Robert Lowell’s place in the literary imagination is that of the natty New England colossus who fathered confessional poetry. In his 30s, Lowell began to exhibit symptoms of bipolar disorder (then called manic depressive reaction) that plagued him for the rest of his life and resulted in more than a dozen hospitalizations. The illness also inspired some of Lowell’s most famous poems, including the widely anthologized “Skunk Hour.” The poet W.D. Snodgrass depicted Lowell as a puppy dog: “[T]hough tall and powerfully built, he seemed the gentlest of mortals, clumsily anxious to please.” But Lowell’s sweet, somewhat absentminded euthymic self was wildly distinct from his manic self, according to Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison’s recent biography-cum-psychological case study. When Lowell was manic, Jamison writes, he was “unkind, arrogant, and incomprehending [sic].”
In his review of the book for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda notes that “Jamison recognizes that Lowell damaged other people’s lives, but she excuses him because he had no control over his own behavior. … Lowell got away with a lot.” During his manias, Lowell drank heavily, got into altercations with police, and beat at least one of his three wives, the writer Jean Stafford. His world was shattered by temporary insanity, then restored, only for the poet to find himself yet again overwhelmed by gloom, hopelessness, and humiliation. Despite bouts with mental illness, he won two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award. He was the sixth United States poet laureate. He taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and at Harvard. He earned astute and compassionate scholarly attention.
But another poet—one who didn’t look, talk, or act like Lowell—might not have survived mental illness the same way. Another poet might have been abandoned by friends, evicted, or even killed by police. Another poet might not have had Lowell’s financial privilege, without which finding the time and resources to write prolifically and enjoy critical acclaim is difficult.
Just as it’s a privilege to recover from a manic episode assured of one’s friendships and stable finances, so too is it a privilege for one’s madness to be the object of scholarly inquiry instead of noted on a police report. “When power intersects with mental illness, it becomes romantic,” says Okezie Nwoka, a friend of mine and a fellow writer living with a mental health condition. When a poet of Lowell’s stature—Boston Brahmin rich, white, able-bodied, straight, and cisgender—is mentally ill, the illness is often considered inextricable from his brilliance. Yet no one has written a major medico-biographical tome about Etheridge Knight, a Black, formerly incarcerated poet whose addiction could be framed as having galvanized his brilliance. The lists of luminaries who lived with mental illness likewise often leave off Reinaldo Arenas, the queer Cuban poet who suffered from AIDS and committed suicide in 1990 after years of persecution by Castro’s communist regime. We hear of Theodore Roethke and Sylvia Plath but only rarely of their queer, trans, disabled, or non-white counterparts. It seems that only straight, cisgender white men—and sometimes straight, cisgender white women—are canonized as mad geniuses. The peculiar exclusivity of this category has legitimized, and even celebrated, a neurodivergent few while compounding the shame and isolation experienced by the neurodivergent many.
Consider Naadeyah Haseeb, a 29-year-old novelist and poet living in North Carolina. Like Lowell, Haseeb is bipolar. (Full disclosure: Haseeb and I struck up a friendship in 2016 after bonding over our mutual diagnoses.) Her novella, Manic Depressive Dream Girl (2015), dramatizes the fraught romance between a white man and a bipolar Black woman. Her next chapbook will be a collection of blackout poems about mental illness. “A certain kind of person is allowed to act that way, allowed to be the mad genius,” Haseeb tells me. “I don’t think that I am for so many reasons, being a Black lady.”
Though Haseeb feels rejected by the mad genius archetype, it still informs how she thinks about herself. She justified her teenaged sadness, for example, with the excuse that artists are supposed to be moody. The link between creativity and mental illness is so prevalent that Haseeb worries artists now see the two as indivisible. Years ago, when she had trouble writing, she stopped taking her meds and went without sleep in an effort to induce mania, which she hoped would result in a burst of creative productivity. Instead, she landed in the psych ward. She’s found that her writing habits fluctuate with her moods: sometimes the very thought of writing makes her anxious; at other times, she’s too depressed to open her laptop. And whereas a deadline is a fantastic motivator when she’s euthymic, it can be paralyzing when she’s not.
Haseeb isn’t alone.