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Open Canon: Amy Lowell
E.R. Zarevich. Posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, Amy Lowell was a self-educated poet who favored Imagism and rejected "safe" choices.
You are ice and fire,
The touch of you burns my hands like snow.
You are cold and flame.
You are the crimson of amaryllis,
The silver of moon-touched magnolias.
When I am with you,
My heart is a frozen pond
Gleaming with agitated torches.
Amy Lowell (1874-1925) wrote this passionate poem, “Opal,” about the love of her life, actress Ada Dwyer Russell. Lowell wanted to dedicate her collections to her as well, but Dwyer, fearing the public exposure of their love affair, begged her not to. The only book Lowell was allowed to dedicate to her paramour was an analytical biography of the poet John Keats, published in 1925. This was considered a “safe” subject in Dwyer’s eyes, but Lowell, in her own lifetime, rarely showed much interest in anything deemed “safe.”
What she was interested in was shaking her native America out of its stiff poetic rut, through her allegiance and advancement of Imagism, a movement that was considered shocking to mainstream audiences at the time. The poem above exhibits some of the key elements of Imagism, a branch of literary modernism: simple, straightforward language, unconventional presentation of verse, and meaningful images that the author deconstructs down to their essences. It was a direct opposition to the popular styles of Romantic and Victorian poetry, rejecting their rigid sets of rules surrounding rhyme, rhythm, and acceptable content (which tended to involve long narratives and broad, philosophical ideas). In Lowell’s work, a touch of homoeroticism added the personal flair that distinguished her in this particular subgenre. As she would be exulted as a poet, she herself exulted in women. Like her poetry, lesbianism was something Lowell was able to confidently incorporate into her identity against the oppression of the era she lived in.
Amy Lowell was born in 1874 into a well-to-do, conventional Boston-based family. She had poor experiences with formal education. At school as a child, bullied for her brash personality and appearance—she was overweight all her life—she struggled to fully thrive and find her purpose. She missed out on going to college, as her family refused to pay tuition for her, believing that higher education was an unsuitable path for a young woman. Her ambitions thwarted, she became a self-taught scholar in protest; her British contemporary Virginia Woolf, equally frustrated with the lack of academic opportunities for intellectual women, would have approved. Lowell became an unstoppable bibliophile. Almost in preparation for her future career as a poet, she devoured every book in her family 7000-volume private library and frequently added to its stock by voracious book-collecting. Family money also allowed her to travel around Europe, exposing her to cultural landscapes not available to her in conservative turn-of-the-century America. Through these efforts, she assembled her own university-esque education.
She was a late bloomer in her field of work. Although she began writing poetry as a pastime in her late twenties, she didn’t officially publish her first poem until the age of thirty-six. However, she made an impressive start, having her poem “A Fixed Idea” accepted by the prestigious Atlantic magazine in 1910. Two years later, in 1912, her first full collection of poetry came out, A Dome of Many-Colored Glass, and others would follow, including the intriguingly named Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914) and Pictures of the Floating World (1919). The biography of John Keats was perhaps her greatest venture into non-fiction criticism. Keats’ life and work was something of an obsession for Lowell; she argued that he was the forefather of Imagism, and her efforts to deconstruct him like one of her poetic subjects can be classified as psychoanalysis. Though Keats was long dead, he was the only man with whom Lowell would develop a close connection, besides the poet Ezra Pound, with whom she would have a falling out over his disapproval of her writing style and success. Men in general were never too fond of Lowell. Nowadays she would probably operate under the label of “butch lesbian.” She was a large, loud woman who liked to smoke cigars and voice her opinions, all repulsively “unfeminine” behavior at the time. But she didn’t like men either, so their rejection of her was undaunting. She had a loving partner in Russell, and was well-satisfied with her. There were also rumors of an affair with fellow queer writer Mercedes de Acosta, but this has never been proven.
Just as Lowell made her debut into the world of poetry late, and sadly, international recognition would follow this pattern. She died in 1925, of a cerebral hemorrhage, at the age of 51. One year later, she would be awarded The Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection What’s O’Clock (published in the last year of her life). She would then fade into obscurity in the literary circuit until the 1970s, where a renewed interest in women’s works—the feminist movement at the time was doing a mass archeological dig of lost female literature—resurrected her reputation. Readers can now easily access her masterly poems such as “Opal” online, an optimistic reminder of the enduring power of talented women’s art. Lowell was destined to be known and remembered. As she reportedly said herself, “God made me a businesswoman, and I made myself a poet.”
E.R. Zarevich is an English teacher and writer from Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Fascinated by women's literary history, her biographical articles on female writers have been published by Jstor Daily, The Archive, Early Bird Books, and The Calvert Journal. She is also a writer of fiction and poetry.