Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Speaking of Lowells...

Apparently the Lowells did everything but become Presidents of the United States. Several became poets – including James Russell, Robert who we met yesterday, and his distant cousin Amy who today would be 136 years old.

In fact, Amy has much in common with yesterday’s birthday girl Elizabeth Bishop. Both Amy and Bishop were lesbians; both had tremendous influence on their peers and future generations; both died of brain aneurysms (which says what about writing poetry…?); both were noted for their plain, objective style; and both traveled extensively to find their inspirations.

But despite the similarities, there are enough differences to make all the difference. Bishop is still being read while Lowell is read mostly as a footnote to the Modernist movement. It was said that she singlehandedly wrestled the imagist movement from Ezra Pound – no small feat if you know anything about Pound. But then Amy was no small woman…

At the same time, she was perhaps better known for the support she gave other poets than for her own output, although it is accomplished within the limits of what Imagist poetry can do.

In the end, it's not clear that poetry would be better off with or without Ms. Lowell’s own poetic output. But the poets she helped and Poetry capital P no doubt would be poorer for not having the “hippopoetess” as Pound, quoting an early critic of Lowell’s, once described her, to sell it big to the universe.

T.S. Eliot joined in on dog-piling Lowell too by describing her as that “demon saleswoman of poetry,” which echoes her own frank assessment of her purpose on Parnassus: “God made me a businesswoman and I made myself a poet.”

Amy Lowell on why we should eat - er, that is, read poetry:

Why should one read Poetry? That seems to me a good deal like asking: Why should one eat? One eats because one has to, to support life, but every time one sits down to dinner one does not say, 'I must eat this meal so that I may not die.' On the contrary, we eat because we are hungry, and so eating appears to us as a pleasant and desirable thing to do.

The necessity for poetry is one of the most fundamental traits of the human race. But naturally we do not take that into account, any more than we take into account that dinner, and the next day again, dinner, is the condition of our remaining alive. Without poetry the soul and heart of man starves and dies. The only difference between them is that all men know, if they turn their minds to it, that without food they would die, and comparatively few people know that without poetry they would die. (from "Why We Should Read Poetry," in Poetry and Poets, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930, pp. 1-9.)

Exemplary Amy Lowell Poem:


In the cloud gray mornings
I heard the herons Flying
And when I came into my garden,
My silken outer-garment
Trailed over withered leaves.
A dried leaf crumbles at a touch,
But I have seen many Autumns
With herons blowing like smoke
Across the sky.

Amy Lowell writing assignment:

Look out your window and write an imagist poem about what you see.

There are three basic tenets of writing an imagist poem as defined by F.S. Flint, a critic and early proponent of the movement. According to Flint, an imagist poem ought to demonstrate the following:

1. Direct treatment of the "thing", whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Thus Pound’s two-line wonder – which served as the small whisper before the great wind of modern poetry:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Although this famous imagist poems effectively illustrates these prescriptions and Pound’s proscriptions of imagism, a more sustained and beautiful use of these principles is found in Robert Frost’s “The Wood-pile.”

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