Amy Lowell: Selected Poems. Edited and Selected and with an Introduction by Honor Moore Library of America, 2004; 156 pages; $20.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
A cigar-smoking proponent of free-verse modernism in open rebellion against her distinguished Boston lineage, Amy Lowell (1874-1925) cut an indelible public figure. But in the words of editor Honor Moore, "What strikes the modern reader is not the sophistication of Lowell's feminist or antiwar stances, but the bald audacity of her eroticism."
Lowell was at the center of a group of pioneering modernists who, in an era convulsed by change, rejected musty Victorian standards and wrote poems of bracing immediacy. This new selection captures her full formal range: the "cadenced" verse of her Imagist masterpieces, her experiments in "polyphonic prose," her narrative poetry, and her adaptations from classic Chinese. It gives a fresh sense of the passion and energy of her work.
"Hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite," these were the qualities that Amy Lowell sought in the Imagist poems that made her one of the most famous American poets of her time. Uncompromising in their sensuality and passionate directness, her love poems remain exhilarating and inspiring. Honor Moore's new selection and introduction reaffirm Lowell's unique contribution to the flowering of American modernism.
ABOUT THE EDITOR:
Born in New York City in 1945, Honor Moore is the oldest of nine children of an Episcopal bishop, the late Paul Moore, and his wife Jenny McKean Moore. Moore grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated from Harvard University in 1967. She has taught at various colleges and universities. She is author of the much-celebrated
The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter and three volumes of poetry. Ms. Moore lives in New York City and teaches in the MFA programs at the New School and Columbia University. At her father's funeral in 2003, Ms. Moore said, "My father never stopped believing...in the power of the human imagination to change what is into what it might become."
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Ms. Moore, who speaks in confident low tones, talked with me one afternoon from her apartment in Manhattan. I had looked forward to our conversation. I had enjoyed Ms. Moore's The White Blackbird, and since childhood I often had turned to the few Amy Lowell poems that have been anthologized.
I asked Ms. Moore how she happened to take on the Lowell project.
"I'd read maybe two poems when I was approached to do this. I was approached to do it because of The White Blackbird. I was happy to do it because I wanted to go back to the Boston of my imagination."
The poems themselves, when Ms. Moore began to read them all, amazed her. "I became more and more enthralled. As I write in the introduction, it became clear to me that the poems that were anthologized were the less strong poems; they were the public poems.
"Anthologists are so overwhelmed when they get to work that they usually don't bother to go back to the original texts. So, usually, when it's a 'minor' poet, an anthologist is apt simply to reanthologize poems that have already appeared in other anthologies. They might care about presenting a different Wallace Stevens, but they don't necessarily care about presenting a different Amy Lowell."
"Or they don't care about her at all, the poor creature."
"Yes, and she got such an incredibly bad rap from Pound and then Hugh Kenner enacted Pound's attitude toward her. She was just dead in the water.
"I've had amazing experiences since I started working on this, saying to people 'Amy Lowell,' and they say, 'Oh, I love Amy Lowell.' Or, 'When I was young, I always read Amy Lowell,' or 'Amy Lowell first introduced me to the French poets.' She's a secret love of people's. They're embarrassed to say so, because the canon has taught us to be leery of Amy Lowell."
Amy Lowell lived the majority of her life as an "out" lesbian. Beginning in 1909, Lowell shared her Boston mansion with Ada Dwyer Russell, a character actress 11 years Lowell's senior. They had what then was called "a Boston marriage."
I asked Ms. Moore to explain, for younger readers, the term "Boston marriage."
"Two women living together, either as lesbian lovers or simply as companions. That's the spectrum. Since nobody in Boston ever talks about sex, you never knew what was going on, but it's certainly one of the most powerful things about Amy Lowell's work, that she's out. Extraordinary.
"The first collection after she begins to live with Ada, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed , has many erotic poems in it. Later on, in Pictures Of The Floating World , a section of the book -- 'Planes of Personality' -- is dedicated to Ada. Everybody knows what's happening. And it's very courageous.
"Given that Lowell was well-to-do, you could say that she had the privilege to be that courageous, but it didn't help her. It didn't. I'm sure that the homophobia was a subtext that nobody, nobody, would bring up."
I mentioned Henry James's novel The Bostonians (1885), which satirizes feminism and female same-sex relationships. "It's a pretty nasty story."
Ms. Moore agreed -- the James's novel was not particularly kind to its female characters.
I asked, "How did you go about making the choices of the Lowell poems?"
"First of all, I read the entire complete poems, which is about 550 pages, double-columned. I got them Xeroxed; the type was quite small, so I got it Xeroxed larger. Then I read and read and read."
"Were you surprised by what you found?"
"I was more and more intrigued. The more I read, the deeper I got into it. Then I made an initial selection, and then I was told that there were a particular number of pages that one was allotted. I'd made certain decisions. I'd decided not to excerpt anything. I decided that if people were enthralled, they could go find those longer prose pieces. I decided that since it was a book for a general audience, I would stick with the poems that were enthralling. My job wasn't to represent anything but her most enthralling work. There's a lot of it. I included her Chinese poetry translations because I decided that the Chinese poetry had a great influence on her."