Amy Lowell: “The Garden by Moonlight”
When I first began reading the modernists, Amy Lowell had already become little more than a footnote to the work of Ezra Pound. His insistence that she had ruined his early movement, imagism, seemed entirely justified by that one Amy Lowell poem that was repeatedly anthologized, the awful “Patterns.” But when I read her transgressively erotic poem “Venus Transiens” in the newly published Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, I began to suspect that Pound had been wrong. It seemed plausible to me, knowing what I knew of E. P. by then, that he was perhaps jealous of Lowell’s work and Lowell’s seemingly larger audience. Perhaps his dismissal had more to do with ego than with craft.
Indeed, as I read more and more of Amy Lowell’s brand of imagism, I began to see that in fact she was an artful practitioner of modernist tendencies, drawing upon the same deft strokes in Chinese and Japanese poetries that Pound had mined. Moreover, Lowell was creating an eroticized world in which her relationship with Ada Russell was central, pushing the boundaries of gender, sexuality, and social mores. Whereas Stein employed code words for her lesbianism in writing about her relationship with Alice Toklas, Lowell was drawing upon the natural world—in the way that Whitman had done in his homoerotic “Calamus” poems—to write lyrical, openly sexual love poems to Russell.
Oddly, Pound’s dismissal of Lowell has remained canonical, without anyone really challenging the heterosexism and misogyny that might have been behind it. Too bad, because I think contemporary readers would find great pleasure in Lowell’s work, particularly the later poems. This is why I’ve chosen “The Garden by Moonlight” from Lowell’s oeuvre, to showcase her deft use of image and the freshness of tone and diction that shape her work. In this poem, the feminine eros is invoked through the topoi of cat, moonlight, folded poppies, ladies’ delight . . . the garden is a metonym of the female body, reminiscent at times of The Song of Songs. The yonic energy of the poem culminates in orgasm, described as the sparks of fireflies. And in a moment deeply contemporary, the poet turns at the end to the subject of childlessness, just as the language itself changes from dense, rich texture to a kind of barren tone.
Robert Lowell, writing to Elizabeth Bishop in the 1950s, reports a conversation with Robert Frost, in which the latter Robert said of the former Robert’s distant cousin, “somebody really ought to unbury Amy.” Since the time I first proposed to include Amy in Dark Horses, a new Selected Poems of Amy Lowell has appeared, lovingly edited by Melissa Bradshaw and Adrienne Munich. Munich writes that Lowell’s “brand of imagism swept away self-consciously poetic diction in favor of a clean, unadorned, musical line.” And now Honor Moore has produced a graceful Selected Poems of Lowell for the American Poets Project. In the end, Amy Lowell did indeed fulfill Pound’s vision, whether Pound approved of it or not. And Lowell has finally made it into that most hallowed of texts, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry in English.
Perhaps this is but the beginning of a resurgence of interest in Lowell, as we’ve had with Mina Loy and Lorine Niedecker. I hope that more of Lowell’s “brand of imagism” will surface, and that the poems will be taught alongside those of her male counterparts. I find in Lowell a grace and daring beyond measure. The pared-down rhythms and the rich imagery of her work are exquisite.
D.A. Powell on Amy Lowell’s “The Garden by Moonlight” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.
Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...