From A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode. Copyright 1976 by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
About Amy Lowell’s Poetry
[Amy Lowell’s first] volume, a Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912), was a strangely unpromising first book. The subjects were as conventional as the treatment; the influence of Keats and Tennyson was evident; the tone was soft and sentimental, almost without a trace of personality. It was a queer prologue to the vivid Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), which marked not only an extraordinary advance but a totally new individuality. This second volume contained many distinctive poems written in the usual forms, a score of pictorial pieces illustrating Miss Lowell’s identification with the Imagists and, possibly most important from a technical standpoint, the first appearance in English of “polyphonic prose.” Of this extremely flexible form, which has only begun to be exploited, Miss Lowell, in an essay on John Gould Fletcher, has written, “’Polyphonic’ means ‘many-voiced,’ and the form is so-called because it makes use of the ‘voices’ of poetry, namely: meter, vers libre, assonance, alliteration, rhyme and return. It employs every form of rhythm, even prose rhythm at times.”
It was because of such experiments in form and technique that Miss Lowell first attracted attention and is still best known. But, beneath her preoccupation with theories and novelty of utterance, one listens to the skilled story-teller, to the designer of arabesques, to the narrator who (vide such poems as “A Lady,” “Vintage” and the later “Bronze Horses”) revivifies history with creative excitement.
Men, Women and Ghosts (1916) brims with this contagious vitality; it is richer in variety than its predecessors, swifter in movement, surer in artistry. It is, in common with all of Miss Lowell’s work, best in its portrayal of colors and sounds, of physical perceptions rather than the reactions of emotional experience. She is, preeminently, the poet of the external world; her visual effects are as “hard and clear” as the most uncompromising Imagist could desire. The colors with which her voice works are studded seem like bits of bright enamel; every leaf and flower has a lacquered brilliance. To compensate for the lack of inner warmth, Miss Lowell feverishly agitates all she touches; nothing remains quiescent. Whether she writes about a fruit shop, or a flower-garden in Roxbuy, or a windowful of red slippers, or a string quartet, or a Japanese print—everything flashes, leaps, startles, spins and burns with an almost savage intensity; a dynamic speed dizzies one. Motion frequently takes the place of emotion.
In Can Grande’s Castle (1918) Miss Lowell achieves a broader line; the teller of stories, the bizarre decorator and the experimenter are finally fused. The poems in this volume are only four in number—four polyphonic prose-poems of almost epic length, but they are extraordinarily varied, sweeping in their sense of amplitude and time. Pictures of the Floating World (1919) which followed is, in many wasy Miss Lowell’s most personal revelation. Although there are several pags devoted to the merely dazzling and grotesque, most of the poems are in a quieter key; a new restraint gives unsuspected overtones to stanzas that have much in common with the earlier and more famous “Patterns” where the narrative, the character and the thing observed are inextricably knit.
from Modern American Poetry: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Louis Untermeyer. Copyright 1919 by Harcourt, Brace, and Company.
It has interested Miss Lowell to explore many fields and study all forms. Beginning—in the Atlantic about fifteen years ago—with sonnets and other exactitudes, and writing her 1912 book [A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass] entirely in rhyme or blank verse, she was attracted to the imagists from their first appearance towards the end of that year, studied their ideas and technique, and joined the group to the extent of appearing in the three Some Imagists anthologies of 1915-16-17. In her six books of verse are lyrics, grotesques, narratives; in rhyme, blank verse, free verse and the “polyphonic prose” which, with scholarly intuition of values, she adapted and modified from the French. . . . In A Fable for Critics, she has tried her hand, like Byron, at a lightly running satirical handling of her contemporaries.
In all this astonishing variety one feels power. Behind it all is the drive and urge of a rich and strong personality. The force which Miss Lowell’s New England ancestors put into founding and running cotton-mills, or belike into saving souls, she puts into conquering an art and making it express and serve her. . . .
One detects a certain scientific rapture in many of Miss Lowell’s interesting experiments in technique. She delights in the rush and clatter of sounds, in the kaleidoscopic glitter of colors, even though the emotional or intellectual motive goes somewhat astray among them In a few poems in the imagist anthologies—”Spring Day,” for example—one’s ears and eyes feel fairly battered; still more in the Can Grande essays in polyphonic prose. She is most definitely true to the imagist technique in brief poems like some of the Lacquer Prints.
from Poets and Their Art. Copyright 1926 by MacMillan and Co.
Lowell . . . becomes interesting in our conflicted and tense cultural moment because she was not in any sense “free” either to express her sexuality or to police it. She could not have the confidence—or perhaps bravado—of overseas 1920s lesbian communities, or even of the more modest bohemianism of the Village. On the contrary, at the center of many of her most interesting poems, like “Venus Transiens,” are painfully contradictory impulses toward revelation, display, or even a certain form of “flaunting,” and hiding, a poetics of the closet.
from “Amy Lowell and Cultural Borders.” In Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers. Ed. Jeanne Campbell Reesman. Copyright 1997 by The University of Georgia Press
Until recently most of Lowell’s biographers and critics have pictured her relationship with Ada [Russell] as a workable business arrangement, a close friendship, or at its most intense, a platonic romance. Blinded by their own parochial vision of an overweight, unmarried woman, they characteristically complain that she was “cut off from the prime biological experiences of life by her tragic physical predicament.” They seem to deny her any sexuality and suggest that the result of not experiencing elemental passions was that her poetry did little more than [in the words of Hervey Allen] “decorate and arrange . . . as always happens when the sources of inspiration are literary and secondary rather than primarily the expression of emotional experience.” On the contrary, the sources of inspiration for [the] “Two Speak Together” [poems from Pictures of the Floating World] were clearly and deeply felt emotional and sexual experiences, at times “told slant’ to avoid “running foul” of popular prejudices. Most often the erotic statement is made fairly directly: since gender is seldom readily apparent the writer risks open sensual description. In “The Letter” the speaker cries, “I scald alone, here, under the fire / Of the great moon.” In “The Artist” the speaker begs to see the beloved naked and sexual—” you would quiver like a shot-up spray of water, / You would waver, and relapse, and tremble. / And I too should tremble, / Watching.” In “Wheat-in-the-Ear” and “Opal” sensuality and sexuality are again suggested by the burning image: “I see that you are fire—/ Sacrificial fire on a jade altar, / Spear tongue of white, ceremonial fire. / My eyes burn, / My hands are flames seeking you,” and “You are like ice and fire, / The touch of you burns my hands like snow.”
from “Warding off the Watch and Ward Society: Amy Lowell’s Treatment of the Lesbian Theme.” In Gay Books Bulletin I (Summer 1979): 23-27.
In an otherwise favorable review of Louis Untermeyer’s 1919 book, The New Era in American Poetry, Alice Corbin Henderson scoffs at the critic’s unqualified enthusiasm for Amy Lowell’s poetry. She cannot believe that in his praise of her he doesn’t see
the spiritual poverty, the manufactured stage-passion, the continuous external glitter with no depth beneath, the monotony of style, the free-verse bombast, the lack of real humor, or the endless emphasis on form external to that true form which develops from within. (166)
Henderson’s brief evaluation of Lowell’s work neatly encapsulates the most frequently heard criticisms of her poetry: excessively opulent details, an over-use of color, repetitive imagery, and finally, the charge that these affectations serve to hide the poems’ inherent shallowness, their lack of “real” depth. Literary critic Theodore Maynard, for example, laments that Lowell “has to rely upon brilliance instead of upon life. . . . when she allows herself to be natural for a moment she is obliged to camouflage, as, in her pretty pieces about flowers and trees, the triteness of her theme” (216; qtd. in Wood 51). Biographer C. David Heymann characterizes her poetry as purposefully overdone in order to compensate for the emptiness of her life, while D. H. Lawrence calls her poetry “pure sensation without concepts” (his emphasis, qtd. in Gregory 212). One reviewer notes that while Lowell’s “virtues are her own, . . . her faults are the faults of Swinburne; namely a prodigality of poetic energy which is not richness but confusion” (Jones). According to Alfred Kreymbourg, “a lover of color and sound responds to the countless images and rhythms. But they are mostly patterns, undulating lines tastefully arranged, perfect surfaces and movements. . . . Something is always missing. . . .the human heart” (356). Even Lowell’s supposed champion, Louis Untermeyer, having spent an entire chapter of his autobiography describing Lowell’s energy and boldness, closes by noting that the poetry he once described as “flash[ing], leap[ing], spin[ning] burn[ing] with an almost savage intensity” seems “suddenly lifeless” after her death, “the color . . .superficially applied, the warmth simulated” (American Poetry Since 1900 152, From Another World 123).
This charge of paying attention only to surfaces, of an excess of detail belying a paucity of content puts Lowell in good company: it resembles criticisms leveled at the Pre-Raphaelites, who Robert Buchanan’s “The Fleshly School of Poetry” famously charges “aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought, and by inference that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense” (335), at Victor Hugo, who Baudelaire calls “a composer of decadence,” “a workman more ingenious than inventive, a craftsman more industrious and correct than creative,”(qtd. in Calinescu 165) and, of course, at Oscar Wilde, who Lowell herself describes as “weakly audacious [and] artistically insincere” (qtd. in Damon 343). Like these poets, Lowell is perceived as lacking the integrity and talent that mark a “true” poet; obsessed with sensory details to the detriment of content, competent only in miming poetic forms, Lowell deserves to be forgotten.
Recently, however, in an attempt to reclaim Lowell primarily as a lesbian poet, feminist critics such as Lillian Faderman and Judy Grahn have argued that, far from being shallow and superficial, her love poems are, in fact, deeply self-revelatory, so much so that Lowell had to disguise their content in order to make them appropriate for the general public. These critics argue for a rereading of Lowell’s lyrics as subversively-encoded lesbian love poetry, claiming that such things as the ambiguously-gendered narrative voice, and the use of elaborate flower symbolism, serve to hide the poems’ true, homoerotic subtext. Faderman, for example, claims that “Lowell avoided the personal because of the taboos of her day which surrounded the subject matter that was most personal to her: lesbian love, and which forced her to disguise her theme—even though it was awkward and absurd” (399). She argues that, “these poems reflect lesbian life in a way that could not be depicted in the post-World War I years unless it were somehow disguised” (394).
The discourse of camp provides a critical framework for reading Lowell’s poetry that accounts for both accusations of an untenable superficiality and claims of subversively hidden homoeroticism. To begin with, camp resists the subjective depth-model of identity that Faderman’s argument is premised on. It is quite a stretch to read Lowell’s exuberant, gushing love poems as subversively encoded. Indeed, these lyrics do not seem to be hiding anything. With the exception of one or two poems in Pictures of the Floating World, Lowell rarely uses any pronouns in her love poetry, masculine or feminine. The “awkward and absurd” instance Faderman refers to is Lowell’s use of the pronoun ‘Sir’ in Pictures of the Floating World’s “Preparation,” the only poem, in a series of forty-two, in which the speaker is specifically gendered, although details in several of the poems suggest that both the speaker and the beloved are women, as Faderman herself notes. Lowell’s chosen form, the lyric, is hardly subversive: not only is it the standard genre of love poetry, in terms of American poetry, it is a genre dominated by popular nineteenth century female poets such as Lizette Woodworth Reese, Frances Sargent Lock Osgood, and Louise Imogen Guiney. Further, she uses settings—moon-lit flower gardens, the beloved’s bedroom at dawn—and symbols—passion as a flame, love as an ambrosial wine, the beloved as a flower—typical of love poetry. Mary E. Galvin notes that “if anything, it seems Lowell wants to be sure the reader gets the sexual connotations of [her poems] by using . . . already heavily connotated words” (30). As Lowell wryly admits in “Fact,” “similes like these are stock in trade with all poets” (58).
If Lowell is hiding anything in her poetry, she is hiding it in plain sight. This is not a disguise as readings of Lowell as imminently subversive would have it—a deceptive exterior concealing a true, real interior. Nor is it a flashiness of style calculated to mask the poetry’s innate vacuousness. These criticisms, which polarize Lowell’s work as either deep or shallow miss the point. This is a camp disguise: a strategic emphasis on style, a privileging of appearances that disavows the binary logic of interior/exterior, depth/surface, real/unreal, decorative/substantive by putting everything on the surface in flamboyant, extravagant gestures, creating a dazzling, textured, mutating surface. “I do not believe that it is what one says in a poem that matters,” Lowell writes to fellow Imagist Richard Aldington, “it is the kind of light that plays over it” (qtd in Damon 449). This is a camp aesthetic, defying the notion of Truth by resisting “depth,” insisting on surfaces, delighting in “superficialities.”
from “Modernizing Excess: Amy Lowell and the Aesthetics of Camp.” Copyright 2000
Amy Lowell’s liberating influence on other women poets is not easily measured. Some poets, not surprisingly, felt embarrassed and apologetic at the effrontery of a woman who would clash with men and smoke cigars in publics. She seemed too noisy against the background of traditional feminine silence. But when Lowell could once be perceived apart from the male reaction, she emerged as an authentic, often inspiring presence. Sara Teasdale had met her a number of times, always under some social pressure, and had taken the usual amused view of the Lowell phenomenon. But after a careful reading of Lowell’s new book in 1919, Pictures of the Floating World, a new insight unfolded, and she wrote her: “It seemed to me that I realized for the first time what you are . . . Suddenly I knew you—the violence and the delicacy—I found you something that I can love in my own way.”
In her championship of free verse and experimentation, Lowell seized the initiative from the male poets (for which she has been excoriated) and by her example helped to free women from the tight, small-scale lyrics that were considered women’s special provenance. Amy Lowell could be exhilarating to a woman who was herself in search of freedom. . . . [Her] great function, though nowhere explicitly acknowledged, was to have sought escape from the prison of self-rejection in which creative women were trapped, into the freedom of making the most of herself as she found herself. The image in a prose-poem Lowell created spontaneously in a letter to Grace Conkling stands as a haunting self- portrait:
A cloud wreath. A dryad. Wind through beeches. Little waves over glittering sand. An unhappy woman tinged by time, grievous with memories, impatient at the world’s dust, seeking a home for those thoughts which will in no wise be contented if caged.
Written in 1922, three years before her death, this fragment reveals the persistence of the old division within herself, though now softened into acceptance and made to serve her imagination: on one side, the free nature spirit, with her untroubled kinship with wind and cloud, the direct clarity of mind like water over sand; on the other, the woman burdened with the memory of confinement and therefore compelled perpetually to seek the freedom the dryad possesses by birthright; a feminine ideal that generates transformation of the real.
from The First Wave: Women Poets in America 1915-1945. Copyright 1987 by MacMillan Publishing Company.
In Pictures of the Floating World (1919) Miss Lowell, who felt that volumes of poetry should have a unified character and effect, published the short lyrics she had written and stored up since 1914.
These free-verse lyrics display the qualities for which her work was exemplary at the this time. Her diction and syntax are relatively simple, straightforward, and idiomatic. She renders sensations with exact impression. The poems adhere closely to the concrete, avoiding generalization and “rhetoric.” “November” is an example:
The vine leaves against the brick walls of my house
Are rusty and broken.
Dead leaves gather under the pine-trees,
The brittle boughs of lilac-bushes
Sweep against the stars.
And I sit under a lamp
Trying to write down the emptiness of my heart.
Even the cat will not stay with me,
But prefers the rain
Under the meager shelter of a cellar window.
Despite its virtues the poem illustrates how Miss Lowell, like Sandburg, H.D., Aldington, and many other “new” poets, was “modern” only in some aspects of form and style. In sensibility and imagination she was safely within the fold of familiar Romantic convention.