Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Poem: Amy Lowell

I've asked the same question on this blog about her distant relative Robert Lowell (1917-1977), but does anyone read Amy Lowell (1874-1925) any more? In school or elsewhere? I recall having to, and neither liking or disliking her work. Returning to it long after childhood has not increased my enthusiasm, though it has helped me to appreciate her overall efforts more. She was from the same prominent Boston family that produced James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), the sometime-abolitionist, scholar and poet, and her brother, A. Lawrence Lowell (1856-1943), one of Harvard's major presidents, as well as a notorious anti-Semite and anti-gay bigot, yet unlike these male figures, she was not allowed any education beyond what she provided herself, which included copious reading and book collecting. With her wealth she was able to travel, live quite independently for most of her life, and challenge many conventions, including indulging her love of smoking cigars.

Amy Lowell was an early and consistent advocate for free verse, which few poets today think twice about, as well as of stylistic innovation in terms of form, particularly through her theorization of "polyphonic verse," which advocates for the use of prose lines and a range of styles within a single poem (do many poets today even know where this comes from?), but in the late 19th and early 20th century, she stood among the Modernist avant-garde. Her work also articulates an erotics of female desire, especially same-sexual desire, quite transparently in certain ways, yet veiled in others, as is clear in the poem below, the "Moon-white" body leaning beside the poem's speaker the unnamed actress Ada Dwyer Russell, with whom Lowell is thought to have had an extended relationship. (A Boston marriage, you could say, but I am unsure whether they lived together.) She also got under Ezra Pound's skin, to his mind hijacking the Imagist movement from him, although the school was big enough for both and whereas Pound approached his poems with a scalpel, Lowell employed a large house-painting brush with hers. "July Midnight" makes a good argument for why we should keep reading her work. Whether there'll be an Amy Lowell vogue is another matter altogether.


Fireflies flicker in the tops of trees,
Flicker in the lower branches,
Skim along the ground.
Over the moon-white lilies
Is a flashing and ceasing of small, lemon-green stars.
As you lean against me,
The air all about you
Is slit, and pricked, and pointed with sparkles of lemon-green flame
Starting out of a background of vague, blue trees.

Copyright © Amy Lowell, from The Complete Poetics Works of Amy Lowell, with an introduction by Louis Untermeyer, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955. All rights reserved.

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