Hidden in Plain Sight

Amy Lowell: Diva Poet

Melissa Bradshaw

Burlington, US, and Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2011, 177 pp., hardcover, $99.95

Reviewed by Donna K. Hollenberg

Recently it struck me that I was one of the many who had read Amy Lowell only in anthologies, and that further investigation was needed.  So I am extremely grateful to Melissa Bradshaw for this carefully researched, subtly reasoned reassessment of Lowell’s poetry, offered in the context of theories of the diva that help to explain why this poet, widely celebrated by audiences in her day, has not received her just due in the literary canon. Most important for any book of literary criticism, Bradshaw has provided useful strategies for further interpretation.

In her introduction, Bradshaw argues eloquently that

while Lowell masterfully exploited her notoriety as a woman poet who refused to be conventionally beautiful, or humble, or heterosexually feminine in order to make a career for herself as the leading poetic impresario of her era, the persona she created also served as the single most effective weapon her critics used to destroy her artistic reputation in the years following her death.

What was lost, she continues, was not only an understanding and appreciation of Lowell’s art, but also “the memory of a vibrant moment in American popular culture when poetry enjoyed mainstream popularity, audiences packed poetry readings, and readers followed the honors, exploits, and feuds of their favorite poets in the literary columns of daily newspapers.” In the following five chapters, Bradshaw refutes earlier negative impressions of the poet prevalent in cultural memory, builds on more recent feminist readings of her work, and offers a new analysis of key poems based on an “erotics of submission” specific to the actress Eleonora Duse, who was Lowell’s lifelong inspiration. In an afterword about Lowell’s legacy, Bradshaw demonstrates that Lowell’s most famous poem, “Patterns,” has a continuing life on YouTube.

In her first chapter, “Cultural Memory and the Construction of a Persona,” Bradshaw details the ways in which Lowell’s work was marginalized during her lifetime by repeated references to her body, her wealth, and her overbearing personality, by male peers such as Ford Maddox Hueffer, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Witter Bynner (whose nickname for Lowell, “the Hippopoetess,” stuck). She became a target for such socially condoned hatreds as “sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and a rapidly escalating intolerance of fat bodies,” says Bradshaw. She demonstrates that this tendency to read Lowell as the victim of her body is indulged in by her biographers as well. Whether writing in the 1920s or the 1980s, they characterize her, as S. Foster Damon does, as the tragic victim of a medical profession that did not understand “glandular disorder” or, as C. David Heymann does—thinly masking his hostility—as a woman whose “egotism, though infinitely elastic, was a fragile skin enclosing a giant inferiority complex.” Her biographers thus “emotionally freeze” Lowell in her early twenties, says Bradshaw, and fail to consider adequately the “mature, strong-minded” adult woman who, though still fat, launched a successful and prolific career. They regard her painful adolescence as “the beginning of a lifetime of misery and loneliness, rather than reading it as part of a difficult but necessary process of becoming a homosexual adult in a heteronormative culture,” denying Lowell any agency and failing to compel us to reread her.

Bradshaw attempts to rectify this inadequate view of Lowell by placing her in the vibrant American poetry scene in the first decades of the twentieth century. She explores the ways in which Lowell “marketed herself and her poetry, including capitalizing on popular nativist ideologies of an emergent, hybridized American race.” In this, she differed with her influential expatriate contemporaries in the New Poetry Movement such as Ezra Pound, who labeled her the “demon saleswoman.” Pound and others, including T.S. Eliot and H.D., disdained American “popular taste” and created a high modernist, internationally oriented poetic canon, attractive to the academic elite. Lowell, in contrast, received coaching from her devoted companion, the actress Ada Dwyer Russell, on how to integrate “stage techniques into her readings...to manipulate her tempo, tone, and volume,” to add “hand and facial gestures for emphasis,” stamp her foot in time to the rhythm, and even, on occasion, do the cakewalk. The props she used—“the reading lamp, the eyeglasses, the infamous cigars”—as much as the “witty repartee and the intensity of her dramatic readings, endowed Lowell’s public performances with an aura of spectacle,” at the same time that they weakened her stature among intellectuals.  Further, she actively participated in the “poetry wars” of the nineteen-teens in her public lectures, regarding controversy as good publicity. As Bradshaw points out, the furor over Lowell’s lectures and poetry was part of “a defining cultural moment,” when establishing a “distinctly American poetry” was part of a “racialized national discourse about expanding notions of whiteness and about who counts as American.”

Lowell underwent a shift in persona in 1916, when she began to use “posture and costume to court a traditionalist audience for her avant-garde poetics,” writes Bradshaw. That is, Lowell deliberately chose to “construct a conservative public persona” in order not to offend her audience during an “anti-progressive, nativist” period in American history. In an analysis of the “gendered politics” of Lowell’s third volume of poems, Men, Women, and Ghosts (1916), Bradshaw explains that here Lowell “explores the loneliness and isolation of culturally appropriate femininity, particularly in times of war.” The “gender normativity these wartime texts produce is a crucial component” of Bradshaw’s reading of Lowell as a diva. The poet, she says, used her dramatic success “to maintain, more than challenge, the hegemonic power she critiques,” seeking inclusion for herself “as a woman of a certain race and class, within the limited terms of an established order.” On one hand, Lowell cannily used her position as a wealthy, social insider to remain visible on the poetry scene at this sensitive time. On the other, she also made use of gothic conventions, particularly as developed by female novelists such as Ann Radcliffe, in which inequalities are intensified to nightmarish proportions, “to dramatize the plight of her female speakers,” says Bradshaw. She documents her claim by turning to “Pickthorne Manor,” and “The Cremona Violin,” which she suggests reading as “feminist camp”: parodies of “the values and forms of the dominant culture.”  Later, Lowell  used this shrewd understanding of her audience in her love poems to Ada Russell Dwyer.

Bradshaw goes on to read Lowell’s “Patterns” in the context of the group from which it comes, “Figurines in Old Saxe.” These poems, set in the early eighteenth century, have been dismissed by earlier critics as “anachronistic historical melodramas about... seething passion and even murderous rage.” However, Bradshaw argues that the “figurines” are not intended to be realistic, nor should they be understood as mere decoration. Though set against the backdrop of war, the narratives foreground domesticity and are “meditations on gender and agency. They suggest that Lowell experienced a certain level of disenfranchisement from the very citizenship she elsewhere work[ed] so hard to define and defend,” Bradshaw explains.

When Bradshaw turns from defending Lowell against her many detractors and placing her in her cultural milieu, to new readings of her poetry, she is at her best. My one criticism of her excellent book is that I wish she had done more of this. Much of Lowell’s oeuvre is not addressed here; there is nothing about her polyphonic prose, for example. (The word “polyphonic” itself suggests diva propensities.) Thankfully, Bradshaw does present new readings of Lowell’s love poems, drawn from the collections A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass (1912); Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds (1914); Pictures of the Floating World (1919); What’s O’Clock (1925); and Ballads for Sale (1937). Here Bradshaw builds on earlier lesbian feminist interpretations of Lowell. However, she believes that in reading Lowell’s love poems—her flower poems, for example—as “subversively encoded lesbian love poetry,” we miss “what is most important about them: straightforwardly sensual, romantic, and accessible, these poems do not seem to be hiding anything.” Indeed, she says, if Lowell “is hiding anything in her love poetry, she is hiding it in plain sight, in a sort of dazzle camouflage.”

In “A Bather (After a Picture by Andreas Zorn),” for example, with its exaggerated description of whiteness, Lowell displays “a frustration with the facile linkage of whiteness and purity, femininity and virtue, femaleness and naturalness. At the same time, the sensuously rendered body reaffirms these values,” Bradshaw writes. Lowell, she says, deliberately blurs the distinction “between artistic renditions of ‘real’ women and artistic renderings of marble statues of women,” keeping her representation of “idealized femininity purposely superficial,” and thus “refusing the binary logic that values realism over imagination, the substantive over the decorative.”

Bradshaw applies similarly subtle reasoning to Lowell’s poems to her beloved, Ada Dwyer Russell, showing that Lowell’s love lyrics “perform a poetics of desire that may include, but is not limited to, the specifics of their relationship.” She also addresses the charged subjects of “sexual aggression” in Lowell’s language of flowers, and the connections between “courtly love” and “the poetics of masochism,” using as examples “The Weather-Vane Points South” and “Dipsa.” Indeed, I found particularly stimulating Bradshaw’s assertion that the “conflation of sexual communion and Holy Communion” (implied in the latter poem) is a staple of Lowell’s love poetry. Having been engaged by Lowell myself, I was convinced by Bradshaw’s assertion that Lowell’s love lyrics “hide nothing, nor ultimately do they reveal anything other than the knowledge and desire the reader brings to the text.”

Bradshaw’s final chapter, “The Erotics of Submission: Eleonora Duse in Lowell’s Poetry,” is her tour de force. She traces the influence of the famous Italian actress upon Lowell from the beginning of her writing career to the sonnet sequence Lowell placed at the end of What’s O’Clock (1925), a book completed just before her death and posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  While demonstrating Duse’s influence, Bradshaw describes Duse’s “self-effacing” acting methods, comparing them with her rival, Sarah Bernhardt’s, more “explosive” style. Ironically, Duse’s method, “while dissimilar to Lowell’s public persona, closely resembles the poetic style of [Lowell’s] imagist lyrics”—in particular, the “dazzle camouflage” mentioned earlier.  Duse’s ability to abnegate herself in the process of expressing the feelings of her characters inspired Lowell and shaped her mature selfhood. As Bradshaw eloquently states,

In the quiet intensity of Duse’s acting, at once personal and impersonal, Lowell found ... an aesthetic work risking censure for, one based on a thinking kind of feeling. Duse modeled an emotional style predicated on a belief that the hallmarks of her culture’s idealized femininity—vulnerability, resignation, self-sacrifice—do not necessarily equal passivity, and need not be private.

Lowell located Duse’s artistic power in the force with which she compelled audiences to tap into their own feelings about the women she played, to “feel dangerous emotions, abandon moral absolutes, dare violent thoughts, [and] experience shattering loss and grief,” writes Bradshaw. We see this in Lowell when, in conjuring “the unseen Beloved of her love lyrics,” she allows the Beloved to “overwhelm” the narrator, “bringing her to her knees in poem after poem.” Further, inspired by Duse, Lowell “unself-consciously occupies the masculine subject position of lover in thrall to vulnerable femininity” in what some have called “‘lesbian chivalry,’” Bradshaw explains. She regards this “position of noble supplicant as the voice of the love lyrics” in Lowell’s final sonnet sequence to Duse—a fresh reading that gives new meaning to Lowell’s choice of that form’s traditional armature.  Instead of a male poet on bended knee to his female muse, Lowell offers us a woman poet enraptured by her female lover. Bradshaw concludes this chapter with the observation that Duse, the ultimate diva, offered Lowell an understanding of herself different from  the “sexually frustrated, spinster daughter of an old, upper-class family. She offer[ed] her an identity as a woman moved by womanhood,” and thus helped her “to understand her lesbianism as an aesthetic and artistic identity.” Bradshaw also argues convincingly that, at the end of her life, Lowell experienced her encounter with the diva as “transformative,” “a blessing.” In the light of Bradshaw’s compelling reassessment, further interpretation is up to us.


Donna Krolik Hollenberg, professor of English at the University of Connecticut, has published three books about the poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), as well as many essays about other twentieth-century poets. Her biography, A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov is forthcoming. She is currently editing a collection of essays, Denise Levertov in Company.


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