Amy Lowell Anew

In the late 1990s, while writing an encyclopedia of twentieth-century American literature, I checked the competition to see how entries on authors were composed and what secondary sources were included. I knew very little of Amy Lowell (1874–1925)—not much more than her signature poem, “Patterns,” and Ezra Pound’s denunciation of her for appropriating the new, astringent poetry he called Imagism, and reformulating it as “Amygism,” a flaccid version of his effort to strip contemporary poetry of excessive rhetoric and make the image itself the poem’s organizing principle. I was also aware of T. S. Eliot’s slighting reference to Lowell as the “demon saleswoman” of modern poetry. The indictment was clear: Through her public lectures and spectacular platform performances, she had perverted the serious thrust of literary modernism, which rejected hucksterism and any diversion of high art to the precincts of popular taste and publicity. Implicit in Eliot’s dismissal is 
the suggestion that Amy Lowell might have been more 
than a little mad.

Two of the most up-to-date encyclopedia entries I consulted, both written by women, came to identical conclusions: A new biography of Amy Lowell was badly needed. Both Lowell and her place in literary history required reevaluation. This call for a new narrative coincided not only with demands by feminist scholars for a more inclusive literary canon acknowledging the achievements of women writers, but also, specifically, with new scholarly interpretations of Lowell’s life and career. As the contributors to Amy Lowell: American Modern (2004) argue, both the breadth and depth of Lowell’s work deserve recognition for precisely what led the Pound-Eliot axis to disparage her: a fundamental loyalty to her homeland, a desire to expand the audience for poetry, and a commitment to a conception of modernism that was both patriotic and provincial in the best sense of these words—the sense William Faulkner employed when speaking of his “postage stamp of native soil.”

At this point, I confess, my biographer’s blood was up. I already had a beef with the Pound-Eliot brand of modernism that Rebecca West—another of my biographical subjects—attacked. For West, as for Lowell, there was something distinctly inhumane, rigid, and ahistorical about a modernism that developed theories of impersonality, as T. S. Eliot did in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” He attacked the Romantic idea of poetry as self-expression and insisted that the poet became entirely absorbed in his work and wrote himself out of existence, so to speak. Eliot and his legion of followers neglected to account for persons, places, and the era in which great literature came to life. In her book Six French Poets (1915), Lowell explored both the lives and literary work of her subjects, much as West did in The Strange Necessity (1928).

But what most drew me to Lowell’s biography was the irony inherent in the modernist rejection of her on extra­literary grounds. There was nothing impersonal about it. Lowell came from a powerful and wealthy New England family, and that background was enough to excite the scorn and ridicule of artists who lived hand to mouth, and even that of a high church modernist like Eliot, who worked first in a bank and then for a publisher. Lowell had an establishment: her ancestral home, Sevenels, complete with a large staff, a maroon Pierce-Arrow with a chauffeur, and the largesse to dole out to struggling poets and poetry publications. Her generosity engendered not gratitude, but gripes about her manorial sense of entitlement. She seemed a throwback to the eighteenth century. Even her habit of smoking cigars was interpreted not as an avant-garde gesture, but rather the eccentricity of a spoiled Boston Brahmin. And she was obese, with a five-foot frame carrying 250 pounds. The poet Witter Byner, one of her rivals, called her the “hippopoetess”—and the joke stuck. Even her lesbianism failed to garner any cachet among the outré modernists; she observed the conventions, always referring publicly to her lover as her companion, Mrs. Russell. And Lowell never made an effort to meet Gertrude Stein, despite both women’s obvious affinities with the French. Stein got points for leaving America—a sign of her internationalist modernism—but Lowell ventured out mainly on her native ground and mainly to give lectures, many of them sponsored by women’s clubs, then considered the realm of amateurs and dilettantes by male modernists. I knew otherwise, having followed Rebecca West into those clubs and watched as she reacted to women who had read and reflected on her work. That some of these clubs included fools and what might be called literary tourists is almost beside the point; the avant-garde behaved no better.

So why read Amy Lowell? And, if we read her work, what should be read? How is she an American modern whose stock should be reevaluated upward? For my part, I favor her lyrics such as “Absence,” “Carrefour,” and “Venus Transiens”—not as the only worthy examples of her work, but as exemplars of her highest achievement. To assess her significance, I have to call on biography to reveal the passionate woman and poet, whom D. H. Lawrence—alone among his fellow male modernists—recognized as an equal, even if he could not always approve of her subjects or 
her methods.

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