Amy Lowell (1874-1925)
Contributing Editor: Lillian Faderman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I generally use Amy Lowell's work to explore two major issues: the imagist movement as it was imported into the United States and the treatment of lesbian material by a lesbian poet who felt the need to be more closeted in her writing than in her life. While the subject of Lowell's imagism is easy to introduce, the subject of homosexuality in her life and writing has been more difficult because students are sometimes uncomfortable with the topic, and they are ignorant of the history of censorship and homophobia in the United States. The study of Lowell's life and work presents a good opportunity to open these important subjects to discussion.
Lowell's lesbianism and the ways in which it is manifested in her writing generally stimulate some of the liveliest discussions of the course. For example, some students question, as did the critics who dampened her popularity in the years immediately after her death, whether a writer who is homosexual can have anything significant to say to the heterosexual majority. My approach is to draw an analogy (or, with any luck, to have students in the class draw the analogy) to the profound impact on white readers of works by writers of color. "Differentness" becomes the theme of the discussion.
This preliminary discussion of ethnic and racial difference and its impact on writing and reading leads to a discussion of sexual difference and its parallel impact. Either members of the class or I will bring up other writers with whom most of the class may be familiar and whose work they considered no less effective because those writers were gay or lesbian (for example, Walt Whitman, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop). The focus of the discussion then turns to the value of borrowing the spectacles of one who is different in order to glance at the world. The session is useful for all students but especially important for homosexual students whose lives are seldom recognized or affirmed in classroom discussion.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In a discussion of Lowell's life and work, I introduce two kinds of history--literary and social--and I show the ways in which they mesh. I first focus on the history of the imagist movement that I began when the class read Pound and H.D.; then I explore what attention Lowell garnered for imagism in the United States, why and how she succeeded, and how she modified imagism in her work. I also look at her creation of the dramatic monologue and discuss the historical background of public literary performance.
I am equally concerned with raising the issue of self-censorship and encoding in Lowell's poetry, especially in those poems in which she does not create a literary persona but rather speaks in what appears to be her own voice. To this end I talk about the shifting notion of "standards of decency" and censorship laws. I talk at some length about Lowell's own erotic and affectional relationships with women, and the discrepancy between her brash self-presentation in public and her subdued self-presentation in her autobiographical writing, such as the 1919 series "Two Speak Together," from which many of the Lowell selections in The Heath Anthology are taken. Lowell's self-censorship motives are revealed to the class through a letter she wrote to D. H. Lawrence, whose patron she was, scolding him for endangering his literary reputation by trying to publish material such as the lesbian scene in his novel The Rainbow, which got him into trouble with the censors:
I know there is no use in counselling you to make any concessions to public opinions in your books and, although I regret sincerely that you cut yourself off from being published by an outspokenness which the English public does not understand, I regret it not in itself . . . but simply because it keeps the world from knowing what a great novelist you are. I think you could top them all if you would be a little more reticent on this one subject [explicit sexuality]. You need not change your attitude a particle, you can simply use the india rubber in certain places, and then you can come into your own as it ought to be. . . . When one is surrounded by prejudice and blindness, it seems to me that the only thing to do is to get over in spite of it and not constantly run foul of these same prejudices which, after all, hurts oneself and the spreading of one's work, and does not do a thing to right the prejudice.
The class then explores the ways in which Lowell appears to have taken her own advice. If the beloved in the "Two Speak Together" series is Ada Russell, as Lowell admitted to John Livingston Lowes, Lowell herself may be presumed to be the speaker. I introduce the topic of encoding and its ubiquitousness in homosexual literature of earlier eras. How does Lowell disguise the fact of her gender and thus the lesbian content in these poems? How does she use her "india rubber"? What in terms of her sexual identification is hidden and what is overt in her poem about women writers, "The Sisters"?
Finally, I look with my class at the treatment of heterosexuality in Lowell's poetry. Students are often surprised when they realize that "Patterns," a poem that speaks quite explicitly about a woman's heterosexual desires, was published only a decade and a half after the end of Victorianism. Many students praise Lowell's courage in her use of this material. Others suggest that her heterosexual erotic images lack originality and mimic the stuff of cheap romance novels. (One student compared them to the clichés of Harlequin romances of our era: pink and silver women surrendering their soft and willing bodies to heavy-booted men in dashing uniforms.) In general, my students come to prefer the short lyric poems whose material seems fresher and more deeply felt than her dramatic monologues such as "Patterns," which, for decades, remained the only of Lowell's poems to be frequently anthologized.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
With regard to style and form, I spend most of the Lowell sessions considering her as an imagist or an "Amygist." We discuss her interest in orientalism, which predated her Pound years. If I have not already done so, I introduce the class to the haiku and tanka forms. I also bring in some examples of "imagist" poems Lowell wrote even before she learned of the existence of the imagist movement.
We also discuss Lowell's other poetic innovations, such as her polyphonic prose (prose poetry) and her interest in some of her poetry in the folk materials of non-Euro-Americans. This emphasis leads to a further consideration of how writers who are different often develop a literary interest in other forms of differentness. Finally, we discuss the dramatic monologue form and the use Lowell makes of it in "Patterns" and other poems.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Lowell's imagism should, of course, be compared to that of Pound and H.D. Her dramatic monologues should be compared to Pound's personae and to the Victorian British author Robert Browning's dramatis personae. The class will also find a comparative discussion of Lowell and Gertrude Stein interesting. Both saw themselves (and were) movers and shakers in the business of literature. Both were extremely interested in experimental literary techniques and had a coterie of young writers around them whom they helped and influenced. Both were approximately the same height and weight. Both had women lovers who served them as muses, secretaries, critics, housekeepers, and guards against an intrusive public. Astrology buffs in the class will be amused to learn that Lowell and Stein were both born in 1874, in the eastern United States, less than a week apart. On a more serious note, the ways in which Lowell encodes her lesbian material should be compared to Stein's lesbian encoding and to H.D.'s treatment of her own bisexuality in her writing.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. My study questions emphasize the form and content of her work as well as the particular challenges she faced as one who wrote poetry that was often erotic while she felt constrained to conceal the lesbian source of her eroticism. I encourage students to pay attention to how Lowell's imagist techniques are manifested in many of her long poems as well as in her shorter, more tanka-like poems. My questions also draw attention to the feminist message in Lowell's work (while I point out that, paradoxically, she rejected an affiliation with the feminist movement of her day, insisting--as did Gertrude Stein--that such concerns had little to do with her). Finally, my questions address the subject of encodement in literature and the ways in which Lowell, in particular, encodes.
2. I allow my students who wish to write on Lowell a choice of approaches. Several students who have elected to write analyses of her longer poems have been interested in exposing Lowell as a feminist writer, focusing on "Patterns" (an expression of a woman's right to sexual desire, a complaint against the ways in which women are constrained) and "The Sisters" (how women writers "think-back"--to use Virginia Woolf's phrase--through their fe-male predecessors).
My students have also been interested in writing comparisons between Lowell and H.D., or Lowell and Pound as imagists.
Lowell's work often inspires students to ask if they can do a creative writing assignment in which they try their hand at the haiku, the tanka, and then Western imagism.
Some of the most successful assignments have been those that explore gender encoding in Lowell's short poems: for example, how do we know (or do we know?) that the speaker (who is the lover) in the "Two Speak Together" series is a woman?
From the years immediately following her death until the 1970s, Lowell was largely neglected by critics. Students will be interested in exploring the grounds on which she was dismissed after having been so successful during her lifetime. Therefore, the following works will be of historical interest: Clement Wood, Amy Lowell. New York: Harold Vinal, 1926; Hervey Allen, "Amy Lowell as a Poet," Saturday Review of Literature, 3:28 (February 5, 1927), 557-58; Winfield Townley Scott, "Amy Lowell Ten Years After," New England Quarterly, 8 (June 1935), 320-30. The books included in the bibliography that follows the Lowell section in the text were, for the most part, influenced by the resurgence of interest in women writers that came about through the feminist movement of the 1970s. In the present climate, where a consensus is being built to reconsider neglected authors whose work was of worth, scholars are again turning their attention to Lowell, but as of this writing no major new book on Lowell has been produced.