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"She was not only poetical but the cause of poetry in others," wrote Henry Seidel Canby, editor of The Saturday Review, after a cerebral hemorrhage killed Amy Lowell in 1925. "She, as well as her poetry, will take a place in American literature...a tribute few can expect."
Lowell won the Pulitzer Prize a year after she died, but soon her reputation was scuffed to the point that critic and editor Louis Untermeyer wrote: "While she lived, her vivacity invigorated [her poetry], her gusty personality gave it warmth and color. After her death the blood went out of it. Today most of the color seems artificial, the vigor simulated." Untermeyer had been one of her steadiest allies. His about-face marks the high-water point in a literary turning of the tide that swallowed Amy Lowell.
Growing up, Lowell enjoyed the advantages of wealth and influence; her family was among Boston's elite. Her brother, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, A.B. 1877, was Harvard's president from 1909 to 1933. A distant cousin, James Russell Lowell, A.B. 1838, remains a respected nineteenth-century poet; the poetry of her cousin Robert Lowell '39 is highly regarded today. As a girl, Lowell was interested in the arts and considered a stage career. But shows turned her away because she was overweight, so she took up poetry.
Lowell pursued the craft with dedication, patience, and close study, virtues facilitated by her wealth: she spent a decade honing her skills in private and studying nineteenth-century masters like Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson. Wealth also allowed her to fund the publication of her first volume of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, in 1912. Some critics respected the melodious quality of Lowell's verse, but most felt she relied too heavily on nineteenth-century tradition. Few criticisms could have been worse. That year marked a flashpoint for poetic innovation: Ezra Pound was formalizing Imagism; Harriet Monroe had founded the experimental journal Poetry; and vers libre, which deemphasized meter and rhyme in favor of cadence and rhythm, was gaining favor.
Crushed by the critical response, Lowell determined to earn a place in the avant-garde. She was drawn to the economy, precision, and power of Imagism and began experimenting with it. Before 1913 was out, she had visited Pound in London, and he had asked her to contribute to Des Imagistes, a landmark anthology.
In 1914 Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, Lowell's second volume of poetry, earned raves, but struck Pound as treating Imagist tenets too loosely. When Lowell began planning her own anthology, Pound was outraged; he believed her contributors' poetry lacked Imagism's hallmark intensity. He refused to contribute, and mockingly branded Lowell and her group "Amygists."
The anthology controversy shattered Lowell's increasingly tense alliance with Pound. Perhaps more telling, however, was the flurry of letters from her contributors, urging her to appease him. She stood firm, and they eventually agreed to do it her way, more out of spite for Pound than loyalty or respect for her.
Lowell eventually funded and edited three anthologies, in 1915, 1916, and 1917. They established her as a leading Imagist and a powerful patron for some of the day's most promising poets. But she had made a bitter enemy in Pound and would alienate T.S. Eliot '10 (who once called her a "demon saleswoman"). The two men would become towering figures of Modernism who could sometimes make or break writers, but they were not yet behemoths and Lowell's career blossomed despite them. Sleeping all day and writing all night, she produced, besides the anthologies, 10 volumes of poetry. Experiments with form earned her a reputation for innovation, and her critical essays kept her at the theoretical forefront of American poetry.
Still, sustaining her influence took determination. Lowell's temper and thin skin were legendary: she once feuded via Poetry magazine with citizens of South Carolina. Her poem "Magnolia Gardens" describes her disappointment at finding the blooms at a famous Charleston garden a "Hateful,/Reeking with sensuality,/Bestial, obscene" shade of magenta. After residents wrote letters challenging her perception, Lowell found another poem describing the flowers as magenta, convinced its author to submit it to Poetry with a letter defending "Magnolia Gardens," and persuaded the magazine's amused and incredulous editor to print the other poet's work.
Lowell's response may be artistically justified. Precise word choice was a requirement of Imagism, so the magenta dispute touched a poetic nerve. But in the broader context of her career and personality, the dispute is telling. The Charleston letters were written not by literary critics attacking her Imagism, but by proud Southerners angry that a Yankee had dishonored their magnolias. If Lowell had chosen her battles more carefully, the literary vanguard might not have abandoned her so quickly. Then again, she might also never have been as influential.
In an introduction to The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell, Louis Untermeyer wrote, perhaps with a tinge of remorse, that "succeeding generations have a habit of reversing contemporary estimates and it is...likely that she will be enthusiastically rediscovered." That has not happened yet.
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