Mina Loy 1882–1966
English-born American poet.
Although Loy is virtually unknown to most readers today, a number of important critics describe her as one of the most influential contributors to the modernist movement in America in the early 1900s. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound praised her poems highly and her work is often linked with and discussed in terms of that of William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens. Well-acquainted with European avant-garde literary and artistic circles, she introduced the ideas and techniques of such groups as the European futurists and other experimentalists to American poets and readers. She was not, however, directly aligned with any of these movements: her life and her art were marked by a dramatic insistence on independence, privacy, and individuality.
Loy's poetry is now generally recognized as the work of an acutely perceptive and intelligent mind. However, her densely compressed lines and images, bold sexual references, and lack of punctuation led some of her initial critics to reject her work and its stark unconventionality. Other early critics found in Loy's writing a cutting and satirical wit, a precise and forceful style, and a direct yet passionate objectivity. Having remarked on these qualities, they expressed the belief that Loy was creating a unique foundation upon which all future significant poetry would be constructed.
Many of Loy's poems appeared in Others, a small magazine published by Conrad Arensberg and Alfred Kreymborg between 1915 and 1919, and other "little" magazines of this period dedicated to exposing new poetic forms. Her collections of poetry have until recently numbered only two—Lunar Baedecker (1923) and Lunar Baedecker and Time Tables (1958). Much of the criticism written after Loy's rise to prominence in the 1910s and 1920s speculates on the causes of her subsequent silence and obscurity, and attempts to place her in the history of American poetry. The 1982 collection of previously unpublished and reprinted poems, The Last Lunar Baedecker, is dedicated to the critic and poet Kenneth Rexroth, who has taught and given public readings of Loy's work.
Most critics cite Loy's slow, meticulous manner of writing, her self-imposed isolation, and the creative energy she expended in other areas of the arts, such as painting and design, as primary reasons for her sparse publication and for her lack of greater fame. Whatever the explanation, Loy now occupies the unusual position of having been "one of the most pivotal voices in the American Free Verse Movement," while she "remains today virtually the only important poet of the pre-World War I avant-garde who has neither been assimilated into the mainstream literary culture nor picked up by the small press movement."
(See also Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 4.)
Their work is neither simple, sensuous nor passionate, but as we are no longer governed by the North American Review we need not condemn poems merely because they do not fit some stock phrase of rhetorical criticism. (p. 57)
In the verse of Marianne Moore I detect traces of emotion: in that of Mina Loy I detect no emotion whatever. Both of these women are, possibly in unconsciousness, among the followers of Jules Laforgue (whose work shows a great deal of emotion). It is possible, as I have written, or intended to write elsewhere, to divide poetry into three sorts; (1.) melopoeia, to wit, poetry which moves by its music, whether it be a music in the words or an aptitude for, or suggestion of, accompanying music; (2.) imagism, or poetry wherein the feelings of painting and sculpture are predominant (certain men move in phantasmagoria; the images of their gods, whole countrysides, stretches of hill land and forest, travel with them); and there is, thirdly, logopoeia or poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters. Pope and the...
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Mr. Sacheverell Sitwell once wrote a very long poem, two lines of which stay in my memory:
My natural clumsiness was my only bar to progress
Until I conquered it by calculation.
As I go through such of Miss Loy's poems as I possess, this seems to describe her. If she has not actually conquered the clumsiness which one can scarcely help feeling in her writings, she has, from time to time, overcome it; and these occasional advantages have resulted in momentous poems. Or perhaps it is not clumsiness, but the inherently unyielding quality of her material that causes this embarrassment. She moves like one walking through granite instead of air, and when she achieves a moment of beauty it strikes one cold.
More intent on the gutter and its horrors than any of the group with which she was allied, and more intensely cerebral, perhaps, than any save one of them, her work ordinarily presents that broken, unemotional, and occasionally witty observation of undeniable facts that one came to regard as the rather uninviting norm of Others poetry…. Her unsuccessful work is easier to imitate than that of any of the three other outstanding members of her set—Miss Moore, Dr. Williams, and Mr. Stevens—and beyond a doubt has been more imitated. Rhythmically, it is elementary, whereas the metres of Miss Moore and Dr. Williams are infinitely varied and difficult, and those of Mr. Stevens are at least infinitely subtle. Emotionally, Dr. Williams is no farther from what one might regard as some sort of common denominator than Miss Loy, and he has covered—and opened to poetry—vastly more territory, so that the likelihood of his becoming the chief prophet of my own or some future generation is probably greater…. Of all contemporary poets, he is, I shall say, the closest in spirit to Miss Loy. Miss Moore, on the other hand, as a point of departure, is unthinkable—like Henry James, she is not a point of departure at all, but a terminus. Her work suggests nothing that she herself has not carried to its logical and utmost bounds. And Mr. Stevens, with his ethereal perversity, inhabits a region upon which one feels it would be a pity to encroach.
And yet I think that few poets of my own generation would deny that these writers as a group are more sympathetic, as well as more encouraging, than either the Vorticists or the Mid-Americans. Their advantage over the professional backwoodsmen consists in part, perhaps, in superior intellectual equipment, but mainly, I suspect, in a larger portion of simple common-sense—they have refused from the very beginning to consider themselves in any way related to Shawnee Indians or potato-beetles, and have passed unscathed through a period of unlimited sentimentality. Their advantage over the Vorticists consists not so much in their having...
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Visiting the shrines of modern art and literature in Paris and Florence, and being accepted as a coeval in the maddest circles, Miss Loy, who is an artist as well as poet, imbibed the precepts of Apollinaire and Marinnetti and became a Futurist with all the earnestness and irony of a woman possessed and obsessed with the sum of human experience and disillusion. Her first poems appeared in Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work, along with some of the earliest work of Gertrude Stein. Most of Mina Loy's later work, including a whole issue of her "Songs To Joannes," appeared in Others, and created a violent sensation…. Though Others was a private publication with a circulation of only a few hundred copies, the first number was hailed with public derision: it contained some of Miss Loy's "Love Songs." In an unsophisticated land, such sophistry, clinical frankness, sardonic conclusions, wedded to a madly elliptical style scornful of the regulation grammar, syntax and punctuation …, horrified our gentry and drove our critics into furious despair. The nudity of emotion and thought roused the worst disturbance, and the utter nonchalance in revealing the secrets of sex was denounced as nothing less than lewd. It took a strong digestive apparatus to read Mina Loy. Unhappily for her, the average critic had been fed on treacle and soda water over too long a Puritanical term in the jails of our daily papers…. Here are the lines which opened the...
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At a time when "cerebral" was a pejorative term, Mina Loy was dealing with ideas. Pound's genius lay in other directions; his importance is his diversity: his mastery of various styles, his influence on the little magazines, and the fragments of a curious sort of scholarship. It may be that Williams, in a few poems only, surpasses Mina Loy stylistically, because of his extraordinary finish and precision, but the body of his work does not compare with her poems; his subjects are frequently trivial, and hers are not. And where Marianne Moore is clever and superficial, Mina Loy is profound; where Miss Moore is amusing, Miss Loy is bitterly satirical. The poets of this period tended toward a narrowness which was concerned...
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[In considering the question of why Mina Loy is an American poet, it seems essential to consider three factors which link her to the American modernists.] First, in her awareness that the subjects and structures of English poetry in 1910 were inadequate to experience, Mina Loy anticipates the Americans in drawing upon French literature of the art-for-art's-sake tradition for the justification and practice of her poetic revolt. As justification it taught the supremacy of art and contempt for the bourgeois fear of the new. But as her satires of the tradition and her praise of artistic responsibility indicate, she condemns the pose of artistic alienation. Implicit in her poetry is the notion of the poet as...
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For a brief period, it is fair to say that Mina Loy did as much as any woman of her generation to foster the international trafficking of avant-garde life and thought in Paris-America. She introduced Stieglitz and his circle to the work of Apollinaire, imported Futurist techniques to American theater, applied methods borrowed from the revolution in the visual arts to the new poetics, and exerted an influence on the leaders of New York Dada. Her insinuation that a rampant disease called provincialism infected the American literary scene entre les deux guerres and her move from total involvement to a position of detachment earned her the indifference of her colleagues and did damage to her reputation. While most...
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[What] does "morality" mean to a poet? Obviously, it has little to do with behaving in accordance with a set of social standards. Nor is it necessarily concerned with the ascertainment of or instruction in what is good or evil…. It may have to do with religion, but if it does, religion is subsumed—witness T. S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins. It may have to do with patriotism, but in a subversive way—witness Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Lowell. But over and beyond these minor manifestations, morality, to a poet, means one thing and one thing only. Few poets of the 20th century came closer to it than did Mina Loy. (p. 133)
[Mina Loy's] independence was largely misunderstood and misinterpreted,...
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