Adam Beardsworth’s “Melancholia and the Bomb: Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and the Fragmented Atomic Psyche”

When I read our assigned poems from the Confessional movement, I was drawn to images of fragmentation and decomposition.  These images, in line with Bly’s Deep Image poetics, allow readers to visualize physical representations of incorporeal emotional processes-many of the poets themselves were diagnosed with so-called “breakdowns” and other psychological problems that caused them to seek institutionalization and to write poetry as a form of therapy, and others explored mental health and other interior phenomena and made them public, so it’s not surprising that we see things breaking down or breaking apart in the poems to reflect this.  For example, in “Another Night in the Ruins,” Galway Kinnell refers to a “bird that flies out of its ashes,” invoking a phoenix that is reduced to ash and then reborn.  Plath’s “Morning Song” uses the image of a cloud’s “effacement” in the wind as a metaphor for the challenges of motherhood.  But perhaps some of these images might be connected as much to the outer world these authors inhabited as their inner psyches.  Adam Beardsworth’s essay “Melancholia and the Bomb: Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and the Fragmented Atomic Psyche” is featured in the 2019 essay collection titled Ruins in the Literary and Cultural Imagination, ed. Efterpi Mitsi, et al.  In this book chapter, Beardsworth explores the ways in which the rhetoric of the Atomic Age pushed Confessional poets to experience psychological trauma as a kind of fragmentation, and to showcase ways in which the self was damaged and broken down in order to become more manageable in the eyes of an American society obsessed with domestic order and unblinking adherence to norms.

Beardsworth’s essay begins with an explanation of how the American government and its institutions created and sustained the ongoing trauma of Atomic Age rhetoric.  He argues that the constant threat of Communist governments’ nuclear proliferation was used to justify America’s own increasing weapons store in the minds of American citizens, inuring them to the horrors of what those weapons can do.  There was a sort of cognitive dissonance at play, however, he argues—though Americans were expected to be constantly worried about the power of their enemies and the threat of annihilation, they were also tasked with being complacent, even happy, with American efforts to contain the Communist threat and to secure forms of “American” idealized life and culture at home.  The whiplash produced by the combination of fear and what we’d now classify as toxic positivity created, in Beardsworth’s words, an “affective war”—a psychological manipulation that impacted the emotions of many Americans even as it employed those emotions for government and military gains, stirring up patriotism, xenophobia, and anxiety which could be directed towards voting for or supporting military and economic efforts as needed (160).

This played out clearly in the works of poets like Lowell and Sexton, Beardsworth argues.  Poets reflect what Julia Kristeva calls “Freudian melancholia,” as Beardsworth posits.  “Melancholia” is centered around a “lost object” that is both loved and hated.  In the case of Atomic Age poetry, the bomb itself is often the “lost object.”  Beardsworth shows how embracing the power of the bomb, as the American government wanted its citizens to do, meant both loving the bomb—as it represented American power to defend—and hating it—as it meant the power of governments both Communist and American to destroy.  The bomb itself, the lost object, has the additional association with nothingness—when an atomic bomb is used as a weapon, it doesn’t add to the surroundings but instead obliterates them.  So even when the bomb is a loved lost object, it requires the melancholic subject to love the idea of nothingness, fragmentation, and oblivion.

Lowell’s poetry uses the idea of the bomb’s fragmentation in two ways.  First, Beardsworth shows how poems like “Beyond the Alps” describe the fragmentation of political authoritarianism.  In that poem, the speaker describes “life” changing to “landscape,” invoking both the change from powerful civilization to quiet nothingness that occurs with an atomic weapon and the way that countries like Italy returned from strongman-led fascist governments back to a more natural order after the Second World War.  Then, he uses the poem “Home After Three Months Away” and a metaphor of plants being tended by a gardener to make a more nuanced argument about the social impact of Atomic Age rhetoric.  The flowers that were abandoned during the speaker’s time away are mismanaged by the gardener, now indistinguishable from weeds.  They are more submissive and easier to care for, but less lovely, their uniqueness obliterated.  Beardsworth argues that this metaphor relates to Lowell’s feelings being mismanaged by social and government institutions and even proponents of modern psychology, who diminish Lowell’s creativity by using the Cold War mentality to hijack his emotions and minimize their natural ebbs and flows in order to use and manage them more effectively.

For Anne Sexton, like Lowell, social institutions and psychological rhetoric seemed to have made her feel less creative and more diminished.  Unlike Lowell, Sexton suffered additional repression due to her gender.  Beardsworth argues that Cold War rhetoric relied on the strict domestication of women as a linchpin of everything that made America seem to be the moral superior of Communist countries.  Women who went against the domestic ideal or against feminine social mores were seen as psychologically damaged, even mad, because of this.  This is clearest in her poem “You, Dr. Martin,” in which the speaker describes her experiences in a psychiatric facility.  The doctor in the poem views all of his patients as “wild,” Beardsworth says, and provides them with discipline that transforms them into productive but numb citizens by the end of their treatment.  Beardsworth likens this doctor to the broader government and societal institutions of American life, all of which were in the business of indoctrinating American citizens into a certain affect that was deemed useful in fighting the ideological war against Communism.  Sexton’s sense of self is fragmented, cataloged, and put to use, not left in its original state, which is problematically unwieldy. But these attempts didn’t go unnoticed—Sexton writes, “Once I was beautiful.  Now I am myself,” both noting and—critically—challenging these attempts at reining in her natural emotional and creative impulses in the name of mental health and institutional definitions of normalcy.  (Can relate, Sexton.  Can relate.)

Both Sexton and Lowell pitted their “fractured psychological selves” versus outside forces trying to make them “compliant and docile,” says Beardsworth; his boiled-down theory is that it’s those outside forces that provide the most tension and conflict for the poets themselves (165).  So bringing this idea back to other poets in the Confessional canon, is it possible that the images of “things fall[ing] apart,” in Yeats’ words, are both interior metaphors and symbols of Atomic Age reality?  Can we trace this idea throughout the works of Plath and Kinnell and all the others?  Or is it more common throughout these poets’ catalogs to use dissolution and sublimation and all the rest as purely psychological Deep Images of the ways in which the self is not, and maybe never has been, a solid whole?  Hmm…

One Response to Adam Beardsworth’s “Melancholia and the Bomb: Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and the Fragmented Atomic Psyche”

  1. ekwooten1 September 18, 2022 at 5:37 pm #

    Should be tagged as a “critical” post 🙂

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