Amy Lowell ( 1874 – 1925) was an American poet of the Imagist school from Brookline, Massachusetts, who posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926. She was the daughter of Augustus Lowell and Katherine Bigelow Lawrence, and a distant relative of the poet, James Russell Lowell, her paternal grandfather’s cousin. Both sides of her family were New England aristocrats, wealthy and prominent members of society. As the daughter of a wealthy family, Lowell was first educated at the family home, “Sevenels” (named by her father as a reference to the seven Lowells living there), by an English governess who left her with a lifelong inability to spell. At school she was, according to one biographer, the terror of the faculty. and according to another, totally indifferent to classroom decorum. Noisy, opinionated, and spoiled, she terrorized the other students and spoke back to her teachers. She travelled widely, even as a child.
Her first book of poetry was conventional and unsuccessful, but, after involving herself with the Imagist movement in London in 1915 where she edited three volumes of the anthology, Some Imagist Poets, her work became more experimental and more intriguing, even involving a new innovation called “Polyphonic Prose”, lush prose poems utilising alliteration, assonance, rhyme and return. She was energetic and prolific in her writing, producing twelve volumes (one of over 360 pages) over thirteen years. She had a life-long fascination with John Keats and her latter years were spent on a two-volume biography which she completed before her death from a cerebral haemorrhage in 1925, at the age of 51.
Throughout her life, and even after her death, she was subject to mockery and derision for, among other things, her flamboyant wealth, her large figure (due to a glandular problem) which led Ezra Pound to call her a “hippopoetess”, her fondness for cigars which she preferred to cigarettes as they lasted longer, for travelling through London in a mulberry-coloured car with two chauffeurs in matching livery, and for sleeping on sixteen pillows. Even her lesbian tendencies have been used to condemn her. Put simply, she was bullied. Writing of Keats, Amy Lowell said that the stigma of oddness is the price a myopic world always exacts of genius. She may not have been a genius but the stigma of oddness should not blind us to her dedication, her application and her craft.
THE POETRY OF AMY LOWELL
Amy Lowell’s unpopularity extended to her poetry and her promotion of poetry. When she arrived in London in 1915 with the aim of advancing the Imagist (or Imagiste) movement she wanted to substitute “pure democracy” for what she saw as Ezra Pound’s “despotism”. A rift developed between her and Pound which led him to mockingly deride the movement he had been instrumental in founding as Amy-gism. She certainly took the movement, often through her own poetry, in a new direction. She was instrumental in promoting the poetry of D. H. Lawrence. He repaid the compliment with a snide remark, in everything she did she was a good amateur. Even relatively recently, Michael Schmidt, in his magisterial Lives of the Poets, refers to her, in a disparaging way, as that busybody Amy Lowell.
Harriet Monroe, founder of Poetry magazine, was more sympathetic, 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 art and making it express and serve her. So how good are the poems? In my opinion, the briefer the better. Very few poets have proved capable of integrating Japanese influences into English poetry. She has. The poems below, more than many of her longer pieces, repay rereading. Enjoy them.
Brief Poems by Amy Lowell
Upon the maple leaves
The dew shines red,
But on the lotus blossom
It has the pale transparence of tears.
As I crossed over the bridge of Ariwarano Narikira,
I saw that the waters were purple
With the floating leaves of maple.
Under blossoming cherry-trees,
But on all the wide sea
There is no boat.
A Year Passes
Beyond the porcelain fence of the pleasure garden,
I hear the frogs in the blue-green rice-fields;
But the sword-shaped moon
Has cut my heart in two.
All day I have watched the purple vine leaves
Fall into the water.
And now in the moonlight they still fall,
But each leaf is fringed with silver.
Even the iris bends
When a butterfly lights upon it.
The chirping of crickets in the night
Like the twinkling of stars.
Outside a Gate
On the floor of the empty palanquin
The plum petals constantly increase.
Road to the Yoshiwara
Coming to you along the Nihon Embankment
Suddenly the road was darkened
By a flock of wild geese
Crossing the moon.
A Daimyo’s Oiran
When I hear your runners shouting:
“Get down! Get down!”
Then I dress my hair
With the little chrysanthemums.
Is it a dragon fly or maple leaf
That settles softly down upon the water?
A wise man,
Watching the stars pass across the sky,
In the upper air the fireflies move more slowly.
If I could catch the green lantern of the firefly
I could see to write you a letter.
In the sky there is a moon and stars,
And in my garden there are yellow moths
Fluttering about a white azalea bush.
The Fisherman’s Wife
When I am alone,
The wind in the pine-trees
Is like the shuffling of waves
Upon the wooden sides of a boat.
Last night, at sunset,
The foxgloves were like tall altar candles.
Could I have lifted you to the roof of the greenhouse,
I should have understood their burning.
Like black ice
Scrolled over with unintelligible patterns
by an ignorant skater
Is the dulled surface of my heart.