her contemporaries with surprising completeness. Bishop’s desperately lonely, sometimes abused childhood, largely in Worcester and Revere, alcoholism, and closeted lesbianism fed her lifelong reticence. In a car ride from New York to Boston one evening with the young poet Adrienne Rich (and in various heartbreaking unpublished drafts Marshall includes) Bishop lowers her guard, reveals herself. But Bishop lived her life out of step with the movements and revolutions — poetical, political, sexual — unfolding around her. Marshall observes, “Elizabeth was an integrationist, a position falling out of fashion . . . with the emergence of Black Power, Gay Pride, and lesbian separatism.” Bishop also turned away from confessional poetry, then very much in vogue.
While she faltered and apologized for various failings, it is an unwavering Bishop who fell for Lota de Macedo Soares and Alice Methfessel; trusted and competed with Lowell; adored her adopted Brazil.
Until now, our knowledge of Bishop’s personal life has largely been limited to her fractured relationship with the Brazilian Lota and Lota’s suicide — this is partly owing to the fact that interest in the perfectionist Bishop, whose lifetime output was modest, has grown considerably since her 1979 death. Marshall has unearthed more, some of it stunningly intimate. Always astounded by the electric appliances in Methfessel’s home after years of living in South America, one finds the smitten middle-aged Bishop in Cambridge writing love notes to the much-younger Alice “arriving home from work, where ‘all your electrical gadgets will be waiting for you and they will turn themselves on & begin throbbing and singing: ‘Alice, we love you . . . we love you . . . we love you — please let us warm your little body and dry your hair and make ice for your bourbon.’ ”
This is in sharp contrast to the orderly, stiff, censorious professor Bishop at Harvard — her cool control, an exterior anesthetized by alcohol. One small, impossibly memorable moment occurs at a party at 437 Lewis Wharf, where Bishop is indifferent to her student guests, more at home surrounded by various writer friends. Frank Bidart remarks her glasses are “almost opaque,” as she casually recites “One Art,’’ the poem that will cement her place in the literary canon: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/ so many things seem filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.’’
Bishop holds the world at a distance, but her concerns and her humanity are nonetheless apparent. Her outward demeanor is, of course, in contrast to the gregarious, charismatic Lowell, from whom she was handed her Harvard teaching position.
Unlike Marshall, Kay Redfield Jamison knew her subject only through poems and reputation. That, however, does not leave the reader with any less a personal reckoning of his life. Jamison has, as a psychiatrist and sufferer of bipolar illness (best known for her memoir “An Unquiet Mind’’), a particular interest in Lowell’s struggles with mania — and those of his Boston Brahmin forebears, including Harriet Lowell, committed to McLean Asylum for the Insane in the 19th century.
Having written extensively as a clinician about intersections between creative genius, madness, depression, and suicide, Jamison examines Lowell’s writing and turmoil. She charts the advent of lithium for his treatment and intricately maps the confluence of hypomania with increased productivity, weighing the effect the illness had on his art: “In 1975 Lowell told his London doctor, ‘I write my best poetry when I’m manic.’ The doctor had his doubts. Raving was not the same as creating, he said.”
While Jamison studies Lowell through the lens of mania, she makes it clear the crucible did not create the elements it heated: “When mania swept through Robert Lowell’s brain it did not enter unoccupied space. It came into dense territory, thick with learning, metaphor, and history . . . When Lowell was well, which was most of the time, his mind was fast, compound, legendary.”
Even with fear of repeated breakdowns and the stigma his illness carried, Lowell continued on as poet, friend, political activist. Lowell’s sociability, likability is unquestioned but balanced against descents into irritability, violence, verbal cruelty. Despite his fortitude, Jamison explains, he was not without trial: “I’ve been sixteen times on my knees . . . I’ve got up sixteen times. But if one day I don’t get up, I don’t mind.”
Jamison’s understanding of literature is also “fast, compound, legendary”; she draws from a vast knowledge while disclosing this larger than life poet who was loved, hated, and because of brain chemistry, often misunderstood. In addition to the luminaries quoted, her account is enhanced by memories offered by his daughter Harriet Lowell, and the inclusion of previously unreleased medical records that chart his, and his many relatives’, experiences with mental illness.
It is where we end up that matters. Writing was central to Lowell: it “fell to me like a life-preserver.” The heroic courage beneath the nervous breakdowns and poetic breakthroughs underlie Jamison’s story, as Lowell maintains long-term friendships (including with Bishop) and depends upon the stability he finds in his 25-year marriage to the long-suffering Elizabeth Hardwick, returning to it, albeit brokenly, at the end of his life.
These books make sense of the submersion of the personal in Bishop’s poetry (she referred to confessional poets who followed Cal’s lead as “The School of Anguish”) and Lowell’s contrary insistence on the autobiographical. Both Jamison and Marshall balance portraiture with the intersection of life and poem. In this way, synthesis is achieved: For Marshall, a hammering down of the exteriors of Bishop’s life, plus a first-hand account; for Jamison, an inward exploration of the very public Lowell.
Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character
By Kay Redfield
Knopf, 532 pp.,
A Miracle for Breakfast
By Megan Marshall
Harcourt, 365 pp.,
illustrated, $30Valerie Duff, poetry editor for Salamander Magazine, is the author of “To the New World.’’ She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.