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Part 1:

I have taken a special interest in the American poet Robert Lowell because he suffered from the same illness as I do: bipolar I disorder. It was in the late 1950s that Robert Lowell(1917-1977) threw back an autobiographical curtain to make explicit the horrors of his emotional BPD life and to admit, along with the pain, the radiance of his natural wit and humor. His religious faith faded and, emulating the vigor of another American poet, William Carlos Williams(1883-1963), enabled his poems to speak to his neighbours in the world, not only to his elite caste in Boston and the universities.

Life Studies was the result. He published this work in 1959 after much agony, and he ventured to speak openly about his mental health, his bi-polar disorder. He abandoned his former poetic writing-style in favour of a raw and personal approach—using colloquial language. He described the trauma of the inner experience associated with his mania and his depression, his difficult relationships with his family, and his time spent in mental hospitals.

Part 2:

In those late 1950s, when Lowell was turning his autobiographical poetic corner, I was in my last years of primary school and the first years of high school. I was, back then, a local small town celebrity due to my baseball prowess, and I was also in my first years as a member of the Baha’i Faith. My bipolar disorder did not surface until my late teens in the early 1960s.

Some of Lowell's episodes of psychosis were extreme and, from all accounts, he had a total of 18 episodes. They were different from mine in quantity and intensity; my three episodes during the years 1968 to 1980 were filled with paranoia and, like Lowell’s, stereotypically bizarre.

In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, "Madness in the New Poetry," written in the mid-sixties, Peter Davison commented on the appeal that mental health issues were then coming to have among the poetic set. In the 1960s, psychiatric disorders were still little understood, and the term bipolar disorder had not begun to be applied. Lowell’s manic-depression was referred to as “madness,” a term that students of mental health now try to avoid.

"Madness," Davison wrote, "can be construed as the regular and inescapable concomitant of the reach beyond reality; and sanity is construed as the dullness of those who refrain from reaching." Davison 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 agonizing mental, emotional and relationship tunes were played in Lowell’s poetry, wrote Davison: 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. These themes were played so frequently that readers found themselves forgetting that life and poetry have happy, major keys as well as other minor themes, victories as well as defeats. Davison saw all of Lowell's keys as sad and minor ones. The note of triumph is never struck, wrote Davison.

Part 3:

Despite such criticism, Davison asserted two years later in October 1967, in "The Difficulties of Being Major", that Lowell, along with James ****ey, 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.

By October 1967 I was teaching Inuit kids on Baffin Island and writing poetry had scarcely made its appearance in my life. When it did, after writing thousands of prose-poems on an immense variety of topics, I did not qualify as a major poet using these criteria.

What is perhaps most notable about the poems in both Lowell’s collections and mine is their expansiveness. They include everything from historical events to wide-ranging literary allusions to intimate details of our family life. Given the "range and extent of Lowell’s literary atlas, historical and geographical," Vendler suggested that his last books of poetry in the 1970s represented "the whole litter, debris and detritus of a mind absorptive for fifty years." In her view, he had tapped a rich new vein:

Part 4:

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.-Ron Price with thanks to several articles in The Atlantic Monthly and several sites in cyberspace.

I’ve had a pretty good run, Robert,
compared to your mental struggle
with BPD…..Confessional poetry
got off the ground, thanks partly to
you, just as my life with the Baha’i
Faith was getting off the ground, and
another bipolar poet was your student
back then in 1959, Sylvia Plath…Like
you, she had a grim time until her life
ended in the kitchen in 1963….I knew
nothing of any of this, occupied as I was
with life in a small town: safe & familiar,
comfortable, until a cold winter set in in
the autumn of ’63, and blew me on & on,
year after year, town after town, & house
after house until I decided, finally, to stop.

I don’t think I settled-down, really, until
I retired early and took a sea-change, and
began to reflect on what it all meant….I’d
caught a glimpse of It when the smoke had
cleared in the barrack-square of Tabriz, and1
heard about the birds flying over Akka, and
all those men with beards kept appearing in
those books year after year during my life.

I had a better run with medications than you
did, Robert. I think they knew more about the
BPD by the time I was in my fifties-&-sixties.

And, finally, I heard a new song all my years,
up from the Siyah-Chal it rose when I was in
my teens & I’ve been singing all these years.
It’s given me joy….So many indelible marks
on my single sensibility, bronzed-now to an
imperishability as I head into these evening
hours & the dark heart of night in the years
ahead in this millennium, this 21st century.

1 Roger White, New Song, Another Song Another Season, Goerge Ronald, Oxford, 1979, p.118.

Ron Price
(final draft)
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