Melissa Bradshaw: On Amy Lowell

In an otherwise favorable review of Louis Untermeyer’s 1919 book, The New Era in American Poetry, Alice Corbin Henderson scoffs at the critic’s unqualified enthusiasm for Amy Lowell’s poetry. She cannot believe that in his praise of her he doesn’t see

the spiritual poverty, the manufactured stage-passion, the continuous external glitter with no depth beneath, the monotony of style, the free-verse bombast, the lack of real humor, or the endless emphasis on form external to that true form which develops from within. (166)

Henderson’s brief evaluation of Lowell’s work neatly encapsulates the most frequently heard criticisms of her poetry: excessively opulent details, an over-use of color, repetitive imagery, and finally, the charge that these affectations serve to hide the poems’ inherent shallowness, their lack of "real" depth. Literary critic Theodore Maynard, for example, laments that Lowell "has to rely upon brilliance instead of upon life. . . . when she allows herself to be natural for a moment she is obliged to camouflage, as, in her pretty pieces about flowers and trees, the triteness of her theme" (216; qtd. in Wood 51). Biographer C. David Heymann characterizes her poetry as purposefully overdone in order to compensate for the emptiness of her life, while D. H. Lawrence calls her poetry "pure sensation without concepts" (his emphasis, qtd. in Gregory 212). One reviewer notes that while Lowell’s "virtues are her own, . . . her faults are the faults of Swinburne; namely a prodigality of poetic energy which is not richness but confusion" (Jones). According to Alfred Kreymbourg, "a lover of color and sound responds to the countless images and rhythms. But they are mostly patterns, undulating lines tastefully arranged, perfect surfaces and movements. . . . Something is always missing. . . .the human heart" (356). Even Lowell’s supposed champion, Louis Untermeyer, having spent an entire chapter of his autobiography describing Lowell’s energy and boldness, closes by noting that the poetry he once described as "flash[ing], leap[ing], spin[ning] burn[ing] with an almost savage intensity" seems "suddenly lifeless" after her death, "the color . . .superficially applied, the warmth simulated" (American Poetry Since 1900 152, From Another World 123).

This charge of paying attention only to surfaces, of an excess of detail belying a paucity of content puts Lowell in good company: it resembles criticisms leveled at the Pre-Raphaelites, who Robert Buchanan’s "The Fleshly School of Poetry" famously charges "aver that poetic expression is greater than poetic thought, and by inference that the body is greater than the soul, and sound superior to sense" (335), at Victor Hugo, who Baudelaire calls "a composer of decadence," "a workman more ingenious than inventive, a craftsman more industrious and correct than creative,"(qtd. in Calinescu 165) and, of course, at Oscar Wilde, who Lowell herself describes as "weakly audacious [and] artistically insincere" (qtd. in Damon 343). Like these poets, Lowell is perceived as lacking the integrity and talent that mark a "true" poet; obsessed with sensory details to the detriment of content, competent only in miming poetic forms, Lowell deserves to be forgotten.

Recently, however, in an attempt to reclaim Lowell primarily as a lesbian poet, feminist critics such as Lillian Faderman and Judy Grahn have argued that, far from being shallow and superficial, her love poems are, in fact, deeply self-revelatory, so much so that Lowell had to disguise their content in order to make them appropriate for the general public. These critics argue for a rereading of Lowell’s lyrics as subversively-encoded lesbian love poetry, claiming that such things as the ambiguously-gendered narrative voice, and the use of elaborate flower symbolism, serve to hide the poems’ true, homoerotic subtext. Faderman, for example, claims that "Lowell avoided the personal because of the taboos of her day which surrounded the subject matter that was most personal to her: lesbian love, and which forced her to disguise her theme—even though it was awkward and absurd" (399). She argues that, "these poems reflect lesbian life in a way that could not be depicted in the post-World War I years unless it were somehow disguised" (394).

The discourse of camp provides a critical framework for reading Lowell’s poetry that accounts for both accusations of an untenable superficiality and claims of subversively hidden homoeroticism. To begin with, camp resists the subjective depth-model of identity that Faderman’s argument is premised on. It is quite a stretch to read Lowell’s exuberant, gushing love poems as subversively encoded. Indeed, these lyrics do not seem to be hiding anything. With the exception of one or two poems in Pictures of the Floating World, Lowell rarely uses any pronouns in her love poetry, masculine or feminine. The "awkward and absurd" instance Faderman refers to is Lowell’s use of the pronoun ‘Sir’ in Pictures of the Floating World’s "Preparation," the only poem, in a series of forty-two, in which the speaker is specifically gendered, although details in several of the poems suggest that both the speaker and the beloved are women, as Faderman herself notes. Lowell’s chosen form, the lyric, is hardly subversive: not only is it the standard genre of love poetry, in terms of American poetry, it is a genre dominated by popular nineteenth century female poets such as Lizette Woodworth Reese, Frances Sargent Lock Osgood, and Louise Imogen Guiney. Further, she uses settings—moon-lit flower gardens, the beloved’s bedroom at dawn—and symbols—passion as a flame, love as an ambrosial wine, the beloved as a flower—typical of love poetry. Mary E. Galvin notes that "if anything, it seems Lowell wants to be sure the reader gets the sexual connotations of [her poems] by using . . . already heavily connotated words" (30). As Lowell wryly admits in "Fact," "similes like these are stock in trade with all poets" (58).

If Lowell is hiding anything in her poetry, she is hiding it in plain sight. This is not a disguise as readings of Lowell as imminently subversive would have it—a deceptive exterior concealing a true, real interior. Nor is it a flashiness of style calculated to mask the poetry’s innate vacuousness. These criticisms, which polarize Lowell’s work as either deep or shallow miss the point. This is a camp disguise: a strategic emphasis on style, a privileging of appearances that disavows the binary logic of interior/exterior, depth/surface, real/unreal, decorative/substantive by putting everything on the surface in flamboyant, extravagant gestures, creating a dazzling, textured, mutating surface. "I do not believe that it is what one says in a poem that matters," Lowell writes to fellow Imagist Richard Aldington, "it is the kind of light that plays over it" (qtd in Damon 449). This is a camp aesthetic, defying the notion of Truth by resisting "depth," insisting on surfaces, delighting in "superficialities."

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Criticism Overview
Title Melissa Bradshaw: On Amy Lowell Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Melissa Bradshaw Criticism Target Amy Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Jan 2019
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Modernizing Excess: Amy Lowell and the Aesthetics of Camp
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