Cal & Elizabeth

On [what was] this day [when I began this post but is now yesterday] in 1917, Robert Lowell was born. I’m about a third of the way through Paul Mariani’s biography of Lowell, Lost Puritan, and I’m liking it more than the Hamilton so far — Mariani, while just as blunt about the wreckage Lowell’s breakdowns wrought, seems more compassionate on the whole, and less judgmental. I have the sense that Mariani actually likes Cal Lowell, for all his flaws, which makes Lost Puritan a much more full-blooded read.

Just one aspect of havoc his mental illness inflicted on his life, an aspect that gets forgotten, I think, amidst the stories of his infidelities (manic episodes were inevitably accompanied by an affair — they were practically symptoms in themselves) and outrageous behavior, is the bald fact of time lost. Nearly once a year for, what, a decade? more? Cal suffered a breakdown followed by months, months, of recovery in various clinics or institutions.

Elizabeth Bishop suffered from depression, and was a serious alcoholic. I had no idea. Characterizations of her tend to be in the reticent & self-deprecating vein. But she was in her own way just as screwed up as Cal. In her later years she seemed to be constantly recovering from some broken bone or another due to drunken spills. She hated to be alone, solitude paralyzed her — she would find it impossible to write and would be sucked into another cycle of drinking and subsequent stints somewhere to dry out. Again, all the time lost.

All appearances to the contrary (the size of his Collected!), Cal was not constantly writing new poems. There are poems he worked and worked on, only to discard either in their entirety or in huge part. And while Elizabeth is the one portrayed as a perfectionist, he also revised endlessly. But Elizabeth certainly wrote more than she included in her Complete Poems, as evidenced by the much-debated Edgar Allan Poe & The Jukebox, edited by Alice Quinn.

Comparatively speaking, they both led pretty privileged lives: lots of travel, summer homes, often free of the responsibility to work outside of writing. This is especially true of Elizabeth, though her nomadic life was a source of strain and a corollary to her larger sense of homelessness and aloneness.

But they sacrificed so much of themselves and their writing life to their illnesses. In this respect alone, the poetry they did manage to write is truly a triumph, written in spite of their sufferings, not because of. That so much of it is outstanding is a literary wonder.

But it seems to me that Cal was able to write, to find solace in writing, in a way that Elizabeth, stymied by self-doubt and insecurity, could not.  And whatever its cause (her status as a woman poet? as a lesbian woman poet?), this, in a her lifeful of grief, is what saddens me most.

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