Amy Lowell : Selected Poems

(The Library of America,2004) Honor Moore, Editor

A cigar-smoking proponent of free- verse modernism in open rebellion against her distinguished Boston lineage, Amy Lowell cut an indelible public figure. But in the words of editor Honor Moore, “what strikes the modern reader is not the sophistication of Lowell’s feminist or anti-war stances, but the bald audacity of her eroticism.” Lowell was at the center of a group of pioneering modernists who, in an era convulsed by change, rejected musty Victorian standards and wrote poems of bracing immediacy. This new selection captures her full formal range: the “cadenced verse” of her Imagist masterpieces, her experiments in “polyphonic prose,” her narrative poetry, and her adaptations from the classical Chinese. It gives a fresh sense of the passion and energy of her work.


Excerpt from the introduction

Copyright by the author, all rights reserved.

To utter the name Amy Lowell is to enter the fraught literary wars of early Modernism. Almost immediately, we see an extremely short, extremely stout woman arguing forcefully with a young ‘nan with frizzy reddish hair and a goatee. The pince-nez on the woman’s delicate nose looks tiny because her face is so enormous, and the young man is dressed in a velvet jacket, “never, since the days of XVilde, have such garments been seen in the streets of London,” the woman will later report. At first Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound admire each other and then they hate each other, leaving paper trails to prove it. Amygism! someone shouts, baiting with Pound’s vengefial epithet. To hear his partisans tell it, the principles of Imagism were Pounth genius and Amy Lowell appropriated, even stole, them. In fact, the British poet T. E. Hulme first conceived the ideas, and Pound, ever restless, abandoned Imagism for Vorticism as soon as he issued Des Imagines (1914), an anthology published in London of six poets including himself,

H.D., Richard Aldington, William Carlos Williams, and Amy Lowell.

What caused the ruckus was that Lowell, inspired to bring the Imagists into print in America, edited three more anthologies, one each in 1915, 1916, and 1917, in which Pound refused to be included. He’d selected and blue- penciled the poems in his collection, but Lowell invited contributors to choose their own and meticulously split the royalties. “Democratized,” Pound sneered. “Thank you so much for the cheque for £8, which came today,” wrote D. H. Lawrence to Lowell in 1916. “Those Imagiste books seem to blossom into gold like a monthly rose.”

Lawrence, who composed Women in Love on a typewriter Lowell gave him, became a lifelong friend, as did Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy, but we are never told the facts of Amy Lowell’s literary life. “And she smoked cigars!” Yes, she did, notably one night on shipboard years before proper women did so in public. She refused a society interview on landing in New York, the indignant journalist found a witness, and the next morning front pages all over America proclaimed that the sister of the president of Harvard smoked “big black” cigars. Actually, Lowell was a delicate woman and her cigars were slender Manilas. Before long, her notoriety would come from her vocal defense of “the new poetry;” not from what she inhaled, and her fame from her writing rather than who her brother was—her posthumous collectionWhat’s O’Clock won the Pulitzer for poetry in 1926, and her books, including her poetry collections, routinely reached best-seller lists. At the height of her career, Lowell was spending weeks each year touring, performing her poems to packed halls and lecturing to hundreds. Young poets gathered at her feet, rapt as she held forth—Carl Sandburg likened the effect of her company to “a bright blue wave.” She also had a wicked sense of humor. Unwrapping one of her Manilas was like undressing a lady, she told one young man. First you remove the belt (the first cigar band), then the evening dress (the silver paper wrapping), the slip (a square of tissue paper), and finally the girdle (the second cigar band). 

But what are her poems like?