Monday, January 4, 2010

"Out at the Mental Hospital" by Anne Sexton

No one has been tamed out at McLean
See how the machine man is pounding with his stick!
Notice that the pole girl rides a noon plane
over her lunch The clock browses It's sick...


Let us have pity,
Let us have pity.
Night comes on and the nurses offer up a pill
while the stars in the sky burn like neon jacks.

Taken from "Gracefully Insane" by Alex Beam

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Icons Among Us: Room 222

Icons Among Us: Room 222
It is the most famous classroom of all. Or was it?
By Caleb Daniloff B.U.Today)

Legend has it that in the same room, Robert Lowell taught aspiring poets Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and George Starbuck, all of whom went on to become pivotal figures in modern American poetry.

When I was in college, I had a terrific crush on the poet Anne Sexton, dead 20 years at the time. I was smitten by her confessional verse, the recordings of her voice inflating those tortured words.

Sexton’s mythology had me on my knees. The iconic photo of her sitting on a ledge in a swirl-patterned shoulderless dress, eyes raised skyward, legs twisted impossibly around one another, cigarette dangling from her fingers. Her story of morphing from suburban housewife to Pulitzer Prize winner to asleep forever in the front seat of her car; the drunkenness, hospitalizations, affairs, family abuse, suicide, all throttled my imagination. When I found out that my aunt had been pals with Sexton in high school, I devoured the inscriptions in her yearbook.

I moved on; she stayed fixed in time. But like a one-time high school flame friending me on Facebook, we reconnected a few weeks ago. At 236 Bay State Road, second floor, Room 222.

Room 222, or the Robert Lowell Seminar Room, is the central classroom for BU’s venerable Creative Writing Program. All graduate and advanced undergraduate writing classes are held here. Legend has it that Lowell (below), considered the father of confessional poetry, taught Sexton in this small room, along with Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck, in what is considered poetry’s most famous class.

“There was a period when many people would have said Lowell was the major poet of the post–World War II era,” says Bonnie Costello, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English. “He had a major impact on the poets who came through Room 222. Sexton, Plath, W. D. Snodgrass, Starbuck — they had a lot in common. They all had breakdowns, were all in treatment. Most of them had children. It’s hard to know whether these people came to Lowell’s class because they recognized themselves in his work or it was coincidence.”

I met Robert Pinsky, a CAS professor of English and three-time U.S. poet laureate, in Room 222 to ask what the space “with a little glimpse of the Charles” means to him. Through the window, ivy thickens the walls of Hillel House across the road. Wooden desks creaked beneath us as if the doors of time were opening. I ran my hand over the worn surface and wondered if Sexton ever sat at this desk, scribbled nascent lines, cigarette in the other hand.

“Of all of the classrooms I’ve taught in — Harvard, Berkeley, University of Chicago, Stanford — this is my favorite,” Pinsky says. “The legend of Lowell teaching Plath, Sexton, and Starbuck is only part of it. I like the echoes. But I now have my own memories of all the students I’ve taught in this room over 16 years. And I like knowing that my colleagues Louise Glück, Leslie Epstein, Ha Jin, Rosanna Warren are using this room, too. I like knowing it’s ours.”

A few years ago, thanks to a generous graduate, Room 222 got a makeover: new windows, ceiling, recessed lighting, refinished floors, a blackboard (or greenboard). Another alum donated a Persian rug.

One of Pinsky’s former students, Maggie Dietz (GRS’97), now a CAS lecturer, head of the Robert Lowell Memorial Lecture Series, and herself a fine poet, remembers dull brown carpeting, a dropped ceiling, harsh lighting, and drafty windows. But it was the room’s feeling that was significant, she says.

“It felt intimate, and also serious, in part because I had the sense that it was historically charged,” Dietz says. “When you sit in a place where you think Plath and Lowell might have been, you just hope that through some kind of osmosis you might grow a little bit as a poet and become worthy of having sat in the room.”

Today, Dietz sees her own students starry-eyed and open to possibility. She points out that Sexton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967, and Plath (above), author of The Bell Jar and posthumous recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer for poetry, were unknown students writers at the time, just like they are, just like she was. Sexton was a troubled stay-at-home mom dabbling in poetry at her therapist’s suggestion, while Plath was just auditing.

“BU is such a big school, to come here and be treated like artists, to be poets for a long afternoon once a week, is special,” Dietz says. “To feel like they’re allowed entry into this space where it’s only writers who come in, only writers who meet and talk about their work, is exciting. It’s not like their other classes. It’s warm and the radiator clunks. It’s cozy. You watch the ivy change on Hillel House as it goes from red to bare.”

In the early ’90s, the room’s legend was further juiced, this time on the fiction side. The program produced future Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97), National Book Award winner Ha Jin (GRS’92), and acclaimed writers Peter Ho Davies (GRS’92) and Daphne Kalotay (GRS’93). Sue Miller (GRS’80) and Arthur Golden (GRS’88) helped pave the way in the previous decade. Poetry wasn't slouching, either, churning out Carl Phillips (GRS'93) and Erin Belieu (GRS'95), among others. Heavyweight guest lecturers have held forth over the years, too: John Cheever, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Norman Mailer, Amos Oz. Room 222 has taken on the quality of an organic museum, a vessel for the collective literary imagination.

But doubt has been cast on the facts of the creation myth. So I phoned longtime department administrator Harriet Lane (DGE’55, CAS’57, GRS’61), who retired last year after a 50-year tenure and had been enrolled in the program in the 1950s. Her late husband took classes with Lowell. Lane says other departments occupied the second floor when Lowell taught at BU, and that like other English professors, he was assigned random, generic classrooms in the CAS building.

“At that time, the English department was only on the fourth floor of the brownstone on Bay State Road,” Lane says. “In fact, in one of his poems, Lowell refers to a room in which he taught as a ‘shoebox.’”

Lane says she later found and installed the 15 desks still in Room 222 when the Creative Writing Program moved to the second floor, some time after the mythical heyday.

I felt deflated, but as Dietz says, what matters is that these future titans of poetry met together on campus, not where they sat. I perked up when Lane described Sexton, who later taught at BU, as “charming and articulate” and said that “her students thought very highly of her.”

Pinsky and Dietz think it’s possible the room was informally commandeered. “I’d bet Lowell did teach a class here,” Pinsky says. “It might have been some weird outrider that this was consigned as a space.”

Starbuck went onto to become director of the program, and his one-time colleague and successor Leslie Epstein supports 222’s pedigree. “This was the room,” he says. “That’s what George told me, and as far I know, it’s the truth.” Then again, Epstein points out, more often than not the class met at the Ritz Lounge over drinks, parking their cars in the “loading zone,” as Starbuck, who died in 1996, used to joke.

Regardless, the whiff of mystery feels appropriate. Art is about reconciling perception and reality, illuminating the truth rather than defining it. The lessons taught in 222 apply to itself.

While Epstein appreciates the room’s persona, students are here for the business of writing, so he strives to put their awe on the shelves along with the literary journals.

“It’s impossible to teach with a sense of awe,” he says. “I expose my prejudices, my likes and dislikes, my flaws, because the whole year is dedicated to noticing flaws. I don’t want to build up a sense of awe about the room. You’re not supposed to eat in there — we eat in there. Not supposed to drink in there — we drink in there. I used to make my students do push-ups. It’s a place where we violate rules. You can’t be a writer if you don’t violate rules, be a little subversive.”

In that spirit, I tattoo in my mind the image of a bright-eyed Sexton in Room 222, back-and-forthing with a disheveled Lowell, a cloud of smoke in the air, Plath jealously looking on.

I choose to believe.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Poets die young....

He died from a love of poetry

Marc Abrahams The Guardian, Tuesday 18 March 2008

Poets, by tradition, imagine themselves likely to die young. But that's not a matter of imagination, says Associate Professor James C Kaufman, of California State University at San Bernardino. It's a simple fact.

Kaufman looked at the lives and deaths of 1,987 deceased writers from four different cultures: American, Chinese, Turkish and eastern European. His 2003 study, The Cost of the Muse: Poets Die Young, paints a mathematically ghoulish picture. Poets drop off earliest, Kaufman explains, but authors in general are not a long-lived bunch.

He writes that: "The image of the writer as a doomed and sometimes tragic figure, bound to die young, can be backed up by research. Writers die young. This research finding has been consistently replicated in a variety of studies."

Before dissecting the body of evidence about poets, Kaufman visits that much larger corpus of published research about writers in general. A 1975 study found that poets tended to die younger than fiction writers. A 1995 study found that "poets died younger than fiction writers, non-fiction writers, and people in the theatre". A 1997 study "found that Japanese writers were more likely to die young than other eminent Japanese". And so on.

Kaufman also mentions, in passing, that a 1985 study by a researcher named Koski "found that some Finnish writers used alcohol to stimulate writing".

Kaufman's own research covers an expanse of time as well as geography - North American authors born as early as 1612, Chinese writers with birthdays as early as 1852, Turkish writers born after 1343, and eastern European writers whose birthdates range back as far as the year 390. In their ranks are, or rather were, fiction writers, poets, playwrights and non-fiction writers.

Kaufman used a statistical tool called Tukey's Honestly Significant Difference test "to determine which differences were significant in each culture, by gender, and overall".

The numbers tell the story. A poet's life, on average, is about a year shorter than that of a playwright, four years shorter than a novelist's life, and five-and-six-tenths years less than that of a non-fiction specialist.

Kaufman's study ends, as do the lives of many poets, on a sad note. He writes: "The fact that a Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton may die young does not necessarily mean an introduction to poetry class should carry a warning that poems may be hazardous to one's health. Yet this study may reinforce the idea of poets being surrounded by an aura of doom, even compared with others who may pick up a pen and paper for other purposes. It is hoped that the data presented here will help poets and mental-health professionals find ways to lessen what appears to be a sometimes negative impact of writing poetry on mortality and mental health."

· Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bios of the McLean Poets

A Brief Biography of the Life of Anne Sexton

Anne Gray Harvey was born November 9, 1928 in Weston, Mass. to Mary Gray Staples Harvey and Ralph Churchill Harvey. The youngest of three sisters, Anne was the baby of the family, always craving attention and loving to be held. Growing up, Anne saw her eldest sister, Jane, become Daddy's girl, while her other sister Blanche, became reknown as the smart one of the three, loving to read and the only one to go to college. Her parents moving to Wellesley, Mass., Anne attended public schools from the time she was 6 until she was 17. At the age of 17, her parents sent her off to Rogers Hall, a preparatory school for girls, in Lowell, Mass.; hoping to 'cure' her of her wild nature and shape her into a proper woman. It was here that Anne first began to write poetry, which was published in the school yearbook. Yet shortly after beginning the call she had, her mother, who had come from a family of writers, accused Anne of plagiarism, disbelieving that her daughter could posess the talent to write such lovely poetry. Continuing on with the refinement of her womanhood, Anne attended the Garland School in Boston, a finishing school for women. It was here that she met and eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton II, whom everbody called Kayo. Kayo and Anne moved to Hamilton, New York, where Kayo was attending Colgate, University. Unable to afford making a living and supporting a wife, Kayo decided that they should move back to Massachusetts. Upon moving back, Anne enrolled in a modeling class at the Hart Agency, completing the course and going on to model for the agency for a short period of time. Meanwhile, Kayo had joined the naval reserve and had been shipped out on the USS Boxer to Korea. In 1952, Kayo came home for a year after the Boxer received war damage. It was during this time that Anne and Kayo conceived their first child. In July 1953, shortly after Kayo had been shipped out again, Anne gave birth to Linda Gray Sexton. Later that year Kayo was discharged and he returned home where he and Anne purchased a home in Newton Lower Falls, Massachusetts, not far from either of their parents.

In 1954, Anne began struggling with recurring depression and began seeking counseling. During the time of her counseling she and Kayo gave birth to their second child, Joyce Ladd Sexton, whom they nicknamed Joy. Beginning in 1956, Annes mental condition worstened, leading up to her first psychiatric hospitalization and her first suicide attempt. In December of that year, under the guidance of her psychiatrist, Dr. Martin, she resumed writing poetry. Finding therapeutic value in her writing, she enrolled in John Holme's poetry workshop, where she met Maxine Kumin. Yet falling, once again into a deep depression, Anne attempted suicide again in May, 1957. Again hospitalized, she continued to write poetry and in August received a scholarship to Antioch Writers' Conference, where she met W. D. Snodgrass. In 1958, Anne enrolled in Robert Lowell's graduate writing seminar at Boston University, where she met Sylvia Plath and George Starbuck. In 1959, she was awarded the Audience Poetry Prize. With this award Anne began work to publish the first of her books of poetry entitled To Bedlam and Part Way Back. The publisment of this book spurred Anne to keep writing and led to national recognition of her work. Following her first book, Anne published her second book,in 1962, entitled All My Pretty Ones. Following the release of this work, Anne continued her success by working on four children's books with her longtime friend Maxine Kumin. During the span of August 22 to October 27, 1963, Anne toured Europe on a travelling fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Despite enjoying the trip, Anne returned a month early due to an emotional disturbance. Nineteen sixty-four proved to be an interesting year in Anne's clinical life as her longtime psychiatrist moved his practice to Philadelphia, and she began seeing a new psychiatrist who started Anne on the drug, Thorazine, to control her on going depression and hospitalizatizations. In 1965, she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in London. Following this award she published her Pulitzer-prize winning book entitled Live or Die, in 1966. Continuing writing and teaching English literature at Wayland, Mass. High School, in June 1968 Anne was awarded honorary Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard becoming the first woman ever to join the 187-year-old chapter. Beginning in 1969, Anne published her book entitled Love Poems, following this book she continued work on her play Mercy Street until the fall where she began teaching a poetry seminar at Boston University. The success of her seminar led to her appointment as a lecturer at Boston University,in 1970 and her eventual award of full professorship, in 1972.

Despite her success as a writer, poet, and playwright, Anne's personal life took a sudden plunge in 1973, where she was hospitalized three times and received a divorce from her husband during the course of the year. Surviving much of the following year, Anne managed to bring her final works to a conclusion with the publishment of The Death Notebooks, a completed final editing of The Awful Rowing Toward God, and a tentative arrangement of poems in 45 Mercy Street. The conclusiveness of the works seemed to Anne to be a proper stopping point. Following her last poetry reading at Goucher College in Maryland on October 3, 1974, Anne returned home to commit suicide in her garage on October 4, 1974 by way of carbon monoxide poisoning. The tragic end she brought to her life was the result of several years of battling depression and dissatisfaction with her place in life. Despite this truth, she carved a place in the minds and hearts of the American literary world forever.

In recent days, the release of Diane Wood Middlebrook's biography of Anne Sexton's life has caused controversy in the circles of certain groups of psychiatrists and moralists. The controversy centers around Middlebrook's decision to include within her biography, excerpts from tapes recorded during Anne's therapy sessions. The tapes were released to Middlebrook under the strict permission of Anne's daughter, Linda Gray Sexton who authorized Middlebrook to utilize all resources that she had to construct a thourough biography of Anne's life. Though the controversy is real to many, the question of doctor-patient confidentiality has done little to hurt the success of the biography in the eyes of the general public.

(University of Texas Website)

Robert Lowell

Lowell was born in Boston, Massachusetts to a Boston Brahmin family that included the poets Amy Lowell and James Russell Lowell. His mother, Charlotte Winslow, was a descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the United States Constitution, Jonathan Edwards, the famed Calvinist theologian, Anne Hutchinson, the Puritan preacher and healer, Robert Livingston the Elder, Thomas Dudley, the second governor of Massachusetts, and Mayflower passengers James Chilton and his daughter Mary Chilton. He was at St. Mark's School, a prominent prep-school in Southborough, Massachusetts, before attending Harvard College for two years and transferring to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to study under John Crowe Ransom.[2] He converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism,[3] which influenced his first two books, Land of Unlikeness (1944) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lord Weary's Castle (1946). By the end of the forties, he left the Catholic Church. In 1950, Lowell was included in the influential anthology Mid-Century American Poets as one of the key literary figures of his generation. Among his contemporaries who also appeared in that book were Muriel Rukeyser, Karl Shapiro, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell, and John Ciardi, all poets who came into prominence in the 1940s. In the 1950s, Lowell taught in the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.

Lowell was a conscientious objector during World War II and served several months at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. In 1949, he was involved in Yaddo's share of the Red Scare when he attempted unsuccessfully to oust Yaddo's director Elizabeth Ames who was being questioned by the FBI for her alleged involvement with writer Agnes Smedley, who was being accused of spying for the Soviet Union.[4] During the 1960s he was active in the civil rights movement and opposed the US involvement in Vietnam. His participation in the October 1967 peace march in Washington, DC, and his subsequent arrest are described in the early sections of Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night.

Lowell suffered with alcoholism and manic depression and was hospitalized many times throughout his life. He was married to novelist Jean Stafford from 1940 to 1948. In 1949 he married the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. In 1970 he left Elizabeth Hardwick for the British author Lady Caroline Blackwood. He spent many of his last years in England. Lowell died in 1977, having suffered a heart attack in a cab in New York City on his way to see Hardwick. He is buried in Stark Cemetery, Dunbarton, New Hampshire.

Lowell's collected poems were published in 2003 and his letters in 2005, leading to a renewed interest in his work.

( Wikipedia)

photo: Rollie McKenna

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. Her mother, Aurelia Schober, was a master’s student at Boston University when she met Plath’s father, Otto Plath, who was her professor. They were married in January of 1932. Otto taught both German and biology, with a focus on apiology, the study of bees.

In 1940, when Sylvia was eight years old, her father died as a result of complications from diabetes. He had been a strict father, and both his authoritarian attitudes and his death drastically defined her relationships and her poems—most notably in her elegaic and infamous poem, "Daddy."

Even in her youth, Plath was ambitiously driven to succeed. She kept a journal from the age of 11 and published her poems in regional magazines and newspapers. Her first national publication was in the Christian Science Monitor in 1950, just after graduating from high school.

In 1950, Plath matriculated at Smith College. She was an exceptional student, and despite a deep depression she went through in 1953 and a subsequent suicide attempt, she managed to graduate summa cum laude in 1955.

After graduation, Plath moved to Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In early 1956, she attended a party and met the English poet, Ted Hughes. Shortly thereafter, Plath and Hughes were married, on June 16, 1956.

Plath returned to Massachusetts in 1957, and began studying with Robert Lowell. Her first collection of poems, Colossus, was published in 1960 in England, and two years later in the United States. She returned to England where she gave birth to the couple's two children, Freida and Nicholas Hughes, in 1960 and 1962, respectively.

In 1962, Ted Hughes left Plath for Assia Gutmann Wevill. That winter, in a deep depression, Plath wrote most of the poems that would comprise her most famous book, Ariel.

In 1963, Plath published a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Then, on February 11, 1963, during one of the worst English winters on record, Plath wrote a note to her downstairs neighbor instructing him to call the doctor, then she committed suicide using her gas oven.

Plath’s poetry is often associated with the Confessional movement, and compared to poets such as her teacher, Robert Lowell, and fellow student Anne Sexton. Often, her work is singled out for the intense coupling of its violent or disturbed imagery and its playful use of alliteration and rhyme.

Although only Colossus was published while she was alive, Plath was a prolific poet, and in addition to Ariel, Hughes published three other volumes of her work posthumously, including The Collected Poems, which was the recipient of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize. She was the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize after death.


Monday, November 23, 2009

The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell

The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell

June 18, 2003 (Atlantic Magazine)

One day, discussing the reviews of his late work [with the poetry critic Helen Vendler], 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.

—Peter Davison, "The Poetry of Heartbreak" (July/August Atlantic)

R obert Lowell was one of the twentieth century's most esteemed American poets. As a manic depressive who experienced alternating bouts of depression and mania, he was also one of its most tormented.

Twenty-five years after his death, Farrar, Straus & Giroux has issued a comprehensive collection of Lowell's poetry (selected by the poets Frank Bidart and David Gewanter), inspiring a renewal of interest in both his life and his work. In "The Poetry of Heartbreak" (July/August Atlantic), Peter Davison reviews this collection and situates his extensive body of work within the context of his chaotic life.

By the time Lowell died at age sixty, he had been married and separated three times, had renounced his Protestant roots for what turned out to be a temporary obsession with Catholicism, and had spent much of his adult life in and out of mental hospitals. During his manic spells, he was overtaken by surges of larger-than-life emotion that ended up reflected in his poetry. As Davison describes it,

Ambition, religious passion, poetic genius, and dementia throbbed together in verses that gave off a powerful music, enthralling to some readers but puzzling to others.

His early poems tended to employ elevated diction to address grand themes, frequently tied in with references to his own aristocratic family and its Boston Brahmin milieu. But at midlife, Lowell grew tired of the elaborate, archaic style he was known for, and abandoned it in favor of a more raw and personal approach—using colloquial language, he described the trauma of his inner experience. His 1959 collection, Life Studies, dealt intimately with his madness, his difficult relationships with his family, and his time spent in mental hospitals.

A decade later, Lowell left his second wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, moved to England with his third wife, Caroline Blackwood, and began churning out countless poems in yet a new style—the unrhymed sonnett. Before long, however, his third marriage faltered, and his spiral of mania and depression, along with a pattern of excessive drinking, started taking a physical toll. In 1977 Lowell died in the backseat of a New York taxicab on his way from the airport to his second wife's apartment. Davison quotes Blair Clark, a longtime friend of Lowell's:

I thought there were … 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.

To young poets who considered Lowell a revered mentor, his madness seemed an integral component of the example he was setting for them. In "The Mad Poets Society" (July/August 2001), Alex Beam described how Lowell's periodic hospitalizations at the renowned McLean mental hospital in suburban Massachusetts helped lend cachet to the hospital as an aristocratic, literary place, and influenced two of his talented but unstable students, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, to exploit their own psychological turmoil for literary material.

Lowell's own psychosis was at times extreme:

He would shower his closest friends with bitter, mocking curses, or proclaim undying love to an airline stewardess and insist on leaving the plane with her to start a new life. He once delivered a gibbering lecture lauding Adolf Hitler. Some stereotypes are true: there are people in mental institutions who want to assume the power of Napoleon, or of Jesus Christ, and at times Robert Lowell was one of them.

But while institutionalized he also continued to write poetry and correspond with colleagues, including several fellow poets such as Theodore Roethke and Ezra Pound, who also suffered from mental illness. Inspired by Lowell's evocative poetry about his experiences at McLean, Plath went on to write the best-selling novel The Bell Jar, based on her own experiences there, and Sexton went on to teach a writing seminar at McLean for its patients, and eventually became a patient there herself. "I must admire your skill," Sexton wrote in a 1959 poem addressing Lowell. "You are so gracefully insane."

In "Madness in the New Poetry," written in the mid-sixties, Peter Davison commented on the appeal that madness was then coming to have among the poetic set. "Madness," he wrote, "can be construed—and is by some poets—as the regular and inescapable concomitant of the reach beyond reality; and sanity is construed as the dullness of those who refrain from reaching." He assessed the efforts of a number of then-current poets—including Lowell, John Berryman, Alan Dugan, William Meredith, and Theodore Roethke—whose work was in some way touched by madness. He was less than enthusiastic about Lowell's recent efforts; the despairing form that Lowell's madness had lately taken, he argued, seemed to be sapping the vitality of his work.

Over and over the agonizing tunes are played: helplessness, desperation, impotence, the lapse of the present from the promise of the past, flawed vision, the malign dissociation of the self from the senses. They are played so brilliantly that the reader finds himself forgetting that life and poetry have major keys as well as minor, victories as well as defeats. But … Lowell's keys are minor only. The note of triumph is never struck.

Despite such criticism, Davison asserted two years later, in "The Difficulties of Being Major" (October 1967), that Lowell, along with James Dickey, might be one of only two contemporary poets worthy of the title "major poet." He cited a set of qualifications for such an honor that had recently been proposed by the poet W. H. Auden:

1. He must write a lot.

2. His poems must show a wide range in subject matter and treatment.

3. He must exhibit an unmistakable originality of vision and style.

4. He must be a master of verse technique.

5. In the case of all poets we distinguish between their juvenilia and their mature work, but [the major poet's] process of maturing continues until he dies....

He then surveyed Lowell's work up to that time, emphasizing the superiority and distinctiveness of his prolific output and his evolution through a series of different approaches and styles. He reiterated his earlier criticism, however, that Lowell's recent work was lackluster compared with the main body of his writing. Of Lowell's 1967 collection, Near the Ocean, Davison wrote,

The new poems reveal more clearly than his past work the tug-of-war between the impulse to personal poetry on the one hand, and the Imperial Style on the other. Alas, the Emperor has won out ….

Lowell has written better.

But Lowell had by no means exhausted his resources. Following Near the Ocean he went on to write five more books of poems—one of which, The Dolphin, won him a second Pulitzer prize (he had been awarded the first in 1946 at the age of twenty-nine for Lord Weary's Castle). In "The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell" (January 1975), the eminent poetry critic Helen Vendler reviewed History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin—three poetry collections that Lowell had published simultaneously in 1973. Vendler suggested that what was perhaps most notable about the poems in these new collections was their expansiveness, in that they included everything from historical events (both famous and obscure) to wide-ranging literary allusions to the most intimate details of his family life. Given the "comprehension of its atlas, historical and geographical," she suggested, this new poetry represented "the whole litter and debris and detritus of a mind absorptive for fifty years." In her view, he had tapped a rich new vein:

The subjects of these poems will eventually become extinct … but the indelible mark of their impression on a single sensibility will remain, in Lowell's votive sculpture, bronzed to imperishability.

Finally, in "Lord Weary" (July 1982), James Atlas recalled his own brush with Lowell as an awestruck Harvard student in the late sixties. By then Lowell had become a legendary figure, and to Atlas, a young Midwestern boy craving culture and exposure to literary greatness, Lowell had assumed an almost godlike status. Atlas described his initial impression of Lowell, at the beginning of a poetry seminar with him:

Our first glimpse of the famous is often disappointing; they seem diminished, ordinary. Lowell seemed, if anything, larger; he was taller than I had expected, and his corolla of whitening curls trailed back from his broad, marbled forehead.

Atlas and his classmates hung eagerly on every word Lowell uttered, despite the fact that, having been in and out of mental hospitals for years, dosed with lithium, and ravaged by alcohol, he often seemed somewhat addled. He made peculiar associations, became lost in thought, or spoke familiarly about long-dead literary figures "the way other people gossip about their friends … as if they were colleagues and contemporaries." Atlas and other literarily inclined students competed desperately for Lowell's attention, seeking him out during his office hours and tallying up the minutes Lowell devoted to their poems during class. It even became a mark of distinction to be present during one of Lowell's infamous breakdowns:

I had never witnessed one of these breakdowns, but I had heard about them in grim detail: Lowell showing up at William Alfred's house and declaring that he was the Virgin Mary; Lowell talking for two hours straight in class, revising a student's poem in the style of Milton, Tennyson, or Frost; Lowell wandering around Harvard Square without a coat in the middle of January, shivering, wild-eyed, incoherent. In the seminar room on the top floor of Holyoke Center, we waited nervously—perhaps even expectantly, given the status accorded anyone who had been present at one of these celebrated episodes—for it to happen before our eyes.

Why, Atlas asked himself in a more reflective moment, were he and his classmates so eager for attention from this troubled poet? The answer, he decided, was that, to them, Lowell represented literary history incarnate. "The one question that tormented everyone else had been decided for him: he had made it into the pantheon of great American poets. His work would last."

Poetic Healing: As the hospital and its clients have changed, counselor Douglas Holder adds another dimension. The Boston Globe

THE BOSTON GLOBE: (Living Arts: Feb. 8, 2000.)

Poetic Healing: As the hospital and its clients have changed, counselor Douglas Holder adds another dimension.

By Michael Kenney (Globe Staff)

SOMERVILLE—In the fourth collection of poetry of poetry Douglas Holder has published at his Ibbetson Street Press here, he includes a poem of his own, titled: “ A Simple Nod.”

I saw him in Harvard Square,
happily walking with a friend.
As we passed each other
we exchanged a simple, understated
Our silence was a friendly conspiracy
a reminder of where he once was
and where he was

The where is never stated—although two words, “the ward,” a few lines further on provide a hint. Holder, 44, is a mental health counselor, and for the past six years he has been conducting poetry workshops at McLean Hospital for its patients.

“ I’d been working there 17 years, and I’d had my poetry published in small journals,” he says. I wanted to add another dimension to my job and help a few folks out.”

While Holder would not think of ranking himself with Anne Sexton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967, he does invoke the legendary poetry workshops she conducted at McLean in the late 1960s. Sexton, a patient at the Belmont hospital in 1973, committed suicide in October 1974.

Nor does Holder claim that the hospital today resemble the institution of those years. “It’s not like the old McLean,” he says, “with patrician types sitting around drinking tea from bone china.” That was the McLean of Harvard fullbacks, Porcellian Club members, and “ Mayflower screwballs.” That was the McLean that Robert Lowell, a frequent patient there in the 1960’s, memorialized in his poem “Waking in the Blue,” and that writer Susanna Kaysen, a patient in 1967, recalls in her best-selling memoir “Girl Interrupted,” now a major motion picture.

Today, Holder says, the members of his poetry groups are more likely to be the homeless “ coming in with a bit of doggerel.”

He runs two workshops, one on Thursday afternoons for patients in the hospital’s open-ward program, which meets in a converted Victorian mansion, and other Friday evenings for patients on two locked wards where Holder works. Neither is open to an outside visitor.

But whether in the mansion or in the more institutional setting of the locked ward, Holder says, “ I try to sort of have a coffeehouse atmosphere. We’ll have a round of applause when some reads a poem.”

Of course it doesn’t always work out as planned.

Holder remembers reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” at his very first workshop.

“I was pretty enthusiastic then, and a bit naïve,” he says. I thought they’d like it. I saw the poem—with its lament about the “best minds of his generation lost to madness”—as a haunting cry that would be a catalyst for discussion.”

And he says with some self-deprecation, “ I thought they’d think of me as, “ Hey, this guy knows where I am coming from.”

Instead , “they were angry and one of them walked out,” he says. “And one of them told me: “Why do I have to hear this? I live with it.”

Another time, Holder says, a young woman became hysterical and ran out when he read a poem of his own about a kosher butcher in Brookline.

“It turned out the young woman had a painful experience in her life, which she associated with chickens, and she couldn’t take it,” Holder says. “ I had a lot of explaining to do with the clinical staff.”

“You never know,” he adds, “when you might hit a vein.”

The problem is compounded, Holder says, by the fact that today’s hospital stays tend to be shorter—a week or two instead of several months. “You don’t always know what to expect,” he says.

It also means that the workshops aren’t quite they were in Sexton’s day.

“I get in their face about it,” Holder says. “ I’ll go around to the rooms in my wards and ask: “Are you coming to the poetry group tonight?’

“And sometimes, I’ll have a doctor or another staff person tell me that so-and-so is a well-known writer, so I’ll make a special effort to get them to come.”

A number of poems written by patients in these workshops have been published—usually anonymously in the now defunct Boston Poet and other small poetry magazines. But not in his own magazine, which shares the name of his small press, Holder says, because that would violate hospital policy.

Because he believes that poetry can play a healing role, Holder started Ibbetson Street Press, out of house in Somerville—naming it after the street where he lives with his wife, Dianne Robitaille, a poet and geriatric nurse.

Holder, who got a master’s degree in literature from Harvard’s extension school while working at McLean, has been publishing his poetry in small magazines and especially Spare Change, the monthly journal for the homeless. “I write a lot about homelessness and mental health problems.”

Starting a small press to publish local poets, Holder says, was “ a way to get connected.”

The most recent issue—38 pages on 81/2 by 11 paper with a paper cover, bound with black slip plastic binder—sells for $4 and contains 40 poems; an interview with Ed Galing, an elderly small press poet; and several reviews.

Among the poets are a number of first-time writers and others described as “mainstays” of Holder’s press. There are also two professors of literature—John Hildebidle, who teaches at MIT, and Robert K. Johnson, who teaches at Suffolk University—as well as Don DiVecchio, the poetry editor of Spare Change.

Ibbetson Street Press has also published a number of chapbooks, and old English term for a small collection of poems or ballads, most recently: Poems From 42nd Street” by Rufus Goodwin, a poet and journalist who lives in Boston; and a collection called “ Poems for the Poet, the Working Man and the Downtrodden,” by A.D. Winans, who published a small poetry magazine in San Francisco.

“What distinguishes our journal,” says Holder, “is that it contains poems that anyone can read.” They deal “with everyday life. There’s not a lot of arcane words or funny verse patterns.” Anyone, he adds,” can get something out of them.”

The following is a poem written by an anonymous participant in one of Douglas Holder’s poetry workshops at McLean Hospital:

When The Hunter Arrived.

When the hunter arrived
at the place
where it was unfamiliar
he became the prey
stalked by everything
ever unleashed
by the conspiracy of creation.
to the edge he cantered
idols toppling by his sides
until at last
those that were against him
trusted his insight into their
essential nature
Finally pushing a hole through
God’s left eye
past what had separately
designed the limitless war
streaming beyond infinity.

Manic Depression and Creativity

Many poets such as the "McLean Poets" suffered from Manic Depression. Here is an interesting article linking creativity and mental illness...

Bipolar Disorder and the Creative Genius
HimaBindu K Krishna

Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a psychopathology that affects approximately 1% of the population. (1) Unlike unipolar disorder, also known as major affective disorder or depression, bipolar disorder is characterized by vacillating between periods of elation (either mania or hypomania) and depression. (1, 2) Bipolar disorder is also not an illness that remedies itself over time; people affected with manic depression are manic-depressives for their entire lives. (2, 3) For this reason, researchers have been struggling to, first, more quickly diagnose the onset of bipolar disorder in a patient and, second, to more effectively treat it. (4) As more and more studies have been performed on this disease, the peculiar occurrence between extreme creativity and manic depression have been uncovered, leaving scientists to deal with yet another puzzling aspect of the psychopathology. (5)

Patients with bipolar disorder swing between major depressive, mixed, hypomanic, and manic episodes. (1-9) A major depressive episode is when the patient has either a depressed mood or a loss of interest/pleasure in normal activities for a minimum of two weeks. Specifically, the patient should have (mostly): depressed mood for most of the day, nearly every day; diminished interest or pleasure in activities; weight loss or gain (a difference of 5% either way in the period of a month); insomnia or hypersomnia; psychomotor agitation or retardation; fatigue or loss of energy; diminished ability to think or concentrate; feelings of worthlessness; recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation or attempt. It is important to note that, except for the last symptom, all of these symptoms must be present nearly every day. (2, 7) In addition to major depressive episodes, patients with manic depression also feel periods of hypomania. A hypomanic episode must be a period of at least four days, during which the affected person feels elevated or irritated--a marked difference from the depressed period. (2, 7) The symptoms are: inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, more talkative than usual, flight of ideas or racing thoughts, distractibility, psychomotor agitation or an increase in goal-directed activity, excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that may have negative consequences. (2, 7) This change in mood is observable by others and medications, substance abuse, or another medical condition does not cause the symptoms. (7)

In contrast to hypomania is mania, which is a more extreme case of hypomania. A manic episode is a period of an elevated or irritable mood for at least one week. (2, 7) The symptoms must cause problems in daily functioning and cannot be caused by a medical condition or drugs. (7) Manic symptoms are: inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, more talkative than usual, flight of ideas or racing thoughts, attention easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant items, increase in goal-directed activity or psychomotor agitation, and excessive involvement in pleasurable activities which may have negative consequences. (2, 7) Lastly, bipolar disorder patients may also go through mixed episodes, which are periods when the patient meets the criteria for both a manic episode and a major depressive episode every day for at least one week. (2,7)

Due to the different mood phases, which the patient may experience, the DSM-IV (diagnostic manual of American Psychologists) has categorized two different types of bipolar disorder, I and II.

Bipolar I is characterized as any one of the following variations:
1. The patient having a manic episode without precedence of a depressive episode
2. Most recently in a hypomanic episode with at least one previous manic or mixed episode
3. Most recently in a manic episode with at least one previous major depressive episode, manic episode, or mixed episode
4. Most recently a mixed episode with at least one previous major depressive episode, manic episode, or mixed episode. (7)

Subsequently, Bipolar II is characterized as the presence or history of one or more major depressive episodes and at least one hypomanic episode, without a precedence of a manic or mixed episode. (7, 1) One of the problems with diagnosing bipolar disorder is that the symptoms may not be incredibly noticeable until the disease has progressed to a dangerous point. (4) The disorder is such that a manic phase may only last a few hours at a time. (4) That is, the episode can proceed as a few hours of mania every day for at least one week. The affected person may not mind the mania or may be in denial of the disease, and since it only lasts a few hours, no one else may even notice. (4) By the time people actually begin to notice the manic-depressive cycle (or just the mania) it has already reached a point where the patient is barely able to function normally. (4) In addition, many clinicians have difficulty first differentiating between bipolar I and bipolar II. Since the types of patients, lengths of episodes, and age of onset are very similar, the only diagnostic tool is the difference between mania and hypomania. Since the symptoms are basically the same, except for the understanding that mania is one step more severe than hypomania, many clinicians fluctuate between the two subsets before diagnosing the patient. (4) Studies are still being conducted to more accurately and quickly distinguish bipolar I patients from bipolar II patients.

Researchers are still questioning the cause of manic depression. The most popular theory is that the disorder is caused by an imbalance of norepinephrine and serotonin. (1) During manic periods there are unusually high levels of norepinephrine and serotonin while, during depressed periods, there are unusually low levels. (1) The biological explanation is also supported by strong genetic inheritance. Many twin studies have been performed which have shown a predominance of bipolar disorder among monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (fraternal) twins, with a greater chance of inheritance in monozygotic twins. Other studies have shown that bipolar patients often have a family history of both bipolar and unipolar disorder. (2) In addition to these studies, the fact that the most common method of treatment for bipolar disorder is medication testifies to the validity of the biological theory of causation.

Treatment for manic depression consists of mood stabilizers, medications that balance the manic and depressive states experienced by patients with bipolar disorder. (6) The most common treatment, or the first medication attempted, is Lithium. Lithium increases the serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake, this causes its counterbalancing effects of mania and depression. (6, 8) Research shows that Lithium alters NA transport and may interfere with ion exchange and nerve conduction. (8) Another effect of Lithium is its ability to inhibit second-messenger systems. These systems regulate cell cycling and circadian rhythms. Cell cycling and circadian rhythms, in turn, dictate the frequency and duration of the manic-depressive moods. (6, 9) However, many patients do not respond to Lithium. Some say that this is due to the drug, while others maintain that it is due to lack of consistency in taking the drug. (6) It has been shown that Lithium in not effective for all types of bipolar disorder, so other medications have been produced to help Lithium resistant individuals. (6, 8)

Anticonvulsants are the second attempted medications to alleviate the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Valproate (VPA) and Carbamazepine (CBZ) are the two most commonly prescribed. VPA has the same efficacy as Lithium for decreasing mania as well as acting faster, which is important to some patients. (6) However, the exact mechanism of action is still unclear. Research indicates that VPA may be involved with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). VPA may either enhance GABA receptor activity and/or inhibit its metabolism. (6) CBZ has similar effects as VPA. That is, CBZ is also an anticonvulsant that alleviates the symptoms of mania, and possibly depression. Unlike VPA, more is known on the mechanism of CBZ. CBZ has been associated with neurotransmitter and ion-channel systems. (6) It binds to voltage-sensitive sodium channels, decreasing the sodium influx. It promotes potassium conductance and may block dopamine receptor-mediated currents. (6) Medication seems to be the best treatment to date for bipolar disorder. Psychotherapy is also helpful, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on readjusting patient's perceptions of life. (2, 3) However, patients still experience symptoms to one degree or another.

Though this psychopathology is not for one to wish, one interesting association with bipolar disorder is the creativity of those afflicted. (2, 3, 5, 7) This is not the normal creativity experienced by the above-average people (on the scale of creativity). This creativity is the creative genius, which is so rare, yet an inordinate percentage of the well-known creative people were/are afflicted with manic depression. (2, 3) Among the lengthy list are: (writers) F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath; (poets) William Blake, Sara Teasdale, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson; (composers) Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky. (10) Psychiatrists, realizing a connection greater than coincidence, have performed studies all over the world in an attempt to establish a link between bipolar disorder and creativity. (5) In the 1970s, Nancy C. Andreasen of the University of Iowa examined 30 creative writers and found 80% had experienced at least one episode of major depression, hypomania, or mania. (5) A few years later Kay Redfield Jamison studied 47 British writers, painters, and sculptors from the Royal Academy. She found that 38% had been treated for bipolar disorder. In particular, half of the poets (the largest group with manic depression) had needed medication or hospitalization. (5) Researchers at Harvard University set up a study to assess the degree of original thinking to perform creative tasks. They were going to rate creativity in a sample of manic-depressive patients. Their results showed that manic-depressives have a greater percentage of creativity than the controls. (5) There have been biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers which show that they have 18 times the rate of suicide (as compared to the general population), 8-10 times the rate of unipolar depression, and 10-20 times the rate of bipolar depression. (5) The additive results of these studies provide ample evidence that there is a link between bipolar disorder and creative genius. The question now is not whether or not there exists a connection between the two, but why it exists.

One common feature in mania or hypomania is the increase in unusually creative thinking and productivity. (2, 3, 5, 7) The manic factor contributes to an increased frequency and fluency of thoughts due to the cognitive difference between normalcy and mania. (2, 5) Manic people often speak and think in rhyme or alliteration more than non-manic people. (2, 5) In addition, the lifestyles of manic-depressives in their manic phase is comparable to those of creative people. Both groups function on very little sleep, restless attitudes, and they both exhibit depth and emotion beyond the norm. (2, 5) Biologically speaking, the manic state is physically alert. That is, it can respond quickly and intellectually with a range of changes (i.e. emotional, perceptual, behavioral). (5) The manic perception of life is one without bounds. This allows for creativity because the person feels capable of anything. It is as if the walls, which inhibit the general population, do not exist in manic people, allowing them to become creative geniuses. They understand a part of art, music, and literature which normal people do not attempt. The manic state is in sharp contrast to the depressive phase of bipolar patients. In their depressed phase, patients only see gloom and boundaries. They feel helpless, and out of this helplessness comes the creativity. (5) The only way bipolar patients can survive their depressed phases, oftentimes, is to unleash their despondency through some creative work. (5, 3)

Since the states of mania and depression are so different, the adjustment between the two ends up being chaotic. Looking at some works of literature or music, it can be noticed which phase the creator was in at the time of composition. In works by Sylvia Plath, for example, the readers may take notice of the sharp contrast among chapters. Some chapters she is full of hope and life, while other chapters read loneliness and desolation. Another example can be found in Tchaikovsky's music; there is a great variation among his compositions concerning their tone, tempo, rhythm, etc. In fact, some say that most actual compositions result from this in-between period because this is the only time when the patient can physically deliver something worthwhile. (3) Because the phases are so chaotic, the ideas float during the manic and depressive states, but the final, developed products are formed during the patients' "normal" phases.

However, the problem with bipolar disorder in present time is that drug treatment often vanquishes the creativity in the patient. (5) In earlier days when drug therapy was not implemented, the creativity would be free. Yet, through the attempt for affected people to cope with day to day living, their creativity must be sacrificed. It is remarkable how these "afflicted" persons exude extraordinary creativity. Therapists and researchers are on the constant search to provide treatment for the debilitating symptoms. In the case of bipolar disorder, the world benefits from the mood swings endured by a large percentage of these patients. Though their ability to function properly is of utmost concern, since the cycling between manic and depressive phases is so traumatic and energy depleting, the unusual existence of creativity of such caliber in these people is something to conserve. As more effective drug treatment is being sought after, hopefully there will be medication that will permit the creative genius of the patients and allow them to function in society as well.