Amy Lowell, Diva Poet
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Amy Lowell, Diva Poet

Melissa Bradshaw

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eBook - ePub

Amy Lowell, Diva Poet

Melissa Bradshaw

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In her reassessment of Amy Lowell as a major figure in the modern American poetry movement, Melissa Bradshaw uses theories of the diva and female celebrity to account for Lowell's extraordinary literary influence in the early twentieth century and her equally extraordinary disappearance from American letters after her death. Recognizing Amy Lowell as a literary diva, Bradshaw shows, accounts for her commitment to her art, her extravagant self-promotion and self-presentation, and her fame, which was of a kind no longer associated with poets. It also explains the devaluation of Lowell's poetry and criticism, since a woman's diva status is always short-lived and the accomplishments of celebrity women are typically dismissed and trivialized. In restoring Lowell to her place within the American poetic renaissance of the nineteen-teens and twenties, Bradshaw also recovers a vibrant moment in popular culture when poetry enjoyed mainstream popularity, audiences packed poetry readings, and readers avidly followed the honors, exploits, and feuds of their favorite poets in the literary columns of daily newspapers. Drawing on a rich array of letters, memoirs, newspapers, and periodicals, but eschewing the biographical interpretations of her poetry that have often characterized criticism on Lowell, Bradshaw gives us an Amy Lowell who could not be further removed from the lonely victim of ill-health and obesity who appears in earlier book-length studies. Amy Lowell as diva poet takes her rightful place as a powerful writer of modernist verse who achieved her personal and professional goals without capitulating to heteronormative ideals of how a woman should act, think, or appear.

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Chapter 1
The Fat Woman in the Attic: Cultural Memory and the Construction of a Persona

You said, I think, ‘300 pounds and a charmer.’… Poor Amy, poor Amy. It is all very distressing and my Arm Chair has never been the same since she bounced with glee over some witticism. No upholsterer can do anything with it, the springs still do such funny things.
—Ezra Pound, writing to Alice Corbin Henderson
Amy Lowell was fat. She was also rich, headstrong, opinionated, self-promoting, cigar-smoking, and lesbian. But mostly, she was fat. These observations should seem out of place in a serious book about a literary figure. After all, what Lowell looked like should be less important than what she wrote, where it was published, its influence, and the place it occupies in modernist poetry. And yet her body and her personality find their way into much of what has been written about Lowell in a way that those of her thinner contemporaries do not. In fact, the scholar who attempts to research and write about Lowell must sift through an inordinate amount of demeaning and irrelevant commentary about her person in order to find information about her work. The result of this insistent emphasis on the body of a long-dead poet is the construction of an Amy Lowell who present-day readers understand primarily as a joke—an obnoxious woman who bought her way into a literary movement—rather than as an artist and critic who played a key role in developing and promoting a modernist poetics.
What do we really know about Amy Lowell? And how much of what we think we know is colored by homophobia and misogyny? Lowell herself left behind few clues as to how she felt about her size; obviously, we cannot understand the way she experienced her subjectivity, nor can we presume that hyper-scrutinized textual representations of her body offer insights into her lived embodiment. What we have access to is a culturally disseminated “body,” a multiply-rendered Amy Lowell whose dimensions can never be stable, can never, of course, be “objectively” presented. In this chapter I pull from the ubiquitous references to Lowell’s body and examine the “bodies” they collectively produce, and, unfailingly, pathologize.
The disruptive power of Lowell’s body is perhaps most clearly seen in the controversies surrounding her poetic depictions of the nude female body. The most notorious of these was her reading of her poem “Spring Day” at a crowded meeting of the Poetry Society of America, in March of 1915. In the poem’s first section she describes someone taking a bath:
The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air …. Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.1
Margaret Widdemer, present that evening, reports that “as the vivid picture continued there was a suppressed snicker which rose to a roomful of undisguised laughter.”2 As biographer Jean Gould tells the story, when Lowell finished reading there was an immense uproar, with people leaping to their feet and “roaring denunciations.” The event made the news the next day, and for years after this references to “Amy’s bathtub” surfaced in newspaper features about her. Gould attributes the audience’s response, in part, to this being Lowell’s first public reading: the society “probably expected her to be a sylphlike, frail, nerve-wracked, intense creature instead of the amazonian chieftain who rose majestically to read.… Perhaps because of her very bulk the effect of it was almost as shocking as if she had actually appeared in her bathtub in public.”3 According to Widdemer, “she was going too far in her implicit demand that her personality be forgotten. It was inexcusable; it was rude.”4 In other words, the audience could not listen to a poem about bathing and forget that a fat woman was reading it; they could not hear it as anything but autobiographical confession.
Perhaps in drawing attention to the corporeal reality of bodies—smooth skin in places that never see the light of day, feet that stir the water, body parts that stick up from the water—Lowell affronted squeamish listeners with reminders of their own embodiment. But more realistically, of course, her reading of this poem upset audience members because it drew attention to the corporeal reality of her own body. And, as the symbolic “smell of … narcissus in the air” suggests, her poetic persona, soaking leisurely in the tub, “play[ing] with the water and the sun spots,” is not ashamed of her nakedness. She is quite possibly enthralled by it. This is what the audience cannot forget; this is what brings on first snickers, then anger, for fat women do not get to love their bodies; they do not get to be narcissistic.

The Medicalization of Fat

From the early nineteenth century on, a cluster of cultural anxieties surround the corpulent female body. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Moon explain, with the rise of industrialism, the bourgeois body, particularly the corpulent female bourgeois body, came to symbolize an increasingly ambivalent response to economic accumulation and excess. “Visible on the one hand … as a disruptive embolism in the flow of economic circulation, the fat female body functions on the other hand more durably … as its very emblem.”5 In the years surrounding World War I, the shape of this emblematic body changed, while the economics of exploitive accumulation remained constant, and, in what Sedgwick terms an “extravagantly sublimatory semiotic reassignment,” the slender female body came to represent not poverty, as it had previously, but upper-class refinement and sophistication: “not her bodily opulence but her bodily meagerness comes to be the guarantee of the woman of substance” as “the fleshy female body is catastrophically declassed.”6 Eventually this body was not only declassed, but villanized. Hillel Schwartz connects the same World War I propaganda campaigns that placed reminders that “Food is sacred. To waste it is sinful,” and “Do Not Help the Hun at Meal Time” on railroad cars and inside telephone bills and gum wrappers, to an abrupt cultural targeting of the obese body as the ultimate in wastefulness.7 Whereas fat had previously connoted sloppiness, feebleness, even gluttony, it now took on a more sinister cast: to be overweight was to be selfish. One social commentator even suggested that “it may become a serious question as to whether a patriot should be permitted in times of stress to carry excess body-weight, for the expense of carrying it around calls for calories that other people need.”8
In Lowell’s lifetime, which straddles exactly 25 years in the nineteenth century and 25 years in the twentieth, this shifting perception of obesity is further complicated by a move in medical discourse during the nineteenth century from naturalizing inconsistencies to pathologizing them. Rosemarie Garland Thomson attributes this change to the anonymity imposed on bodies by a culture-wide movement away from farms and extended families into modern cities, a movement which:
saturated the entire social fabric, producing and reinforcing the concept of an unmarked, normative, leveled body as the dominant subject of democracy. … [T]he notion of progress and the ideology of improvement … implemented the ascendance of this new image of a malleable, regularized body whose attainment was both an individual and national obligation.9
As Marilyn Wann notes, the introduction of biomedical terms such as “obese” functioned as shorthand for cultural anxieties about fat, and authorized shaming nonnormative bodies by categorizing them as broken. Once fatness became a medical condition, fat people were seen as in need of curing.10
Schwartz explains that “obese” bodies were medically, and in turn, popularly, classified as either exogenous or endogenous. In cases of exogenous obesity, primarily afflicting males, the weight was said to be the result of over-eating, while the endogenous fat body, usually that of a woman, suffered from glandular malfunctions within as the body failed to properly assimilate any food and instead turned it into excess fat, even if she restricted her intake. These medical diagnoses, of course, are rooted in long-standing cultural connotations of men as active, women as passive. As fat lost its status as a marker of vigor, robustness, and happy prosperity, fat men lost their benign jolliness and became monsters or gluttons, literally, symbols of conspicuous consumption. Fat women, however, became patients, disfigured from within, hapless victims of inadequate metabolic systems. “Where fat men inspire or terrify, fat women draw the camphor of sympathy and disgust—sympathy because they cannot help themselves; disgust because they are sexually ambiguous, emotionally sloppy.”11 Further, while the fat man’s condition is fixable—he can diet, he can take exercise—the fat woman’s is irreparable and tragic.
Lowell’s body carries an entirely different set of cultural signifiers than her mother’s would have done a generation earlier. While her mother might have been described as plump, or bosomy, Lowell’s similar body, at just over five feet tall and weighing between 200 and 250 pounds, reads as monstrous, crippled by a glandular disorder. In the discourses that surround her, her frequently invoked body operates both as a text onto which cultural anxieties are projected, and as a site of resistance to these shifts in meaning, which, increasingly, signal the impossibility of “correctly” inhabiting a woman’s body.

Remembering a Rapacious Amy Lowell

The tendency towards invoking and describing Lowell’s body when she is spoken of first becomes apparent in memoirs and letters of her contemporaries. Many of these references are relatively innocuous, such as this quick dig from Edna St. Vincent Millay, in a 1920 letter to Jessie Rittenhouse: “I went out to Cincinnati in February and gave a lecture and reading from my own published and unpublished poems before the Ohio Valley Poetry Society. (Last year they had Amy [Lowell]; wherefore I deduce the system as being: one year a fat girl, next year a thin girl.)”12 But other references to Lowell’s size are less benign, as her corpulence functions as a metaphor for her personality, a way of displacing anxiety about Lowell’s outspokenness, ambition, even her vast wealth and the homoeroticism of her poetry onto her body. In the memoirs of Chicago Tribune literary editor Fanny Butcher, Lowell appears as “the grand panjandrum of free verse … so fat that she literally waddled.”13 Ford Madox Hueffer calls her “a monstrously fat, monstrously moneyed, disagreeably intelligent coward,” while according to Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams referred to her in frustration “as ‘that tub of guts.’”14 When her third hernia operation in as many years kept Lowell from writing to D.H. Lawrence for a few months, he explained her silence to his agent by supposing that she was busy “trying to keep afloat on the gas of her own importance: hard work, considering her bulk.”15
It has often, and incorrectly, been attributed to Pound, but it was the poet Witter Bynner who nicknam...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Amy Lowell, Diva Poet
APA 6 Citation
Bradshaw, M. (2016). Amy Lowell, Diva Poet (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Bradshaw, Melissa. (2016) 2016. Amy Lowell, Diva Poet. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Bradshaw, M. (2016) Amy Lowell, Diva Poet. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Bradshaw, Melissa. Amy Lowell, Diva Poet. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.