Friday, September 28, 2007

"We're a queer lot": Amy Lowell -- a Poetry Friday post

"Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot
We women who write poetry. And when you think
How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.
I wonder what it is that makes us do it.
Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,
The fragments of ourselves."

Thus begins a fairly lengthy poem by today’s featured poet, Amy Lowell, called "The Sisters", which discusses three women poets in particular while examining the nature of women poets. The female poets she "calls out" in "The Sisters" are Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson, imagining conversations with each, linking to their poetic traditions and, ultimately, rejecting those traditions for her own, new course.

The following poem is from a 1919 collection called Pictures of the Floating World:

Summer Rain
by Amy Lowell

All night our room was outer-walled with rain.
Drops fell and flattened on the tin roof,
And rang like little disks of metal.
Ping!–Ping!–and there was not a pinpoint of silence between them.
The rain rattled and clashed,
And the slats of the shutters danced and glittered.
But to me the darkness was red-gold and crocus-colored
With your brightness,
And the words you whispered to me
Sprang up and flamed–orange torches against the rain.
Torches against the wall of cool, silver rain!

Amy Lawrence Lowell was a member of the same Boston Lowell family that later spawned Robert Lowell, who was Poet Laureate of the United States for a while. But she’s not a direct ancestor, on account of family names don’t pass that way. Also, she was a lesbian. She had a long-time affair (then called a "Boston marriage") with an actress named Ada Dwyer Russell, star of stage and screen, for and about whom Lowell wrote "Summer Rain" and the poem a bit later in this post, "The Taxi".

Lowell was highly influenced early on by the poetry of John Keats, and she remained fascinated with him throughout her life; she eventually wrote a two-volume biography of his life. Lowell was an imagist (or, to use her word, an "imagiste"), along the lines of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Ezra Pound, although Pound didn’t care for her or her poems, perhaps because he was annoyed when she published anthologies of imagist poems in the United States before he did. Lowell died in 1925. Her collection What’s O’Clock, which contains the full text of "The Sisters," won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. In addition to publishing the poems of poets including H.D. and T.S. Eliot, Lowell championed many other poets, including Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Lowell made enormous contributions to American poetry with her own writing (poetry and prose), and through her ardent support of other contemporary poets.

Lowell’s reputation suffered after her death, in part because she’d been ahead of her time, and in part due to prejudice: she was female, she was obese, and she was a lesbian. Those traits were seen as three strikes to a number of people in the literary "establishment", and she was marginalized as a result. One or more of these may be the reason why Harold Bloom omitted her from his collection, The Best Poems of the English Language from Chaucer to Frost. Lowell's birthdate certainly fit within the scope of the book, her poems seem worthy of consideration, but she's not one of the 11 women included in the book. And it can't be that Bloom didn't like her because Ezra Pound didn't like her, since Bloom states clearly that he has little esteem for Pound, "whether as a person or poet." But I digress. Lowell’s poetry is being "rediscovered" these days, and she is commonly recognized to be the first female American poet to consider herself part of a feminine (some say feminist) literary tradition.

The Taxi
by Amy Lowell

When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?

"The Taxi" is from a collection called Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds.

In an obituary he wrote about Amy Lowell, Heywood Broun wrote, "She was upon the surface of things a Lowell, a New Englander and a spinster. But inside everything was molten like the core of the earth... Given one more gram of emotion, Amy Lowell would have burst into flame and been consumed to cinders."


John Mutford said...

I know we, as a society, still have a ways to go in terms of equality, but it's nice to see that we've advanced enough to start appreciating poets from all walks of life- even if it's in retrospect (though, winning the Pulitzer suggests it wasn't all a matter of being ahead of her times).

Langston Hughes had a couple major strikes against him too, but fortunately I don't think he drifted as far into obscurity.

Thanks for the great poems and info! said...

I've just published a book, "Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries," available from,, and I'm attempting to correct quite a few distortions about her poetry and her biography. I'm also working on a full scale biography of Lowell that I hope to complete by 2012. My work is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.