Amy Lowell 1874–1925
American poet, critic, biographer, and essayist.
The leading proponent of Imagism in American poetry, Lowell is remembered for her forceful theorizing on poetics, her eccentric, outspoken personality, and her iconoclastic approach to poetic form. Her experimentation led her to create what she called polyphonic prose, a form similar to free verse that employs intermittent rhyme, changing points of view, and the repetition of images or ideas. Although she was Ezra Pound's successor as chief advocate of Imagism—a movement that stressed clarity and succinctness in presenting the poetic image—Lowell is herself generally categorized as a minor, though versatile, poet, whose work displays occasional bursts of brilliance. Influenced in both style and theme by her studies of Far Eastern verse, she also sought to liberate poetry from the strictures of meter, using as her vehicles free verse, polyphonic prose, and haiku in such volumes as Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Pictures of the Floating World, and What's O'Clock. This last volume, containing the best of Lowell's late work, was posthumously published and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1926.
Lowell was born of a distinguished New England family whose wealth and position provided her with opportunities for a good education and travel in Europe. In later years, the proper, conservative values Lowell acquired in her youth clashed with her naturally independent and domineering personality, creating an unresolved conflict that is reflected in her life and work. In her late twenties Lowell decided to become a poet, and during the next few years she used her wealth, industry, and intimidating personality to accomplish that end. Her first volume (except for an early vanity press publication) appeared in 1912. A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass is conventional and undistinguished, exhibiting nothing of the experimental form that characterizes Lowell's later volumes. In 1913 she met Pound and immediately embraced Imagism, a style applied successfully in her next collection, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. With this widely acclaimed work, Lowell moved to the forefront of American poetry, a position from which she lent support to other writers, among them D. H. Lawrence. During the next decade, she wrote several books of criticism and over six hundred poems, edited three Imagist anthologies, and became a popular speaker at American universities. Accompanying Lowell during her last years was Ada Russell, a former actress who became Lowell's secretary, close friend and inspiration for several love poems. Lowell died in 1925, shortly after completing her John Keats, a biography of the poet whom she saw as her greatest influence.
While A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass was the first published of her serious poetry, Lowell's adoption of the Imagist precepts in 1913 marks a dramatic change from the conventional poetry of this early volume. Sword Blades and Poppy Seed is characteristic of this new poetry, which abounds in sensuous imagery, a precise economy of words, and a delight in texture and color. The collection also represents Lowell's first experiments with polyphonic prose, a form that she used to its greatest effect in the dramatic monologues in rustic New England vernacular of Men, Women and Ghosts and the historical narratives of Can Grande's Castle. The former work contains "Patterns"—a dramatic monologue that examines the clash between duty and desire—which is considered one of Lowell's most important poem. In the latter, the theme of civilization at war, exemplified in the acclaimed "Bronze Horses," predominates. Lowell's interest in Asian literature is evident throughout her canon, reaching its height in the "Lacquer Prints" of Pictures of the Floating World and in the interpolated Chinese poetry of Fir-Flower Tablets, written with the aid of translator Florence Ayscough. In Legends, she returns to the mythical-historical vein of Can Grande's Castle by exploring the poetic possibilities of folklore, while A Critical Fable, which was published anonymously in 1922, is Lowell's satirical look at twentyone poets: herself and twenty of her contemporaries. The poetry of What's O'Clock, East Wind, and Ballads for Sale, although uneven in places, contains some of her most accomplished lyrics. Among Lowell's critical works, poetry is the dominant concern. Six French Poets introduced American audiences to the chief post-symbolist artists. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry is, likewise, less a critical study than an introduction to a larger public of several American poets, including the Imagists H. D. and John Gould Fletcher. Her biography John Keats is valued as a landmark work for its wealth of previously unpublished material gathered from Lowell's private collection on the Romantic poet.
Overall, the reaction to Lowell's poetry has been decidedly mixed. Many of her works, including Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Can Grande's Castle, and What's O'Clock, met with great success upon publication, but this acclaim soon faded. In addition, Lowell's works have consistently elicited negative responses from several critics, who have seen her poetry as lacking in depth, originality, and genuineness. Others have admired her range and technical skill, but have continued to see her work as superficial. In 1975 Glenn Richard Ruihley pushed for a reconsideration of her work that emphasizes the significance of her poetic voice; still, while contemporary commentators have acknowledged her importance as the innovator of polyphonic prose and as a spokesperson for the Imagist movement, most limit her lasting contribution to a handful of poems.