The Journal of medical humanities

'Is getting well ever an art?': Psychopharmacology and madness in Robert Lowell's Day by Day.

PMID 21853380


On the publication of Robert Lowell's Life Studies in 1959, some critics were shocked by the poet's use of seemingly frank autobiographical material, in particular the portrayal of his hospitalizations for bipolar disorder. During the late fifties and throughout the sixties, a rich vein, influenced by Lowell, developed in American poetry. Also during this time, the nascent science of psychopharmacology competed with and complemented the more established somatic treatments, such as psychosurgery, shock treatments, and psychoanalytical therapies. The development of Thorazine was a remarkable breakthrough allowing patients previously thought incurable to leave hospital. In 1955, the release of Miltown, the first 'minor' tranquilizer, was heralded with a media fanfare promising a new dawn of psychological cure-all. These two events blurred the boundary between 'normality' and madness by making treatment in the community more widely possible and by medicalizing more commonplace distress. Lowell's early depictions of madness situate it as emblematic of the cultural malaise of 'the tranquilized fifties.' By his final collection, Day by Day (1977), mental illness had lost its symbolic power. These late poems explore the power of art as a way of representing and remedying suffering in a culture where psychopharmacology has normalized madness.