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Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography

Excerpt from the The Gay & Lesbian Review

INTEREST in poet and iconoclast Amy Lowell (1874–1925) finally seems to be rising after decades of benign neglect. In recent years we’ve seen Adrienne Munich and Melissa Bradshaw’s collection of essays, Amy Lowell, American Modern, and Carl Rollyson’s Amy Lowell among Her Contemporaries. Now Rollyson has added a new book, Amy Lowell Anew, which delves more deeply into the interplay between Lowell’s personal and professional lives. Rollyson had access to the extensive Lowell archive at Harvard University as well as resources in England. And he got help from a few archivists who located new sources, notably an archivist at the Massachusetts Historical Society who found a group of letters referring to a hitherto unknown female companion. Diane Ellen Hamer, a longtime associate of the GLR, is a writer based in Melrose. Mass.

The Absence of Amy Lowell

When Amy Lowell died in 1925 at the age of 51, she was at the height of her fame. Her two-volume biography of John Keats, published in the last year of her life, had been greeted in this country with almost universal acclaim. She was the premier platform
performer among her generation of poets.

In 1926, Lowell's posthumous volume of verse, What’s O'Clock, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. She had remained in the public eye ever since the publication of her second book. Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914). She had wrested the Imagist movement away from Ezra Pound, producing three best-selling anthologies of Imagist verse while publishing a book of her own poetry nearly every year. Pound retaliated, calling her appropriation "Amygism."

The pugnacious Lowell dominated the poetry scene in every sense of the word, supporting journals like Poetry and The Little Review and publishing pronunciamentos about the "new poetry." Standing only five feet tall and weighing as much as 250 pounds, she made good copy: The sister of Harvard's president, she smoked cigars and cursed. She lived on the family estate in Brookline, Massachusetts, where her seven rambunctious sheep dogs terrorized her guests. She wore a pince nez that made her look—so one biographer thought—like Theodore Roosevelt. She was even known to say "Bully!" Lowell traveled in a maroon Pierce Arrow, which she shipped to England in 1914 when she decided to look up Pound and seize her piece of the poetry action in London. Pound wanted her monetary support but scorned her verse. When she chose not to play by his rules, he mocked her, parading around a party she was hosting with a tin bathtub on his head—his way of ridiculing her bath poem, written in her patented polyphonic prose: "Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots." Reading this dithyramb to the Poetry Society of America, Lowell caused an uproar. This was not poetry at all, the conservative membership protested. Another account of this episode mentions titters, as Society members envisioned the elephantine poet at her ablutions—or rather her profanation of what a dignified poet ought to perform.

Lowell went on lecture tours the way rock bands roll from town to town today, with an entourage, a suite at the best hotel, and a gathering of reporters awaiting her latest outrage. On the lecture platform, she would read a poem and then pause, looking out at her audience: "Well, hiss or applaud! But do something!" Almost always she got an ovation—and some hisses. At receptions and dinner parties, she was carefully watched. When would she light up? She seldom disappointed, although her favored stogie was, in fact, a small brown panatela and not the big black cigars featured in the more sensational reports.

Other women poets—chiefly Elinor Wylie and Edna St. Vincent Millay—also commanded press attention, but none had Amy Lowell's authority. Publishers deferred to her contractual terms. D. H. Lawrence, Richard Aldington, H. D., and others depended on her largesse and her business sense. She was Poetry, Inc. Today she would be, of course, Poetry.com. T. S. Eliot called her the "demon saleswoman" of modern poetry. Academic critics such as John Livingston Lowes deemed her one of the masters of the sensuous image in English poetry. She helped make the reputations of Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost.

Of course, Lowell had her detractors, but their views were rarely reflected in reviews of her books. As Norman Mailer said of Marilyn Monroe—Lowell had crashed through a publicity barrier, which meant that no matter what kind of press she got, it all accrued to her benefit. Although she came from a wealthy and staunchly capitalist family and called herself "the last of the barons," it was not her politics but her poetics that captured the public imagination. She was for free verse, or what she called "cadenced verse." Although she would produce sonnets and other sorts of poems with rhyme schemes, she was celebrated for lines of uneven length, a bold, informal voice, and bright, colorful sensory imagery. Lowell was all surface, her grumbling dissenters alleged, but she always seemed to carry the day by switching modes—from grand historical narratives, to hokkus, to lyrics, to polyphonic prose, to books about contemporary poetry that read as though she had just left the lecture platform to address you, the common reader.

It is not surprising, then, that her enemies—never able to get much traction during her lifetime—should pounce just as soon as the energetic Lowell dropped dead from a stroke. The urge to cut this incubus down to size was irresistible. Clement Wood, a poet and critic who had feuded with Lowell, was first up in 1926, producing a biography systematically dismantling Lowell's reputation as a poet and critic. Lowell had been prolific and prolix, producing in a fifteen-year span an immense and uneven variety of verse and prose that made her an easy target for tendentious criticism. Wood's verdict, in short, was that Lowell was no poet at all. He skirted her lesbianism with references to the "Sapphic fragments" of a "singer of Lesbos." He employed what he called the "new psychology" to suggest her work was wish fulfillment, the product of a desire to be accepted. Lowell's need was pathological. Wood implied, because of her obesity—a word he never used, referring instead to her "immense physique." Wood favored sarcasm, concluding, "All the Harvard pundits and all the claquing men can't set Miss Lowell on a pedestal again." He was chaffing John Livingston Lowes, chair of Harvard's English department, and countless critics who had reviewed her writing positively.

Lowell's next biographer, S. Foster Damon, produced a monumental biography in 1935, noting that Wood's snide attack had not been widely reviewed or credited, but the damage had been done—in part because Wood had played off the epithets of critics like Witter Byner, who had dubbed Lowell the "hippopoetess," a term Ezra Pound also took up as a way of conflating the person with the poet. Damon, a member of Lowell's inner circle, restored her dignity by detailing her heroic dedication to her writing and to the cause of poetry, but he also unwittingly played Wood's hand by emphasizing the "triumph of the spirit over the tragedy of the body." Poetry, in other words, is what Lowell could do instead of living a full, "normal" life. Damon meant his words as a tribute, but because he did not tell the complete story of Lowell's love life and her working days, he could not recover for readers the Amy Lowell he knew.

Damon's plight raises two issues that plague Lowell biography. Lowell's lover and constant companion, Ada Dwyer Russell, destroyed their letters at Lowell's request. As unfortunate was Lowell's directive to her secretaries that they destroy the drafts of her
work each day. Damon could have partly rectified this enormous loss had he candidly described the intimacy between "Peter" (Lowell's nickname for Ada) and the poet. But Russell, who had worked closely with the poet, was also Lowell's executor. Russell lived until 1952, resisting all requests to tell the story of her relationship with Lowell, and thus depriving readers not merely of a love story but of an insight into the poetic process.

Damon's reticence made it all too easy for Wood's virulent version of Lowell to metastasize in Horace Gregory's hostile Amy Lowell: Portrait of the Poet in Her Time (1958). Employing Wood's vulgar Freudianism, Gregory sketched a view of a masculinized woman who used her bulk as a defense against a hurtful world. Gregory seemed to have no idea that Russell and Lowell had been lovers, although the evidence was rather plain to see, eventually emerging in Jean Gould's Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement (1975). Relying on critics such as Glenn Richard Ruihleylhy, who published in 1957 an edition of Lowell's poetry that emphasized her stunning love poetry, as well as on fresh interviews with Lowell's surviving family and friends, Gould began the work of restoring the person and poet to her full humanity and range. But Gould was unwilling to confront the implications of Lowell's subtler poems, in which she carefully disrobed for the world. Gould balked at going "half-way with poets" and feeling "the thing you're out to find," as Lowell wrote in one of her last poems. Gould quoted but did not explore the subtext of her subject's passionate poetry.

Enter C. David Heymann with American Aristocracy: The Lives and Times of James Russell, Amy, and Robert Lowell (1980), determined to drag Lowell back to Gregory's procrustean bed. Heymann cut and pasted the work of Lowell's previous biographers, quoted a few published memoirs, and delivered a breezy reprise of the standard brief against Amy Lowell, beginning with Louis Untermeyer's devastating verdict: "Amy Lowell had a genius for everything except the thing she wanted most: permanence as a poet." Heymann pictures Lowell as "naive, unknowing, and innocent," pronouncing her brashness a cover for a "gigantic inferiority complex" and a "troubled psyche." He delivers his judgments with ex cathedra certainty: "The need to make a kind of technicolor charade of her life was one way of making up for its essential emptiness." And he denies her precisely what recent critics, male and female, have found most valuable in her verse: a deep understanding of love. Instead, he indulges in that most odious of biographical practices: presenting lack of evidence as somehow an occasion for insisting on the validity of what he cannot know. Thus he argues that in the first stanza of Lowell's signature poem "Patterns," "she must have had herself in mind" protesting against "Puritan inhibitions and society's repressive conventions." But Lowell seemed remarkably well adjusted, adroitly negotiating both the high society world of her family and the rarified precincts of poets. It is odd that her aplomb should so often be mistaken for ingenuous- ness, as if she did not know enough to be embarrassed by her bulk and her fortune. To be sure, she had her share of self-doubt, but I cannot help but think her air of self-containment nettled those like Pound and Eliot who could find no place for her in the narrative of modernism. Better to think of her as an amateur, a lady poet, and a clubwoman. Hence Heymann guywires her to "Miss Lowell" and "Amy," whereas Pound is never Ezra and Untermeyer is never Mr. Untermeyer.

Heymann calls Lowell's erotic poems "androgynous," born of a close friendship with Ada that was not "necessarily sexual in nature." Why is he so wary of discussing Lowell's sexuality when he is so confident about other aspects of her inner life. It seems that he could not resist joining a long line of male critics who could not envision the body of Amy Lowell in the act of love. Although she did sometimes express anguish and even disgust about her figure ("Look at me," she once said, "I'm a disease"), Lowell wrote poetry that celebrated the bodies of herself, her lover, and other women. Indeed, she often lectured about Whitman and shared his amative nature. Far from suffering from some void in her life, Lowell positively embraced her sexuality.

Modernists like William Carlos Williams could not abide a poet like Lowell, a conservative who refused to apologize for her wealth. Like Pound, he wrote her letters telling her off while asking her for money. Heymann thought it odd that Lowell did not make common cause with feminists given her own "liberated" relationship with Ada Dwyer. That he did not see that he has contradicted himself, providing Lowell with an erotic experience he had previously denied her, is just another index of his un-
willingness to see the person and the poet.

Critics like Lillian Faderman and Melissa Bradshaw and poets like Honor Moore, who edited Amy Lowell: Selected Poems (The Library of America, 2004), have since become attuned to her bold eroticism, a force that beautifully binds the physical and spiritual, as in these lines from "Absence," Lowell's love poem to Ada Russell:

My cup is empty to-night.
Cold and dry are its sides ....
But the cup of the heart is still.
And cold, and empty.
When you come it brims
Red and trembling with blood.
Heart's blood for your drinking;
To fill your mouth with love
And the bitter-sweet taste of a soul.

These were the lines D. H. Lawrence extolled when he expressed his affinity with Lowell, which Lowell herself acknowledged when she quoted back to him his praise for her "insistence on things. My things are always, to my mind, more than themselves." She begins with a cup that is always a cup but is also her heart and then her mouth, just as her lover's coming is both a return and a climax; the literal, the sexual, and the symbolic merge.

Of even greater importance, however, are poems like "The Onlooker" (first published in the Saturday Review of Literature, February 1925), which fuses the personal with the historical, espying in an erotic encounter the fate of a civilization:

Suppose I plant you
Like wide-eyed Helen
On the battlements
Of weary Troy,
Clutching the parapet with desperate hands.
She, too, gazes at a battlefield
Where bright vermillion plumes and metal whiteness
Shock and sparkle and go down with groans.
Her glances strike the rocking battle.
Recoiling from it
Like baffled spear-heads fallen from a brazen shield.
The ancients at her elbow counsel patience
and contingencies;
Such to a woman stretched upon a bed of battle.
Who bargained for this only in the whispering arras
Enclosed about a midnight of enchantment.

This Amy Lowell is akin to Constantine Cavafy or Zbigniew Herbert in her reverie over a historic moment, and the conceit that she was no poet seems palpably put-on, part of a master narrative that ought to be annihilated once and for all.