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Amy Lowell: Still Disrespected After All These Years

Lynne Murray says:

When I was discovering poetry in high school, I ran into Amy Lowell’s poetry and fell in love with it. It’s very sensual and my favorite poem of hers Patterns, is almost like a small romantic novel as evokes the interplay between external restrictions on the body imposed by the heroine’s brocade clothing, society’s restrictions on her and the damaging loss of love. Just the thing for my adolescent imagining.

I was only mildly interested in the lives of the poets–they spoke to me through their work. But what I read about Amy Lowell and her involvement with the Imagist poets gave me the vague impression that they squabbled a lot. I do remember Lowell being described as large, aggressive and cigar smoking. Much later I realized that those who pointed out these traits might’ve been indulging in a coded reference to her lesbianism.



But I never knew the extent of the abuse and ridicule Lowell endured because of her size until I read Melissa Bradshaw’s essay “Remembering Amy Lowell, Embodiment, Obesity, and the Construction of a Persona.”

Lowell’s body size was used to demean her throughout her life and the vicious commentary and contempt for her work based on her fatness continue in present-day biographies.

Bradshaw’s essay begins with a quote from Ezra Pound (whose poetry I like although the more I learn about him the more I marvel that anyone could endure his presence):

Writing to Alice Corbin Henderson in 1916, Pound snarks:

You said, I think, 300 pounds and a charmer. . . . Poor Amy, poor Amy. It is all very distressing and my Arm Chair has never been the same since she bounced with glee over some witticism. No upholsterer can do anything with it, the springs still do such funny things.

Pound never needed a reason to insult a woman (or Jews) and he and Lowell feuded about Imagism and her opinions were quite influential. Pound had earlier requested the inclusion of her poem “In a Garden” in his anthology Des Imagistes (1914).

Later Bradshaw talks about a scholar’s dilemma in researching Lowell:

Amy Lowell was fat. She was also rich, headstrong, opinionated, self-promoting, cigar smoking, and lesbian. But mostly, she was fat . . . In fact, the scholar who attempts to research and write about Lowell must sift through an inordinate amount of demeaning and irrelevant commentary about her person in order to find information about her work. The result of this consistent emphasis on the body of a long dead poet is the construction of an Amy Lowell who present day readers understand primarily as a joke. . .

What do we really know about Amy Lowell? And how much of what we think we know is colored by homophobia and misogyny?

Bradshaw describes an excruciating scene in 1915 when Lowell gave her first public reading, a poem entitled “Spring Day” at a crowded meeting of the Poetry Society of America to an audience that must’ve been expecting ‘a sylph-like, frail, nerve wracked, intense creature instead of the Amazonian chieftain who rose majestically to read.’

In the poem’s first section, Lowell evokes a woman taking a bath.

“The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is
a smell of tulips and narcissus
in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and
bores through the water
in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It
cleaves the water
into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of
the water and dance, dance,
and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir
of my finger
sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes
of light
in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white
the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is
too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright
I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.
The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps
by the window, and there is
a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.”

Margaret Widdemer, present that evening, reported that “as the vivid picture continued there was a suppressed snicker, which rose to a room full of undisguised laughter.” … [W]hen Lowell finished reading there was an enormous uproar, with people leaping to their feet and roaring denunciations.” The event made the news the next day and for years after this reference to “Amy’s bathtub” surfaced in newspaper features about her.

Bradshaw concludes: “[T]he audience could not listen to a poem about bathing and forget that a fat woman was reading it–they could not hear it as anything but autobiographical confession.”

Lowell’s career coincided with the early 20th century development of disgust toward abundant flesh in women and her celebration of physicality forced the audience to imagine her exulting in her own sensuality. As Bradshaw puts it, “[T]his is what brings on first snickers, then anger, for fat women do not get to love their bodies, they do not get to be narcissistic.”

I was very saddened to hear that Lowell, who came from a wealthy Boston family, went through traumatic dieting experiences in her youth, including a tomato and asparagus diet combined with massive amounts of exercise on a journey down the Nile in a small boat. This ordeal, which at one point involved her pulling the boat on foot up a series of cataracts, sounds like a 1898 cross between The African Queen and The Biggest Loser. Lowell”s heroic and unsuccessful attempts to lose weight, followed by her mother”s death, resulted in a kind of breakdown followed by seven years of nervous prostration.

The breakdown might have been Lowell”s only way to protect herself from her father’s demands that she live the conventional life of a married socialite. Her journal makes her preference plain when she writes: “Men I could not love. My ideal is too high. But I want, need, yearn, for the love of a strong, tender woman.” Clearly it was not just male disgust at her size that kept her out of a heterosexual marriage.

Lowell came to terms with her sexual yearnings and also gave up the ruinous practice of food restriction. She refused to take the diet pills of her era which contained strychnine and arsenic.

In 1912 that Lowell met actress Ada Dwyer Russell. The two women had a passionate “Boston marriage.” Russell gave her love and emotional support, and organized Lowell’s busy life. They lived together until Lowell’s death.

The fat jokes didn’t stop with her death, and biographers over the years have come up with various theories to account for her supposed physical and mental deformities and the tragic lack of suitors that resulted in her life as a very active spinster. Bradshaw rightfully points out:

[I]t is striking that these biographers consistently gloss over the rigid social strictures governing marriageable young women in late Victorian America as a possible factor in Lowell’s unhappiness. . . . Nor do they take into consideration that, left alone to care for aging parents after her siblings’ departure of the family home, she nursed her mother (who had been an invalid since before Amy’s birth) through a long final illness, and, at twenty-one, was expected to keep house for a demanding, conservative father.

Lowell’s emergence from nervous prostration seems to have coincided with her father’s death in 1900. Her inheritance allowed her to purchase the family home from her siblings and furnish it according to her wishes, she entertained guests with hearty seven course meals. And in a letter to a friend she mentions the she has just finished a box of chocolates all on her own and says: “only when I recollect how short is life, how fleeting, do I reflect that it makes very little difference whether a skeleton was once fat or thin. This consoles me greatly and I eat on, unmoved and moving.”

It is, only in recent years that fat poets have begun to stand up and get in the reader”s face to celebrate large-size bodies directly in poems such as Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”

or in the groundbreaking anthology, Fat Poets Speak begun at The Fat Poets Society Writing Workshop at the 2006 NAAFA Convention and anthologized and edited by Frannie Zellman.

I was glad to reacquaint myself with Amy Lowell in the book “Amy Lowell: American Modern.

All of the other essays illuminating her life and work add to my appreciation of her struggle in the face of ridicule, and admiration of her unshakable accomplishment.