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Lowell, Amy

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Summary Article: Lowell, Amy from Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature

L. was a poet, literary critic, lecturer, and exponent of the poetic doctrines of IMAGISM. Her vivid personality and energetic campaign for freedom of poetic expression made her one of the most prominent figures in the literary world between 1914 and 1925. Critics have generally categorized L. as an imagist poet who wrote a number of remarkable poems. Contemporary feminine critics argue, however, that this label does not do justice to her successful experimentation with a wide range of forms and techniques.

As the daughter of a distinguished New England family, L. grew up in a tradition of cultural and civic leadership. She was educated at home, in private schools, and through extensive reading and foreign travel. Throughout her life she was plagued by a glandular disease that caused obesity and severe headaches. Despite her ill health, she led an extremely active life as owner of the family estate Sevenels, international traveler, patron of the theater and other arts, and literary celebrity famous for her eccentric behavior. Her output was prodigious. Over the span of thirteen years, she published eight volumes of poetry and several prose works, including a two-volume biography of John Keats and Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), which gave her a solid reputation as a critic. She also published several poetry anthologies, including Fir-Flower Tablets (1921), containing her renditions of Chinese poetry. She was also an accomplished public lecturer.

L. chose poetry as her vocation after being captivated by the stage performance of Eleonora Duse, the Italian actress, in Boston in 1902. For the next eight years, L. undertook a poetic apprenticeship marked by close study of Leigh Hunt's anthology of romantic and Victorian poets. When her first volume of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912), was criticized for its highly derivative style, she began to experiment with the free verse and imagist style of Hilda DOOLITTLE and other new poets appearing in Harriet MONROE's Poetry. In 1914, she took over from Ezra POUND the editorship of the imagist anthology. Throughout her career, she was generous in her support of other writers, including D. H. Lawrence and Robert FROST, who were her close friends.

L.'s poetic breakthrough came with her second book Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), which included her first poems written in free verse and “polyphonic prose.” In the book's preface, she defines free verse as “unrhymed cadence” and compares the elements of polyphonic prose to the voices of an orchestra, thereby reflecting her view of poetry as an art to be heard. She also believed in the deep relationship between material forms and human emotions. In works such as Can Grande's Castle (1918) and Pictures of the Floating World (1919), vivid sensory perceptions are expressed in brilliant imagery. Many of the images are taken from her own life—her gardens, her travels, and her experiences with music and theater. Her subject matter has great variety, but many of her most successful poems deal with her changing emotional states, from depression and self-doubt over her lack of love and marriage, to contentment and affection for her long-time companion Ada Russell.

L.'s last book of poetry, What's O’Clock (1925), finished shortly before her sudden death and published posthumously, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. It contains some of her finest poems, including “Lilacs,” perhaps her most brilliant use of imagism; “The Anniversary,” representative of her most personal love poems; and six sonnets to Eleonora Duse, her artistic inspiration. Also included is “The Sisters,” a meditation on her kinship with Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily DICKENSON. She wonders what motivates women poets—“a queer lot”—to “scribble down, man-wise, the fragments of ourselves.” This late poem reflects L.'s interest in the powerful effects of gender on the art of literary women. In her own efforts to form a new poetic aesthetic, L. not only contributed a body of lyrical and brilliant pictorial poetry, but also played a significant role in the American poetic renaissance.

Bibliography Flint, F. C., A. L. (1969) Foster, D., A. L. (1935) Gould, J., The World of A. L. and the Imagist Movement (1975)

Margaret Carter

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