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Amy Lowell wasn't writing about flowers.

WHEN I FIRST discovered the poetry of Amy Lowell, I was so taken with a group of her erotic poems that I suggested to my writer friend Judith that she do a one-woman show as Lowell reading her work. She could use the same sort of props that Lowell herself used when reading, as she did at every opportunity: a bare stage with a chair, a floor lamp, and a table with a glass of water on it. But when I started reading some of the poems aloud, I realized that the lesbian love lyrics were too explicit to be read to the target audience, which I envisioned as a largely college-age crowd of mostly women. One of the most explicit, "The Weather-Cock Points South," was typical of these love poems in its use of flower imagery:
 I put your leaves aside.
 One by one:
 The still broad outer leaves;
 The smaller ones,
 Pleasant to touch, veined with purple;
 The glazed inner leaves
 One by one
 I parted you from your leaves
 Until you stood up like a white flower
 Swaying slightly in the evening wind. [...]

 Where in all the garden is there such a flower?

 The bud is more than the calyx.
 There is nothing to equal a white bud,
 Of no color and of all,
 Burnished by moonlight,
 Thrust upon by a softly-swinging wind.

Flower imagery in erotic lesbian verse already had a long tradition in American women's poetry when Lowell was at work starting in the mid-1910's, so the coded imagery would have been discerned by some of her readers. In a new book, Amy Lowell, American Modern,* a collection of essays that re-examine her life and work, Lillian Faderman observes: "Lowell landed on the bestseller list, perhaps because many readers refused to understand her metaphor; yet it is not difficult to see the flower image ... as an evocative and descriptive symbol for female genitalia." Faderman's essay puts the relationship between Amy Lowell and Ada Russell squarely on display, citing Lowell's own admissions that Russell was in fact "the subject of her love poetry." At any rate, Lowell's use of flower metaphors helped her evade the censors that plagued her colleagues, and she clearly enjoyed the challenge of creating dual layers of meaning in her work.

All told, Lowell wrote nine books of poetry and four books of prose, and edited several anthologies, in the twelve years from age 39 to her death of a stroke at 51. Some of the poetry is exquisite and timeless, some is dreadful and forgettable. Lowell usually wrote in free verse--vers libre, as she called it. Her body of work is sufficiently large that most readers will find something of interest, what with subjects ranging from history, war, and the Far East to lesbian love, gardens, and everyday life activities.

Amy Lowell was born in Boston in 1874 to Augustus and Katharine Lawrence Lowell, part of the large Lowell-Lawrence clan. She was the baby sister of the future president of Harvard University, Abbott Lawrence Lowell. She was first educated at home and later at private schools reserved for upper-class girls. She was largely self-educated, though, as she didn't do well in the confines of the classroom. She was a smart, sensitive tomboy caught in a social class and a larger culture that made it very hard for her to find herself. In time she would come to be regarded, quite incorrectly, as a lonely old maid. Her letters and her friends' reminiscences show that she had crushes on girls and women from an early age, and that she understood on some level that making a life with another woman was not socially acceptable. However, upon meeting the actress Ada Dwyer Russell in 1912, she emerged as both a writer and a lesbian.

An earlier significant moment in Lowell's life was when she saw a performance by the Italian actress Eleanora Duse in 1902. Duse had an extraordinary effect on Lowell, as she often had on her audiences, an effect that was documented by other lesbians. For example, Eva Le Gallienne, a noted playwright, actress, and director, wrote that while she was in a sanitarium, "she had clung to Duse's photograph.... Duse had ceased to be a woman and had become a god." After seeing Duse perform, Lowell ran home to write a poem and realized this was her calling. She immersed herself in poetry and literature and began to dabble in writing, but it was only after she met and partnered with Ada Russell that she began to write poetry in earnest.

Russell was instrumental in Lowell's success, both as her muse and as her helpmate, tending to Amy's personal and work needs with absolute devotion and care. It's a love story that can only be gleaned from the poetry, which is to say that Lowell chose to be far less obvious about their relationship than did that other lesbian couple of the era, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In a section of Pictures of the Floating World (1919), many of the love poems are gathered in a section that Lowell called "Two Speak Together." Most of the poems are short and episodic, or in some cases a series of haiku-like passages stitched together into a longer piece. In Opal, she writes: "You are ice and fire/The touch of you burns my hands like snow/You are cold and flame." And this in The Artist: "How pale you would be, and startling/ How quiet/ But your curves would spring upward/ Like a clear jet of flung water/ You would quiver like a shot-up spray of water ... and tremble/ and I too should tremble/ Watching." Interestingly, some poems that she held back from publishing, considering them too risque, were published soon after her death by Ada Russell in Ballads for Sale (1927).


Lowell's first book of poetry was mostly conventional fare, but after reading a poem by HD (Hilda Doolittle), who called herself an "imagiste," Lowell declared herself to be an imagiste as well. Unfortunately, as she explored the world of the "new poetry," she wound up in a feud with Ezra Pound. Pound was willing to use Lowell for funding and networking, but wasn't above ridiculing her when it suited him. Nor did other authors refrain from disparaging Lowell in their letters and dinner conversation, even while continuing to use their friendship with her to advance their own careers. As shown by Bonnie Kime Scott in her essay in the American Modern collection, Lowell was to D.H. Lawrence "a poet, a friend, and a facilitator, rather than a patron, that she was rewarded his dedication of New Poems in 1918." However, Lawrence and others sometimes "expressed doubts about her poetry and the very lectures she used to spread their reputations. They worried that they were not always enhanced by her agency." Regardless of the infighting, Amy Lowell and Ada Russell did have a large circle of friends made up of other writers, society people, and family members who frequented their home, often for elaborate dinner parties. Lowell commanded their attention on these occasions but was also capable of genuine concern for her friends and colleagues.

At the height of her notoriety, Lowell was her own best promoter. She believed that marketing oneself was necessary to sell poetry to the general public. She used her reputation as a cigar-smoking woman to attract people to her public performances, which in turn she used to advance both her own career and those of her friends. By traveling and reading her poems before women's clubs and poetry groups, at society teas and small invitational events, she brought her poems to life and managed to market them to literary magazines and anthologies. Her poems were meant to be read aloud, especially those in what she called polyphonic prose. Here the typescript looked like prose, but the cadences and rhymes created a more musical sound, which she likened to the effect of a symphony, with many voices in one. "Only read it aloud. Gentle Reader, I beg, and you will see what you will see," she wrote in the preface to Men, Women and Ghosts (1916).

Lowell borrowed from and expanded upon the work of earlier writers to achieve her aural effect. This dependence upon hearing the poems read aloud has undoubtedly limited their appeal. But the main reason that Lowell is barely more than a footnote in literature can be traced to the 20th-century scourges of misogyny, homophobia, and fat phobia (Lowell was far from thin). It didn't help that as an upper-class woman she was often considered a dilettante, and her death at 51 cheated her out of the longevity that might have given her more time to establish herself in American letters. Even with her penchant for entertaining and traveling, she did not develop a cult of personality as, say, Stein and Hemingway did.

Although she won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, and two of her poems, "Patterns" and "Madonna of the Evening Flowers" are widely published in poetry anthologies, her fame today is confined to a rather small number of devoted readers. Her lasting contribution to modern poetry will probably be the combination of her use of polyphonic prose and her spare images. While she will never be as widely known as Gertrude Stein or Djuna Barnes, she does join them and other innovative writers who blasted into the 20th century with new ways of looking at and writing about the world. In the end, like Stein, Lowell may well be best remembered not for her poetry but for her public persona as a cigar-smoking iconoclast who broke free of conventional sex roles to become an American original.

* Amy Lowell, American Modern. Edited by Adrienne Munich and Melissa Bradshaw, Rutgers University Press. 208 pages, $23.95.
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Title Annotation:Essay
Author:Hamer, Diane Ellen
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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