Poet Amy Lowell revived at the Mount
LENOX -- She smoked cigars, drove buggies at high speed, kept her guests laughing and talking late at night. She was a stout woman with elegant hands and feet and a light dance step.
She wrote erotic poetry and exuberant lines about herself in the bathtub: "I lie back and laugh and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. ..."
According to Carl Rollyson, professor of journalism at Baruch College, City University of New York, Amy Lowell was a force in the land. She led a movement to change what the country thought poetry looked like, she toured widely and read to a wide audience of admirers, and she posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for her own poetry in 1926.
She died in 1925, and since then, Rollyson believes, biographers have been getting her all wrong.
In 2000, while doing research on sabbatical, he came across two encyclopedia entries, both written by women, both talking about the need for a new biography of Lowell. He took them up on it.
Rollyson will talk about "Amy Lowell Anew," his book and his understanding of the poet and her work, at 4 p.m. Monday at The Mount.
If Lowell had come to tea in Edith Wharton's garden, Rollyson suggests, they would have had a lot in common, not only because they both loved gardening, vigorous activity and talk about words, or because Wharton shared Lowell's fondness for Japanese verse or because both delighted and awed their close male friends on conversation.
Like Wharton, Lowell came from an upper-class family -- Wharton from the New York Joneses, Lowell from the Boston Brahmin circles. Like Wharton, she went through an almost 10-year period of depression as a young woman, Rollyson said, before she found independence, occupation and a close circle of friends. Like Wharton, Lowell found herself set free from a man. Wharton divorced her husband, and Lowell found her life expanding after her father's death.
"She waited until her late 30s to start publishing her poetry," he said.
When she did, she had resources to put into making sure people knew about it.
"She wanted poetry to be news," he said. "And it was, you could pick up the Sheboygan [Press] and find an article about her."
During World War I, she established libraries of poetry for soldiers, he said, and servicemen wrote to tell her how much her poetry meant to them. She wrote dialect and humorous poetry, love poetry. She wrote about Napoleon's Josephine and about unfaithful farmers' wives.
"No one was writing poems like these," Rollyson said.
She wanted to make poetry a part of everyday life, he said. The Japanese poets inspired her, handing a poem to a friend or a lover and expecting a reply. When a friend of hers, the poet John Gould Fletcher, wrote to her during World War I, asking how he could continue to write with the war going on, she told him his poetry was as important as the fighting at the Front. Poetry was part of being human.
Her poetry became widely read in her lifetime, Rollyson said. Some writers become both popular and great, like Charles Dickens.
But unlike Dickens, Lowell has not gone on appearing in the Sheboygan Press or the Sheboygan high school curriculum almost 100 years after her death.
Rollyson sees her disappearance as largely the fault of several biographies, all by men and all inaccurate. Biographers insisted she had low confidence and less companionship, he said -- though she had lasting influence on a close circle of friends and leading poets of the day who write repeatedly about her independence and her exuberance. Biographers insisted she had inhibitions, though she spoke uninhibitedly about love and sex. They insisted she never loved -- though she wrote erotic poetry
When they dismiss her poetry, Rollyson sees these early biographers championing T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as her rivals. Pound and Eliot had influenced a new "imagist" movement of poetry, and Lowell became their colleague. She would give their circle of poets new ways to become published, as she collaborated with the group on anthologies and urged critics to take the new poetry seriously.
"She had a more inclusive idea of what Modernism could be," Rollyson said.
But the main reason so many male biographers have refused to accept her laughter and frankness and intimacy, Rollyson thinks, is because she was stout and 5 feet tall. She was homely and wealthy. And she was a lesbian.
Every biographer acknowledges her companion of 10 years and intimate friend, the actress Ada Dwyer Russell. Rollyson, among others, firmly sees Russell as the mature love of Lowell's life.
"Male biographers want to think of it as a platonic friendship," he said.
In poems like "The Madonna of Evening Flowers," one Lowell wrote for Russell, he feels "an intense, visceral love."
Why should the same biographers suppose this poem was a fantasy, he asked, when Lowell was unembarrassed about sex? He recalls a story about her unwrapping a cigar at dinner and telling the man beside her that it was like undressing a beautiful woman.
"She was a force," he said. "She rubbed people the wrong way even as she supported them -- she didn't stand on ceremony."
Rebecka McDougall, communications director at The Mount, hopes Lowell's time has come. Rollyson fervently agrees.
"For so long, Wharton was under Henry James' shadow, like a lesser James, not a novelist in her own right," he said.
Now she has come out into the light. He hopes the light will come to Lowell again, too.
If you go ...
What: Discussion by Carl Rollyson of his book, ‘Amy Lowell Anew'
When: Monday, Aug. 18, at 4 p.m.
Where: Edith Wharton's The Mount
2 Plunkett St., Lenox
Information: (413) 551-5111 or edithwharton.org
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