Amy Lowell: Selected Poems

Lesbian and American royalty

Honor Moore: "It was a time when that was an accepted reality that Lowells speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God."
  • Honor Moore: "It was a time when that was an accepted reality that Lowells speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God."


A cigar-smoking proponent of free-verse modernism in open rebellion against her distinguished Boston lineage, Amy Lowell (1874-1925) cut an indelible public figure. But in the words of editor Honor Moore, "What strikes the modern reader is not the sophistication of Lowell's feminist or antiwar stances, but the bald audacity of her eroticism."

Lowell was at the center of a group of pioneering modernists who, in an era convulsed by change, rejected musty Victorian standards and wrote poems of bracing immediacy. This new selection captures her full formal range: the "cadenced" verse of her Imagist masterpieces, her experiments in "polyphonic prose," her narrative poetry, and her adaptations from classic Chinese. It gives a fresh sense of the passion and energy of her work.

"Hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite," these were the qualities that Amy Lowell sought in the Imagist poems that made her one of the most famous American poets of her time. Uncompromising in their sensuality and passionate directness, her love poems remain exhilarating and inspiring. Honor Moore's new selection and introduction reaffirm Lowell's unique contribution to the flowering of American modernism.


Born in New York City in 1945, Honor Moore is the oldest of nine children of an Episcopal bishop, the late Paul Moore, and his wife Jenny McKean Moore. Moore grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated from Harvard University in 1967. She has taught at various colleges and universities. She is author of the much-celebrated

The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter and three volumes of poetry. Ms. Moore lives in New York City and teaches in the MFA programs at the New School and Columbia University. At her father's funeral in 2003, Ms. Moore said, "My father never stopped believing...in the power of the human imagination to change what is into what it might become."


Ms. Moore, who speaks in confident low tones, talked with me one afternoon from her apartment in Manhattan. I had looked forward to our conversation. I had enjoyed Ms. Moore's The White Blackbird, and since childhood I often had turned to the few Amy Lowell poems that have been anthologized.

I asked Ms. Moore how she happened to take on the Lowell project.

"I'd read maybe two poems when I was approached to do this. I was approached to do it because of The White Blackbird. I was happy to do it because I wanted to go back to the Boston of my imagination."

The poems themselves, when Ms. Moore began to read them all, amazed her. "I became more and more enthralled. As I write in the introduction, it became clear to me that the poems that were anthologized were the less strong poems; they were the public poems.

"Anthologists are so overwhelmed when they get to work that they usually don't bother to go back to the original texts. So, usually, when it's a 'minor' poet, an anthologist is apt simply to reanthologize poems that have already appeared in other anthologies. They might care about presenting a different Wallace Stevens, but they don't necessarily care about presenting a different Amy Lowell."

"Or they don't care about her at all, the poor creature."

"Yes, and she got such an incredibly bad rap from Pound and then Hugh Kenner enacted Pound's attitude toward her. She was just dead in the water.

"I've had amazing experiences since I started working on this, saying to people 'Amy Lowell,' and they say, 'Oh, I love Amy Lowell.' Or, 'When I was young, I always read Amy Lowell,' or 'Amy Lowell first introduced me to the French poets.' She's a secret love of people's. They're embarrassed to say so, because the canon has taught us to be leery of Amy Lowell."

Amy Lowell lived the majority of her life as an "out" lesbian. Beginning in 1909, Lowell shared her Boston mansion with Ada Dwyer Russell, a character actress 11 years Lowell's senior. They had what then was called "a Boston marriage."

I asked Ms. Moore to explain, for younger readers, the term "Boston marriage."

"Two women living together, either as lesbian lovers or simply as companions. That's the spectrum. Since nobody in Boston ever talks about sex, you never knew what was going on, but it's certainly one of the most powerful things about Amy Lowell's work, that she's out. Extraordinary.

"The first collection after she begins to live with Ada, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed [1914], has many erotic poems in it. Later on, in Pictures Of The Floating World [1919], a section of the book -- 'Planes of Personality' -- is dedicated to Ada. Everybody knows what's happening. And it's very courageous.

"Given that Lowell was well-to-do, you could say that she had the privilege to be that courageous, but it didn't help her. It didn't. I'm sure that the homophobia was a subtext that nobody, nobody, would bring up."

I mentioned Henry James's novel The Bostonians (1885), which satirizes feminism and female same-sex relationships. "It's a pretty nasty story."

Ms. Moore agreed -- the James's novel was not particularly kind to its female characters.

I asked, "How did you go about making the choices of the Lowell poems?"

"First of all, I read the entire complete poems, which is about 550 pages, double-columned. I got them Xeroxed; the type was quite small, so I got it Xeroxed larger. Then I read and read and read."

"Were you surprised by what you found?"

"I was more and more intrigued. The more I read, the deeper I got into it. Then I made an initial selection, and then I was told that there were a particular number of pages that one was allotted. I'd made certain decisions. I'd decided not to excerpt anything. I decided that if people were enthralled, they could go find those longer prose pieces. I decided that since it was a book for a general audience, I would stick with the poems that were enthralling. My job wasn't to represent anything but her most enthralling work. There's a lot of it. I included her Chinese poetry translations because I decided that the Chinese poetry had a great influence on her."

"Wasn't Chinese poetry important to many poets in Lowell's day?"

"Yes, it was, and I was interested that she had her version of The River Merchant's Wife (see page 95, the poem "Ch'ang Kan"), and I was also infuriated because there is an anthology, which I admire, called The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, I think, and the introduction just dismisses Amy Lowell. So I wanted to represent her in that way also."

"It's amazing to note how many women poets now are published, as opposed to even 30, 40 years ago."

"I know. It's extraordinary. It's extraordinary. It was very different from when I was starting out, believe me."

"When you and I were young girls, poets who were women were poetesses."

"Right. Absolutely."

Amy Lowell was significantly overweight. In her younger years. After a young man broke off their engagement (in 1897 when Lowell was 23), Lowell resolved to lose weight. Ms. Moore writes: "She resolved to make herself marriageable, taking a three-month cruise up the Nile with two friends, a chaperone, and a maid. The aim was weight loss; the method, Egyptian heat and Dr. Willard Banting's fashionable diet of asparagus and tomatoes."

Ms. Moore said, about the diet, "Isn't that awful? One of my grandmothers, my Moore grandmother, used always to say when she was on a diet, 'I'm Banting.' For years I couldn't find the source of that. I looked it up on the Internet and found that it was Willard Banting. And then five months later, I'm into the Amy Lowell, and suddenly there it is again."

"What do you think that Ezra Pound made of Lowell?"

"Well, from what I can gather, he liked her at first, and even included her in his first anthology, but when she became powerful, he became threatened. And I think what else went on with Amy Lowell was a lot of class hostility.

"She was American royalty, and she knew it. It was a time when that was an accepted reality in the culture in a way it isn't now, that Lowells speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God, etc.

"What's poignant about this family is they did produce three genuine thinkers -- Percival and Abbott and Amy. They were all incredibly accomplished people as was the father. These were not layabouts; these were very powerful people who had inherited places in the Athens of America."

In many Lowell poems that Ms. Moore has chosen, the time of the poem is night. (See page 95.)

"Yes, isn't that interesting? I think she did most of her writing at night because that's when she could be private. She could just be the poet, alone with her work. And during the day there was a lot going on. In these poems written at night she's talking about the night air and the sound of the animals."

Ms. Moore went on to say, "She's so wonderful with various kinds of light and shades of darkness. And her poems are so openhearted. I found that stunning about them. They were just so kind of open."

"I don't know what you mean by 'open.'"

"I just mean 'raw.' The emotions are very raw. She doesn't hang back saying that she's in love and who she's in love with and so on."

"Did you notice when you were doing this how many times she uses the word 'jade?'"

"I did. Probably she had jade. In that kind of Boston house, there would have been a lot of jade. Jade was one of the stones around. Little jade figurines that her brother brought back from the Orient. Beads and rings and carved jade faces."

"She must have kept many pieces of jade and jade objets d'art in her writing room."

"I'll bet she did too. Well, the room was enormous. She had knocked down a wall between two rooms so it ran the depth of the house. It was huge. A huge room."

Ms. Moore added, "I'm really so happy to have the opportunity to bring her back. I found her great company. She is also a great subject, in the way that Margarett, my grandmother, was a great subject. I really enjoyed her."

"Did you read poetry as a child?"

"Well, there's a baby picture of me holding A Child's Garden of Verses. But I think that my earliest exposure was because my father was a clergyman, and I went to church all the time. So, I grew up on the King James version."

"What was Robert Lowell's familial relationship to Amy?"

"A distant cousin. It's probably in Frank Bidart's Lowell book somewhere or in the Ian Hamilton biography what the exact relationship was. I think that it's something like her parents and his grandparents were second or third cousins, but I don't know exactly. I did once.

"Beautiful poems. Beautiful poems that you can understand. Beautiful poems that speak directly to the reader. Poems like 'The Pike,' 'The Blue Scarf,' and beautiful love poems."

"They're very American."

"Very American, yes. That's interesting. They have all this European interest, but she was very much an American girl. She was from a family that had been in this country for a long time; this country really was her country. They partake of the sense of an unspoiled environment. You get a sense of nighttime that is just thick with life. And of gardens which are abundant with beauty, and flowers and trees that are generous and intense. You get a sense of a kind of environment that we don't see much anymore."

"I think people forget how even during her lifetime, which was certainly much later than that of someone like Hawthorne or Melville, we were still making what became an American literature."

"Exactly. She was very self-conscious about that. She wanted to make an American poetic idiom that did not owe anything -- she wanted to escape from the formal strictures of English poetry."

"I hadn't realized," I said, "that Lowell had written about Keats."

"Yeah. He was her guy. I keep thinking that she does owe something to Keats."

"Again, as with Lowell, it's that vernal quality."


Amy Lowell: Selected Poems. Edited and Selected and with an Introduction by Honor Moore Library of America, 2004; 156 pages; $20.

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