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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Amy Lowell?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Amy Lowell, a well-known Lesbian poet of the early 20th century, situated herself within a tradition of women extending back to Sappho. "We're a queer lot, we women who write poetry," she opined in "The Sisters" (1925). "And when you think how few of us there've been, it's queerer still."

Lowell was born on February 9, 1874, to a prominent New England family. Much younger than her four siblings, she was raised in the company of literary adults at Sevenels, a 10-acre estate outside Boston. Lowell was tutored at home until the age of 9, then attended private schools. At age 17, she left school to care for her elderly parents and had a traditional society debut. After a suitor changed his mind about a marriage proposal, a disappointed Lowell traveled to Egypt, where she tried a drastic weight-loss regimen that nearly killed her.

Since a university education was not considered proper for a young woman of her social standing, Lowell embarked upon a program of independent study, aided by her family's library of several thousand books. After her parents' deaths, she acquired Sevenels and lived the life of a socialite - entertaining, frequenting the theater, breeding English sheepdogs, and supporting civic causes.

In her late 20s, inspired by a performance by stage actress Eleonora Duse, Lowell began writing poetry, but her work did not see publication for another decade. Her first poem appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1910; two years later, Houghton Mifflin published her first poetry collection, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, but the work received little notice. In 1913, after admiring some poems by "H.D." in a literary magazine, Lowell traveled to London to meet the writers involved in the Imagist movement, including Ezra Pound and H.D. herself - the American-born Bisexual poet Hilda Doolittle.

Returning to the United States, Lowell became a champion of Imagism, a style characterized by free-form verse and clear, descriptive language. She edited three anthologies of work in the genre and provided financial support to budding poets. Though Pound had included one of her poems in his seminal anthology, Des Imagistes (1914), he grew resentful as Lowell displaced him as leader of the movement, disparaging her as the "hippopoetess" and her proteges as "Amygists."

Lowell's second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), garnered instant acclaim. Making up for her late start as a writer, she thereafter published an average of one book per year, despite chronic health problems brought on by her obesity and a hernia she sustained while trying to pull a buggy out of a ditch. In addition to more than 600 poems, Lowell also penned biographies, literary criticism, and essays. Drawing upon her wealth and social connections, she encouraged public interest in contemporary poetry through speaking tours, leading T.S. Eliot to dub her the "demon saleswoman of poetry."

Lowell's poems often included images of water, gardens, and the natural beauty of New England, but her most consistent theme was her love for women, particularly her two muses, Eleonora Duse and Ada Dwyer Russell. Although Lowell had a long-running infatuation with Duse, the two women met only a couple of times and did not have a close relationship. Russell, a widowed actress 11 years Lowell's senior, lived with Lowell in a "Boston marriage" for more than a decade. Unlike the passionate sonnets Lowell addressed to Duse, her love poems to Russell reflected a mellow, time-tempered intimacy, as in "A Decade" (1919):

When you came, you were like red wine
and honey,
And the taste of you burnt my mouth with
its sweetness.
Now you are like morning bread,
Smooth and pleasant.

At 5 feet tall and 250 pounds, Lowell cut an imposing figure, clad in mannish attire, sporting a pompadour, and smoking cigars. Because Lowell was an outspoken woman with shrewd business sense, some of her contemporaries accused her of being presumptuous and substituting wealth for a lack of talent. But rather than critiquing her work, they often mocked her appearance and personal life.

Although some male critics have characterized Lowell as a sexless and frustrated old maid, feminist scholars have emphasized the Lesbian eroticism in her work. "If Lowell is hiding anything in her poetry, she is hiding it in plain sight," wrote Melissa Bradshaw, referring to poems such as "The Weather-Cock Points South" (1919):

I put your leaves aside,
One by one:
The stiff, broad outer leaves;
The smaller ones,
Pleasant to touch, veined with purple...

Despite worsening health problems in her 40s, Lowell continued to travel and lecture. After suffering a severe hernia attack, she died of a brain hemorrhage in May 1925. Her final book of poetry, What's O'Clock, was published posthumously and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1926.

"She was upon the surface of things a Lowell, a New Englander and a spinster," wrote Heywood Broun in his obituary for the poet. "But inside everything was molten like the core of the earth....Given one more gram of emotion, Amy Lowell would have burst into flame and been consumed to cinders."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.

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