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Amy Lowell – the Visionary Lesbian Poet

I see the colors and lines of Amy Lowell’s love poems, and hear their rhythms too.  For she was one of the foremost Imagist poets of the early 20th century.  These were poets who captured a moment, a thought, a glance, and set it down in words.

Image of Amy Lowell on Time Magazine

Amy Lowell a few months before her passing in 1925. Soon after her death she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Lowell’s exquisite poems sometimes captured the ecstasy of the world with the brevity of a haiku, and the melody of a sonata, like this one, titled “Aubade”:

As I would free the white almond from the green husk
So I would strip your trappings off,
Beloved,
And fingering the smooth and polished kernel
I should see that in my hands glittered a gem beyond counting.

Or this one, titled “Carrefour”:

O you,
Who came upon me once
Stretched under apple-trees just after bathing,
Why did you not strangle me before speaking
Rather than fill me with the wild honey of your words
And then leave me to the mercy
Of the forest bees?

In Defiance of Multiple Prejudices

Amy Lowell faced prejudice after prejudice during her career.

(1) Her weight.  She was a heavy woman and the norms of the time, much like the norms of our time, say that a heavy woman cannot be a sexual woman.  Sadly, she was even dubbed “hippopoetess.” by some of her peers.

(2) Her wealth.  Unlike most poets, Amy Lowell came from a wealthy family.

(3) Her lack of formal education.  Amy’s family didn’t believe that education served a woman well, and so refused her a college education.  In defiance, she became an avid book reader and collector, creating her own enlightened environment.

(4) Her un-ladylike habits.  Like smoking cigars.

(5) Her strength of character.  Amy Lowell had no qualms at all about stating her opinions, which didn’t always coincide with the intelligentsia norm.  For example, the first collection of Imagist poetry was strongly edited by one person, Ezra Pound.  Amy thought that was wrong, and so she personally sponsored an edition that gave the poets themselves control over what was published.  This action alone alienated her in much of the poetic intelligentsia leadership.  Ezra Pound himself left the Imagist movement as the discussion got heated, blaming her for all manner of misrepresentation and even threatened to sue her.

(6) Her sexuality.  Lesbians were simply not tolerated in much of society, not even those as talented as Amy Lowell.  Amy’s early poems used code words to communicate her sexuality.  As time passed and her disguised reputation grew, she grew bolder in expressing her love.  Her later poems were outright erotic in pure defiance of society’s laws.

Ins spite of all of that, there were indeed those who respected her talent and her passions. One of the most perceptive comments made about Amy Lowell was the one written by Heywood Broun in his obituary tribute to her:

She was upon the surface of things a Lowell, a New Englander and a spinster.  But inside everything was molten like the core of the earth … Given one more gram of emotion, Amy Lowell would have burst into flame and been consumed to cinders.

The Passions of Amy Lowell

Amy first fell in love with Eleonora Duse, a famous actress of the time.  Smitten, Amy wrote some of her earliest poems to this vision of beauty.  Here is a snippet from “Eleonora Dune”:

For some are here on pure amusement bent,
Others come lured by the far fame of her
Who tonight will image forth the tragic fate
Of one who lived and died long since,
Or else imbue the shadowy figment of
A poet’s dream with palpitating life.

If this is less intriguing than the poems above, do forgive the poet.  She was young, and inexperienced.  Also, although Eleonora spoke to her, there was no affair in the offing.

Image of Ada Russell, Amy Lowell's lover

Ada Russell, Amy Lowell’s “Boston marriage” partner.

It wasn’t until after Amy met and loved Ada Russell, another actress, that her pen, and love life, soared.  Ada was separated from her husband of only a few years.  Amy Lowell and Ada Russell were together from about 1912 until Amy’s death in 1925, and virtually all of Amy’s love poems were written to Ada.

One of the most quoted poems that Amy Lowell wrote to Ada is the one titled “Decade”:

When you came, you were like red wine and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.
I hardly taste you at all for I know your savour,
But I am completely nourished.

Poetry and Amy Lowell

If one can have two mistresses, then Amy Lowell loved both Ada and poetry.  Just as she devoted her love to Ada, so she devoted her energy to poetry.

Most notably, when Amy discovered the Imagist movement in Europe she personally went to England and purchased many volumes of poetry which she brought back to the U.S., simply to introduce the U.S. to this splendid poetic form.

Amy Lowell personally sponsored young poets, giving many an opportunity to create that they would never have had otherwise.

When her parents passed away, Amy personally purchased their estate and established it as a center for poetry in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Amy Lowell sometimes translated the works of others and wrote literary biographies.

Amy Lowell left us with passionate poetry to waken our aching hearts, in a style that was truly her own.  And a year after her passing, her poetry collection “What’s O’Clock” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a most fitting finish to her story.

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