Kay Redfield Jamison is the leading world expert on bipolar disorder and its relationship to creativity and art. In her new book, Robert Lowell – Setting The River On Fire, she brings a very special understanding to the life and writings of poet Robert Lowell who won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, became the 6th Poet Laureate of the United States and suffered throughout his life with bipolar disorder. Jamison herself has bipolar disorder and her New York Times bestselling memoir, The Unquiet Mind, is regarded as the iconic personal testament to the effects of this illness on one’s life.

Jamison’s insights into Robert Lowell come with an extraordinary pedigree: She is the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders and a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, as well as an honorary professor of English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She is the author of the national best sellers An Unquiet Mind, Night Falls Fast and Touched with Fire, and is coauthor of the standard medical text on manic-depressive illness, Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression. She is a recipient of the Lewis Thomas Prize, the Rhoda and Barnard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health from the National Academy of Medicine and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship.

With reviews like: “Ambitious… Penetrating…. Absorbing….”; “Impassioned, intellectually thrilling …”; “Groundbreaking”; “…a neat match between author and subject”;  “one genius reaching back in time to unpack the psyche of another”; and, “…the definitive study on Lowell,” it is no surprise that Kay Redfield Jamison’s new book quickly found its place in literary history.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was truly thrilled to visit with her at her home in Maryland for this Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: Your new book, Robert Lowell – Setting The River On Fire, explores and details the work and life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. What drew you to spend so much time investigating this particular writer? 
Kay Redfield Jamison (credit: Tom Traill)

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: I have always loved his work and admired his courage. After my first breakdown, when I was 17, my English teacher gave me his poetry and said I “might find it helpful.” I did and it has stayed with me since.

STAY THIRSTY: In your Introduction, you state that your book is not a biography, but rather a psychological account of the life and mind of Lowell and a narrative of his manic-depressive illness. You make it clear that your book is about “fire in the blood and darkness…about mania…[and] about the poetic imagination and how mania and imagination come together to create great art.” Why do you believe that mania is such an important factor in the creative process? Is mania more important than imagination? Can someone make great art without being manic?

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: People certainly can create great art without being manic. Most creative people do not have a mental illness and most people who are mentally ill are not creative. It is, rather, that there is a disproportionate rate of bipolar illness in unusually creative people. Mania has disinhibiting effects on temperament, behavior and verbal fluency.

STAY THIRSTY: How was Lowell able to contend with his manic-depressive illness and still produce great works of poetry? How was he able to survive for 60 years when so many of his contemporary writers and artists committed suicide or met untimely ends?

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: Lowell was a man of strong will, intense discipline and an imagination that he put to use in surviving and creating. He consciously studied the lives of those who faced great psychological adversity, learned from them, used them as heroes and exemplars.

STAY THIRSTY: What patterns emerged from your research about Lowell’s moods, temperament, character, thinking and imagination? Did the patterns predict periods
when Lowell was exceptionally productive and when he retreated from his art? Are Lowell’s patterns common to other writers and artists? Are there similarities in how the brains of creative people function?

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: Lowell, his doctors and fellow poets believed that Lowell generated original poetic material as he escalated into mania and then revised it, assiduously, when he was well and when he was depressed.

STAY THIRSTY: Did Robert Lowell go “mad” as had his ancestors? Was his heredity his destiny?

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: Lowell certainly had a strong family history of mania and depression. I wouldn’t say his heredity was his destiny, but it was very determining. So too was his art and character and capacity for love.

STAY THIRSTY: In your earlier book, Touched with Fire, and in this book about Robert Lowell, with the sub-heading of “Setting The River On Fire,” fire plays a key role in your describing the functioning of the artistic brain. Has fire played a part in your life, your medical work and your literary work?

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: Touched with Fire and “Setting the River on Fire” share in common a belief that the things that lead to great originality can at times destroy, as fire can create and destroy.

STAY THIRSTY: If you could sit down with Robert Lowell over dinner today, what would you want to know from him? What do you think he would want to know from you?

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: I would want to know what he most loved in his life, in his work, in his friends and family, in his native New England; what he most missed about the sea and land; what he would read if he knew he had three months to live. I think he would want to know that I had taken him seriously. Which I do. As seriously as anything I have thought or written about.

STAY THIRSTY: Now that your book on Robert Lowell is complete, do you miss spending time with his spirit? Is there another creative genius on your radar for your next book or will you be doing something different?

KAY REDFIELD JAMISON: I miss being in the presence of such a great, complex and original mind. I want to continue in his company. I have no plans to write about anyone else. Not as I have written about Lowell.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.