Thursday, May 26, 2011

Amy Lowell: Nobody's Bitch

Amy Lowell won the PPP in 1926, which would have been very exciting for her had she been alive. She died a year earlier, at the age of 51. Though she came from the wealthy Lowell family of Boston, she wasn’t allowed to go to college, as it wasn’t a proper thing for a lady of her station to do. But nobody puts Amy in a corner—she took to the family library and educated herself.

In many ways Lowell was a trailblazer (I hate that word, but it fits): She was writing contemporary Imagist poems which were at the time mostly being written by men; she wrote in free verse and “polyphonic prose” (which today we’d call prose poetry…sorta); she was a lesbian who smoked cigars and thought of her poems as “masculine” yet was against political feminism; and she didn’t take much shit from anyone.

I’m inspired that Lowell came to poetry later in life, at age 36, when her first poem, “A Fixed Idea” was published in the Atlantic Monthly. If you read it you’ll see that she started out pretty formal (surprise, it’s a sonnet!) in both her style, subject matter, and diction. This was before she self-identified as an Imagist.

So, what’s all this Imagist stuff? Well, you can look to the writing of its granddaddy, Ezra Pound, but Lowell saw her work fitting in to this contemporary poetic movement for a few, concrete reasons. Aside from the obvious deviations from form, Imagism allowed for humor, but not for moralizing. Lowell said herself in one of her short prose pieces, “I wish to state my firm belief that poetry should not try to teach, that it should exist simply because it is a created beauty, even if sometimes the beauty of a gothic grotesque.” But what I think was kind of subversive at the time is that these poems could be about anything, and the more “unpoetic” the better. You see red slippers in a shop window? Bam; here’s her poem "Red Slippers." You have a green bowl? Bam; write a poem about it called "The Green Bowl." But of course, these are just jumping-off points for the imagination. Nothing is off-limits—just don't be sentimental or verbose.

Some mildly interesting facts about Amy Lowell:

-She did poetic re-workings of literal translations of Chinese poems.
-She wrote over 650 poems. Daaaaamn!
-She hated Gertrude Stein’s poetry, but loved Edna St. Vincent Millay’s.
-She had a gland problem that caused her to be overweight, and was called “the hippopoetess” by other poets. I gotta laugh at that one; sorry, Amy.
-She love love loved John Keats and wrote a very long biography of him.
-She won the PPP for her book What’s O’Clock (incidentally, a very cool title).
-You can read some of Amy’s stuff at Project Gutenberg.

I tried to read a handful of poems from different books, since I kept reading that Amy Lowell’s poetry “grew” so much over time. I realized I’m just not a fan, so I’ll leave any further reading up to you. I couldn’t help but get a sort of cocky (pun intended) vibe from her, even before I read that she liked to smoke cigars and thought of herself as a masculine poet. It’s as if she thought she had to prove herself to her male contemporaries and ended up with a somewhat macho voice that I can’t really connect with. It doesn’t feel authentic, rather it comes across as a mask or defense. Case and point:

Epitaph of a Young Poet Who Died Before Having Achieved Success

Beneath this sod lie the remains
Of one who died of growing pains.

Yeah, that’s actually a poem. She seemed to be in a lot of feuds with people, too. Most notably with Ezra Pound after she claimed to be the visionary poet who made Imagism what it later became. It’s hard to blame her for this tone, given the place of women in poetry at the time and I have to give her a nod considering that she was a compelling and provocative figure. Lowell is at her best in her love poems, so I’ll leave you on a positive note with her poem "The Letter":

Little cramped words scrawling all over
the paper
Like draggled fly's legs,
What can you tell of the flaring moon
Through the oak leaves?
Or of my uncertain window and the
bare floor

Spattered with moonlight?
Your silly quirks and twists have nothing
in them
Of blossoming hawthorns,
And this paper is dull, crisp, smooth,
virgin of loveliness
Beneath my hand.

I am tired, Beloved, of chafing my heart
The want of you;
Of squeezing it into little inkdrops,
And posting it.
And I scald alone, here, under the fire
Of the great moon.

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