Playing Poetry with the Big Boys—Amy Lowell

What does a woman poet look like? They are frequently pictured as frail and waiflike.  Think of Emily Dickinson floating about her family home, a recluse dressed always in white; or Elizabeth Barrett Browning retreating to her sickbed to write her poems. Often these maneuvers have helped women to find time to do their writing and achieve the art they wanted. But not all female poets fit these stereotypes.

Today, to celebrate Poetry Month, we will talk about a poet who turned all these stereotypes around. Amy Lowell was never frail, seldom shy, and looked nothing like a waif. She was a strong, heavy woman who used her strength and power to influence the course of poetry in America and all of the English-speaking world.

Amy Lowell

Born in 1874 into an old New England family that had provided leaders for generations, Amy never suffered from a lack of money or influential friends and relatives. She attended private schools but was not popular with other girls. She grew up believing that she was ugly and of less value than her four brothers. She was not sent to college because her family believed that college was inappropriate for girls.

Instead of a conventional education, Amy turned to books and later to travel. When she was in her twenties, she started writing poetry. Her first work was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1910 when she was in her mid-thirties. She may not have been an early bloomer, but once she started writing and publishing poetry, she had a major impact on the literary world. Her most famous poem, “Patterns” is still widely taught in schools today. The opening stanza introduced many American readers to a new type of poetry—free-flowing and often unrhymed.

I walk down the garden paths,

And all the daffodils

Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.

I walk down the patterned garden paths

In my stiff, brocaded gown.

With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,

I too am a rare

Pattern. As I wander down

The garden paths.

Source: Selected Poems of Amy Lowell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002)

Amy Lowell was soon recognized as one of the most prominent modern poets of the early 20th century. She travelled to Europe and met Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and others who were part of the imagist movement. She conceived the idea of publishing an anthology of imagist poetry, which she did in 1915. Unfortunately, she ruffled the feathers of some of the early leaders of the postwar literary scene, especially Ezra Pound, who suspected she was trying to take over the imagist movement. The ruling men of the poetry world did not welcome a woman intruding on their ranks.

Lowell not only wrote poetry and published anthologies she also went on speaking tours throughout America and England. She was a vivid presence on the stage and introduced many audiences to modern poetry. Her poems continued to be popular with the public throughout her life, although reviews by literary critics were mixed. Many of the men who dominated literary criticism found it difficult to accept a spinster who wrote about love and sexuality as easily as about more ladylike subjects. Lowell never married, but she had a long and loving relationship with her partner, Ada Dwyer Russell. The strength of their bond and what it meant in Lowell’s life was seldom mentioned, however, because of the prudery of readers and critics during that time.

During the early 1920s, Lowell took several years off from poetry to write a biography of John Keats, one of her favorite poets. During these years, unfortunately, her health deteriorated, and she died of a stroke in 1925 at the age of 51. The Keats biography was published after her death and in 1926, she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. You can read a detailed account of Lowell’s life and death in Carl Rollyson’s biography Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (2013).

It is almost a century now since Amy Lowell died and she is often ignored or treated as a minor figure in the history of American literature. During the 1930s and 1940s her achievements faded from public notice as tastes in poetry changed. But critics are not always right in their assessments and, as many readers have found, Amy Lowell’s poems are well worth rereading. They speak to modern concerns just vividly as they spoke to the people of her time—like these final unforgettable lines of “Patterns”.

And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace

By each button, hook, and lace.

For the man who should loose me is dead,

Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,

In a pattern called a war.

Christ! What are patterns for?

One thought on “Playing Poetry with the Big Boys—Amy Lowell

  1. Superb! I’ve read “Patterns” before, but the final lines hit me even more powerfully coming at the end of your insightful post. I hope many of those who are introduced to Amy Lowell by you will go on to appreciate her better than she was appreciated by the male critics of her own time.

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