Sunday, February 9, 2014

I would like to be a man

Amy Lowell, a colourful and influential personality in American poetry during the first quarter of the 20th century, was born 140 years ago today. Apart from writing her own poetry, she also promoted contemporary and historical poets; and she authored the introduction to an anthology of very early Japanese diaries translated into English. She did not, it seems, keep a diary herself apart from during a few years when still a teenager. These diaries have been used by biographers to show a marked youthful preference for friendship with, and love of, other girls.

Lowell was born on 9 February 1874 into a wealthy and prominent Brookline (Massachusetts) family. She was educated at home and at private schools, travelling widely with her family, but she never attended college. She had two brothers who went on to achieve some fame, one as an astronomer, and one as president of Harvard College. Amy is said to have compensated for a lack of university education by reading avidly, and through collecting books. In her late 20s, she turned to poetry, not publishing, though, until 1910 when a poem of hers appeared in Atlantic Monthly. Two years later she issued her first book of poems, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass, which was followed by Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds.

From 1912 or so, Lowell and the actress Ada Dwyer Russell were reputed to be lovers, and Russell is said to be the subject of Lowell’s more erotic works. The two women travelled to England together, where Lowell met Ezra Pound, who then became both an influence and a critic of her work. In particular, Lowell is considered to have displaced Pound as leader of the so-called Imagist poets (considered by some to be forerunners of the Modernist movement); and Pound, reportedly, considered suing Lowell over her use of the word ‘Imagist’ in the title of a series of anthologies.

During her later years, Encyclopaedia Britannica says, Lovell was the most striking figure in American poetry: ‘Her vivid and powerful personality, her independence and zest made her conspicuous, as did her scorn of convention in such defiant gestures as smoking cigars.’ Apart from publishing her own poems, Lowell was also a keen promoter of both contemporary and historical poets. She died in 1925; and the following year was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection, What’s O’Clock.

Further biographical information is available from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, Modern American Poetry, the Isle of Lesbos website, or Wikipedia.

Lowell did not leave behind, as far as I can tell, any adult diaries. However, biographers have made good use of a few teenage journals which are held in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Melissa Bradshaw, for example, in Amy Lowell, Diva Poet (Ashgate Publishing, 2011) says in her introduction (available to read online at Googlebooks):

‘[Lowell’s] adolescent journals show that she regards her friends’ obsessive interest in boys as curious, and their mistaken assumption that a diary entry confessing love for a girl ("Oh my darling!!!!! My darling!!!!!!”) is directed at a boy amusing (“Walter; oh it is too rich”). In the diary entries that follow, however, she concedes that she might marry “if I ever find a man I can love and who will love me equally and will have me,” showing that she does not view marriage as a given but rather a choice predicated on companionate love.’

Towards the end of her first chapter, Bradshaw adds: ‘Entry after entry, however, chronicles her intense, passionate, unrequited love for several female friends. In these entries, Lowell tries to imagine how a life devoted to loving women might unfold and what it might look like. Unable to quite conceptualise this, she instead wishes to be a man: ‘I can imagine falling in love with a woman, but not with a man, I should like to be a man, and fall in love with a woman.’ In one particularly anguished entry, routinely ignored by biographers, Lowell clearly articulates her desire for women, her despair at ever being allowed to fulfil her desires, and her suspicion that others might feel similarly’:

26 January 1890
‘Nobody could ever love me I know. I am but a contemptible being, but I want love, love, love. I know I am making a fool of myself but shurely there are others who have such thoughts. . . If I were a man I’d ask [Patty Storrow, a friend] to be my wife. But I am a woman. I can only ask her to love me and and I cannot do that. . . Men I could not love. My ideal is too high. But I want, need, yearn, for the love of a strong, tender woman. Oh God! Bless her and help me! Amen!’

Elsewhere in Bradshaw’s book this extract is also quoted:

8 January 1889
‘Oh! Wouldn’t I like to be a man . . . [B]eing a man would be fine; no dependence, go where you please, do what you please . . . Oh well, what me be must be. I would like to be a man. Now.’

Amy Lowell, it is also worth noting, wrote the introduction to a 1920 book called Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, translated by Annie Shepley Omori and Kochi Doi, and published by Houghton Mifflin in the US and Constable in the UK. The full text and illustrations are widely available on the internet, at Internet Archive, and at A Celebration of Women Writers hosted by Penn Libraries. The book has twice featured in The Diary Review before - Japan, a millennium ago about Shikibu Murasaki and A lady of Old Japan about the Sarashina Diary. Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan is also referenced as an etext source for a number of Japanese diarists listed at The Diary Junction.

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