Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, returns to the topic of how mania, depression, and creativity connect, in her latest book about the poet Robert Lowell.
It’s impossible to summarize the achievements of Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD. Instead, a few highlights: Holder of an endowed professorship at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Inspirational role model, starting with her memoir An Unquiet Mind. Chronicler of positive aspects of the bipolar temperament in Touched with Fire (creativity) and Exuberance (passion). Her latest book is Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire.
Are you a poetry fan in general, or just a fan of Robert Lowell?
I love poetry, but particularly Lowell’s work.
What do you tend to read for relaxation?
Mainly nonfiction. Biography and natural history.
How did reading Lowell’s poetry help you deal with your own bipolar I illness?
Lowell made it possible to see that there was a way to live through, describe, and bind the wounds.
Any other books, writers, or role models that were particularly influential?
My mother, who did not have any kind of mental illness, provided the strongest example to me of courage, toughness, kindness, and grace.
Touched with Fire linked manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. What else does your definition of creativity cover?
Do you think creativity comes packaged with bipolar illness, so to speak?
Most people who are creative do not have bipolar illness, and most people who have bipolar illness are not unusually creative. It is, rather, that a disproportionate number of people who are creative have bipolar illness.
What role does bipolar depression play in creativity? Or in Lowell’s work, at least?
Pruning, editing, a sense of mortality, the suffering.
What is your own experience with mania and creativity? Helpful or harmful?
Both. Overall, mania was so damaging to my life that it overrode everything.
Do you think Lowell would have sacrificed his poetic fire to avoid the pain caused by his manic behaviors?
Lowell was prescribed lithium 10 years before he died. He regarded it as a godsend. Some of his most beautiful poems were written in the last few years of his life.
How do you respond to the common worry that controlling mania with medication will smother artistic energy?
That it is complicated, but, by and large, artists and writers report that they are more productive and creative when on medication, especially when they are working with a doctor who is open to trying to keep the dose as low as possible without taking undue risks.
Do you have a topic in mind for your next project?
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Study of a life
Robert Lowell (1917–1977) is a giant of American poetry. After getting his first Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1947 and serving as US Poet Laureate, he wrought a sea change with his 1959 collection Life Studies. The hugely influential book ushered in a style known as “confessional poetry”—intimate autobiographical reflections framed in a looser format and more casual language.
Much of the work in Life Studies was generated during extreme mania, and Lowell felt his recurring manic episodes unlocked his creative energy. Unfortunately, the accompanying bouts of rage, sexual affairs, and psychosis wrought destruction in his personal life—all of which he wrote about in various poems. It was only when he went on lithium in 1967 (when it was still experimental) that the tumult subsided.
Setting the River on Fire is a biography filtered through the poet’s illness—a further meditation on the links between “madness” and creative genius that Kay Redfield Jamison began in her 1993 book Touched with Fire.
Jamison had unprecedented access to Lowell’s medical records, as well as the personal experience with mania and depression to relate to his mood swings. She argues that the volcanic poetic outpourings of his highs were only polished to greatness by stern discipline during his lows—but also that his talent endured once his illness was brought under control.
Printed as “Back Chat: Kay Redfield Jamison,” Fall 2017
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