American Literature Amy Lowell
by
Melissa Bradshaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0143

Introduction

Amy Lowell (b. 1874–d. 1925) was an American poet, critic, and lecturer. She is most closely identified with the Imagist movement, but her poetry and criticism encompass a wide variety of poetic styles. She was born into one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Massachusetts, the youngest child of Augustus Lowell and Katherine Lawrence. Lowell did not start writing poetry until she was twenty-eight. Once she decided to make poetry her career, she spent the next ten years slowly and methodically training herself, since, like most young women of her class and social position, her formal education was limited to that provided by private tutors. At thirty-eight she published her first volume of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912). Soon after this tepidly received volume was published, she met and developed friendships with the poets calling themselves “imagists”: H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Richard Aldington, and Ezra Pound. Her second volume of poetry, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), featuring imagist lyrics as well as experimental prose poems written in what she called “polyphonic prose,” was a critical and commercial success that established her as a formidable modern poet. Pound included her poem, “In a Garden” in his 1914 Des Imagistes anthology, but they soon had a falling out over Lowell’s plans to edit and aggressively market an annual imagist anthology, to be published by a major American publishing house. Pound accused Lowell of dumbing down the movement for a popular audience and famously dubbed her work “Amygism.” Lowell’s anthology, Some Imagist Poets, featuring Lowell, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Aldington, John Gould Fletcher, and F. S. Flint, was published by Houghton Mifflin from 1915–1917. The anthology introduced American readers to modernist poetic experimentation and codified imagism into a full-blown poetic movement. In promoting the book, Lowell began her career as a lecturer, schooling audiences across America on how to read and appreciate imagism, free verse, and modern poetry more generally. For many Americans she was the face of modern poetry, though her disputes with both more traditional scholars of poetry and radical avant-garde poets were well known. She would remain a literary celebrity for the rest of her life, making newspaper headlines with her controversial proclamations about the state of poetry in America and drawing overcapacity crowds at her lectures and readings. Over the course of her brief fifteen-year career, she published six volumes of poetry, two volumes of criticism, a two-volume biography of John Keats, and many articles and reviews. After her sudden death of a stroke at the age of fifty-one, three more volumes of poetry were published, the first of which, What’s O’Clock, won the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

General Overviews

A respected, widely read, and wildly popular poet during her lifetime, Lowell has been radically undervalued since her death. Largely because of fallout from her feud with Ezra Pound, her work was excluded from anthologies and literary histories produced by the New Critics, who shared Pound’s disparaging view of Lowell’s work as derivative and overly sentimental. Consequently, there are very few critical considerations of her work. Monroe 1926 and Untermeyer 1955 provide a good overview of her career. These fond essays offer eyewitness accounts of her efforts on behalf of modern poetry and the poets whom she admired, but the authors’ consensus that she would be remembered more as a poetic impresario than as a poet proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Flint 1969, a solid, if brief, overview, was for many years the most referenced summary of her major writings. Ruihley 1975 and Benvenuto 1985 rely heavily on biography in their monographs, the first book-length studies of Lowell. Though sympathetic, their readings of her poems are limited by their perception of her as a tragic figure who never found love. Bradshaw 2011 revisits these earlier monographs and essays to investigate persistent dismissals of her role in modernist poetics and the paucity of criticism on her extensive body of work. Lauter 1997 offers a thorough analysis of why Lowell may have been critically disregarded for so long and provides compelling arguments as to why her work merits renewed attention. The essays in Munich and Bradshaw 2004 cover various aspects of Lowell’s work, her affiliations with other modernists, and her politics.

  • Benvenuto, Richard. Amy Lowell. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

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    Offers a brief synopsis of her life, followed by an overview of her critical writings on modernist poetics, then chapters on her poetry, with the stated goal of reintroducing her into literary conversations. Considers her poetry thematically, not chronologically, dividing the analysis between her narrative poems and the major lyrics.

  • Bradshaw, Melissa. Amy Lowell, Diva Poet. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011.

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    Feminist reassessment of Lowell’s poetry. Argues that popular critiques of her work as derivative and second rate do not reflect careful attention to her poetry but rely, rather, on repeating misogynist and homophobic evaluations from earlier critics.

  • Flint, F. Cudworth. Amy Lowell. Pamphlets on American Writers, Number 82. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1969.

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    This short pamphlet has proved a surprisingly durable overview of Lowell’s life and career, referenced in many studies of the poet. Takes seriously the charge of summarizing Lowell’s career, walking the reader carefully through each of her volumes. Flint has difficulty disguising his ambivalence toward Lowell, whom he regards as overly concerned with publicity and poetic fads.

  • Lauter, Paul. “Amy Lowell and Cultural Borders.” In Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers. Edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, 288–296. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1997.

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    This important essay (reprinted in Munich and Bradshaw 2004) argues that Lowell’s work evokes critical vituperation, when considered at all, because it frustrates binary categorizations, or “cultural borders,” such as traditional/avant-garde, radical/conservative, male/female, gay/straight. Ties renewed academic interest in Lowell to the growth of queer studies.

  • Monroe, Harriet. “Amy Lowell.” In Poets and Their Art. By Harriet Monroe, 78–85. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

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    Written just before Lowell’s death, and published posthumously, this retrospective essay’s opening line, “One may as well begin by granting Miss Lowell everything but genius” (p. 78), set a precedent for later dismissals of Lowell’s work. Even as it praised her poetry, it argued that she would be remembered primarily for her personality.

  • Munich, Adrienne, and Melissa Bradshaw, eds. Amy Lowell, American Modern. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

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    The only collection of critical writings on Lowell to date, the thirteen essays in this volume consider Lowell as a woman poet, as a modernist, and as a significant force behind the literary debates of early-20th-century poetics. In addition to placing Lowell in her proper historical context, contributors demonstrate her importance to contemporary critical and theoretical discussions.

  • Ruihley, Glenn. The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1975.

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    The first critical monograph on Lowell. Impassioned, if somewhat specious, reappraisal, relying on a dated understanding of Lowell’s biography as the key to most of her poetry. While sympathetic to Lowell, it characterizes her work as the expression of an unhappy, sexually frustrated spinster. Chapters organized around chronological survey of her poetry.

  • Untermeyer, Louis. “A Memoir.” Introduction. In The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell. By Amy Lowell, xxi–xxix. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.

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    Untermeyer’s lively introduction to Lowell 1955 (cited under Primary Texts) gives an excellent overview of her career from his perspective as a critic and later friend. While he makes an impassioned case for her importance in promoting a modern American poetics, he offers little commentary on her poetry, an omission that did little to shift attention back to Lowell’s poems.

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