Imagine a group of women on a weekday morning, gathering on marble steps and adjusting their summer gloves. A breeze turns the maple leaves light side up.
On July 11, 1934, according to the Berkshire Eagle, a Mrs. Harold Russell spoke to the Wednesday Morning Club at the Berkshire Museum.
It sounds like a scene out of a British mystery or a correct society paper, beginning with hat pins and ending in tea.
But this woman with her dark hair pulled softly back from her forehead once had a poem written for her:
"When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars ..."
Mrs. Harold Russell was Ada Dwyer, an actress who performed on Broadway and on the London stage. She came to talk about the poet Amy Lowell, "with whom she made her home for 11 years" in Brookline, until Lowell died, in 1925, at the age of 51.
She was Lowell's friend, companion and lover. And Lowell had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926, three years after Edna St. Vincent Millay won it, and a year after Lowell had died.
I am delighting this afternoon in Amy Lowell. Here she is, a short, plump woman with a fondness for shaggy dogs, defying the whole writing world and earning its respect.
She had no special education and had never gone to college, but she read constantly and passionately.
The Eagle writer who went to this long-ago talk said Lowell stayed up late and might write for 20 hours at a stretch. She loved horses and had as many as seven sheep dogs lying around the table at dinner. She gave readings to Harvard students and smoked cigars.
And she wrote free verse -- poetry without rhyme or strict meter -- at a time when many critics said free verse was not poetry at all.
Speaking with Joyce Kilmer, who interviewed her for the New York Times in 1916, she said free verse "is a difficult thing to write well, and a very easy thing to write badly."
She herself said there was no such thing as free verse, according to the Eagle story, because all poetry followed laws of cadance and meter.
But she stood firm for the kind of poetry she wanted to write, and she was not afraid to have an intelligent, analytical eye turned on her.
"The thing that we chiefly need is authoritative and informed criticism," she tells Kilmer. "... No critical mind is bent toward contemporary verse."
She traced her own style back to Coleridge as a blend of imaginative and realistic: she saw herself in a school of poets whose "thought verges on the purely imaginative but is corrected by a scientific attitude of mind."
Her conversation with Kilmer is clear and ardent, and I ache for more of it.
They may well not have met again. Joyce Kilmer -- born Alfred Joyce Kilmer -- was a journalist, poet known for a poem lovely as a tree, literary critic ... and sergeant of the "Fighting 69th" infantry division in World War I. He was killed in the second battle of the Marne, shot through the head by a sniper's bullet, two years after he talked with Lowell about how the new poetry differed from the old.
Dwyer read Lowell's poems in that quiet room at the Berkshire Museum. I wonder which ones. Would she have read "The Taxi," with its overtones, now that its aching absence had become permanent?
Would she have read Lowell's "September" poem?
"Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves. ..."
She came to live with Lowell in 1914, on the eve of World War I. Twenty years later, as she read aloud in the mountains, did she have any sense of the second one approaching?
Did anyone have an inkling that on September 1, 1939, Polish cavalry would charge German infantry and armored cars, and machine gun fire would wreck another September afternoon?
Berkshires Week Editor