Spoken Art: Amy Lowell's Dramatic Poetry and Early Twentieth-Century Expressive Culture

Simone Knewitz

Amy Lowell (1874—1925) has recently been re-established by (mostly) feminist and queer critics as an important member of the avant-garde and as an influential voice of modernism.1 She was a very successful and popular, if also controversial, poet in her lifetime, but her reputation declined rapidly after her early death in 1925. In later decades, literary critics not simply neglected, but often outright condemned her. Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era (1971) and A Homemade World (1975), for instance, two major works of modernist criticism, are interspersed with snide, even hostile remarks about Lowell, which ultimately leave the impression that Kenner perceived her as a threatening presence within modernism.2 Lowell's opulent poetry clearly did not fit Pound's modernist paradigm that poetry should be "free from emotional slither" and "as much like granite as it can be" ("A Retrospect" 12). As numerous revisions within modernist studies have complicated and differentiated our understanding of modern literature, critics have begun to see Lowell's contributions in a new light. However, Lowell's rediscovery—which started in the late 1970s and has gathered momentum in recent years—still has been only partial. In 1979, lesbian historian and critic Lillian Faderman for instance specifically singled out Lowell's lesbian love poetry as noteworthy, while openly dismissing other parts of her work: "Amy Lowell did write too much, and her mediocre verse has overshadowed her real poetry" (26). Similarly, other critics have treated Lowell's longer narrative poems and dramatic monologues in passing, at best. The negative assessment can be partially explained with feminist and queer literary critics' concern with identity politics and their desire to recover other "authentic" voices traditionally marginalized within canonized modernism. During the last years this focus has broadened to include some of her lesser known works.  Yet many critics still treat her dramatic works as inferior writing rather than as serious poetry.3

This essay argues that such a dismissal is unjustified and neglects that Lowell was a highly acclaimed poet of dramatic verse in her lifetime. Contemporaries, even contemporary poets, such as William Carlos Williams or D.H. Lawrence, were favorable toward Lowell's dramatic poems (cf. Damon 386-89; 465). Especially those works were also well-liked by the public at large and were well received in the many public readings that Lowell gave. In what follows, I want to read some of Lowell's dramatic poems anew, viewing them at the same time in their literary and historical context.

In my view, the lack of appreciation of Lowell's dramatic poetry has to do with a shift in the way we read and understand the very genre. Often, the legacy of high modernism and the New Critics, who understood poetry primarily as the written text, still lingers in our present ideas of poetry.  However, the issue was far from settled at the beginning of the twentieth century. From Lowell's perspective, poetry is a spoken, dramatic art. For her, poetic meaning is not only a matter of words alone, but also includes non-verbal languages of the physical body. I contend that especially in the dramatic poems Amy Lowell presents an alternative form of modernism, one which is performative and which conceives poetry as a spoken art. In my view, she operates between different, opposing camps of modern(ist) culture—"high modernism" on the one hand, and the so-called "expressive culture movement" on the other, a contemporaneous movement which proposed that meaning cannot be reduced to verbal discourse. I suggest that Lowell shares the tenets of neither the high modernists nor expressive culturists completely. In what follows, I will first consider some of Lowell's theoretical essays in the context of the elocutionist theories of Samuel Silas Curry (1847—1921), a Boston professor of oratory and precursor of the expressive culture movement, as well as set her ideas into relation to T.S. Eliot's concept of impersonality. I will then give a close reading of Lowell's most famous dramatic monologue, "Patterns" (1914), claiming that her poetic practice performatively undermines the essentialisms behind the expressive theory which her essays seem to support. At the same time, the poem illustrates Lowell's and Curry's common understanding of poetry as a spoken art. The last part of my paper extends this reading to Lowell's non-monologic dramatic poetry, which further underscores the importance of extra-verbal elements for her poetics.

"It is the soul that speaks"? Amy Lowell, the Expressive Culture Movement and High Modernism

Recent scholarship on modernism has explored the connections between modernist literature and visual culture4 at the expense of the aural dimension of modernism. This appears all the more remarkable as Lowell, in her essay "Poetry as a Spoken Art" (1916), claims an "essential kinship of poetry and music," and explains: "If the modern movement in poetry could be defined in a sentence, the truest thing which could be said of it, and which would include all its variations, would be that it is a movement to restore the audible quality to poetry" (23). Given the fact that Lowell identified herself as an Imagist poet—and thus by definition subscribed to a visual paradigm—her programmatic statement astonishes with its emphasis of the aural. Yet Timothy Steele has demonstrated that it was a common proposition among many early twentieth-century modernists to see poetry in analogy to music and that this perception did not necessarily contradict their Imagist ideas (265). Even Ezra Pound, a key figure of Imagist poetry, had argued in 1918 that "[p]oetry is a composition of words set to music" ("Vers Libre" 437). While for Pound the degree of musical quality might vary from poem to poem, "poetry withers and 'dries out' when it leaves music" ("Vers Libre" 437).

Nevertheless, despite their common idea that poetry and music are related, Pound's and Lowell's conceptions of the relationship between the aural and poetry diverge. Pound explicitly states that "[p]oetry must be read as music and not as oratory" ("Vers Libre" 437). This may have been written in response to a statement of Lowell's in "Poetry as a Spoken Art" in which she relates poetry and oratorical prose as forms of expression which need to be heard (10). Insisting on poetry being "spoken," i.e. presupposing the bodily presence of a speaker, Lowell goes one step further than Pound and fellow modernists. Pound and Eliot insist that poetry needs a reformation of diction and want to make use of a poetic idiom which is more closely related to spoken language. In his poem "Little Gidding" (1942), T. S. Eliot holds that "our concern was speech, and speech impelled us / To purify the dialect of the tribe" (204). The notion of purification is central here: Eliot attempts to distill an essence of "living speech" (Yeats's term, qtd. in Morrisson 25), thereby divorcing speech from its bodily incorporation. If the high modernists are intensely concerned with "speech" or "voice," their use of the terms is thus largely metaphorical. Lowell, in contrast, takes voice literally, physically. Unlike Eliot, she does not want to submit speech to a purification process. For Lowell, a poem cannot be reduced to the written text on the page, but is a holistic experience which involves the speaker's bodily presence as well as the direct contact with the audience. For her, poetry involves much more than the isolated artefacts of language themselves, it is about the communication of the poet's whole being. Lowell wants the printed poem to be recognized as a placeholder rather than as the thing itself. In "Poetry as a Spoken Art," she compares the loss incurred in printing poetry to the loss incurred in reproducing a work of art in a book: "If photography and colour-printing are the conventionalized symbols of pictures, how much slighter, less adequate are the conventionalized symbols of poetry? Printed words, of no beauty in themselves, of no value except to rouse the imagination and cause it to function" (12). The printed poem, in other words, is not the literary equivalent to the painting, but to the (mechanical) reproduction of a painted picture—and even poorer than such a reproduction with respect to its representational value. Lowell suggests that poetry needs to be experienced aurally by the audience, just like music has to be performed to be enjoyed: "nobody (except highly trained musicians) expects to read music, everybody insists upon hearing it" (12, Lowell's emphases).

Lowell's insistence on the bodily integrity of poetry is reminiscent of similar ideas voiced by her contemporary Samuel Silas Curry, a proponent of the so-called "expressive culture movement." Living and working in Boston just like Lowell, Curry was "one of the major leaders and thinkers in the field of expression of his day" (Ruyter 25). The expressive culture movement was an essentially anti-modern undertaking in that it reacted negatively to modernity's new technologies, seeing them as alienating human beings from their natural condition. The adherents of the expressive culture movement sought to restore a sense of human integrity to the act of communication. In her study Expressionism and Modernism in the American Theatre, Julia Walker cogently argues the influential role of the expressive culture movement in American culture. According to Walker, the movement was ubiquitous in early twentieth-century America, generating an enthusiastic following: "Indeed, the movement was so popular, its influence so pervasive, its precepts so widely accepted that it could be referenced with barely a mention of its name" (72). In later decades, however, it was increasingly viewed as a form of Victorian sentimentalism that needed to be overcome: "Associated with finishing schools for young ladies and the lost art of elocution, expression was at once feminized within the cultural imaginary and deemed unworthy of serious scholarly attention" (6).

A professor of oratory from 1883 to his death in 1921, first at Boston University and later at his own "School of Expression," Curry was critical about the ways in which oratory was taught at the time. Throughout the nineteenth century, oratory had been an important part of American university education. In the context of profound structural changes in the universities during the last quarter of the century, oratory became more and more professionalized and specialized schools were established. Within the traditional system, many teachers treated oratory as mere bodily performance, as a technique which could be acquired by adhering to certain rules. Curry criticized this approach as "mechanical." In his 1907 manual Foundations of Expression he expounds that "[m]echanical rules […] are useless. They are, moreover, vicious because they concentrate the student's attention upon accidentals, and may prevent genuine thinking" (29). The label "mechanical" associates the method with the machine age and implies a dehumanizing aspect. In contrast, Curry believed that oratory ought not to be reduced to elocutionary performance and worked toward a reassertion of the whole individual in the act of speaking. He used the term "expression" as referring to the process through which an inner idea is outwardly manifested in and through the speaker's body. In his book The Province of Expression (1891) he stated: "We find that expression is not of the body, but through the body. 'It is the soul that speaks'" (29). For Curry, in order to communicate meaning, the whole person needed to be involved. Meaning was not simply a matter of words, or "verbal expression." Rather, it is created by the interplay of three distinct languages. "Verbal expression" is the only printable element, and is complemented by the two unprintable languages which he calls "vocal expression"—modulations of voice—and "pantomimic expression," i.e. gestures (Foundations 18). Those unprintable elements cannot be substituted by words. They have a meaning of their own.

Curry's thoughts are based on a romantic notion of selfhood and Victorian ideas of individual and social progress. The ultimate purpose in Curry's theory of expression is the discovery of an authentic, sincere, natural self, one's "personality" (Foundations 14). While the theory advocates the search for a supposed essence, it is also highly normative. Curry holds that "bad habits" are responsible for a failure in expression and that genuine expression depends on the right lifestyle:

The training of the voice and the development of expression are inseparably connected with a development of right habits of life, with joy and confidence, purity and nobility of thought. The development of the voice is not a mechanical or merely local matter. It depends upon health and strength, upon normal, sympathetic actions, and upon right motives and feelings. (Foundations 150)

According to Curry, the right state of mind may be achieved through the contemplation of nature and through reading poetry: "The best foundation for the genuine culture of imagination and feeling is probably the simple and natural admiration of nature, and the study of poets like Wordsworth, who are full of healthful and deep insight into the simplest objects around us" (Foundations 150-51). Curry's theory is thus embedded in a Victorian moral framework.

For the high modernists, Curry's emphasis on personality was a prime target. They shunned emotionality, which they associated with femininity and the Victorianism that they wanted to leave behind. According to Walker, Eliot's impersonality theory can be read as "a reaction to Curry's theory of expression, in particular his emphasis upon the speaker and the performative features of language as the source of poetic meaning" (Expressionism and Modernism 76). In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), Eliot famously tried to disentangle the individual poet and the text he produces, directly attacking the idea that a work of art is supposed to express a personality. Instead, he arued that "[t]he progress of an artist is continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality" (17), and that "[p]oetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (21). For Eliot, the poet functions as a medium and the literary text is an autonomous entity. While he modified his position in later years and experimented with dramatic texts, he remained dedicated to the idea that the meaning of a text was a matter of verbal signification alone (cf. Expressionism and Modernism 79-80).

Lowell's theoretical writings imply that her ideas are very much in accordance with Curry's theories and stand in direct opposition to Eliot's. In her essay "Why We Should Read Poetry" for instance, she explains that the form of a poem should be "the sincere expression of a man's thought" (7), an idea that seems very close to Curry's theory. For Lowell, poetry "is the height and quintessence of emotion, of every sort of emotion. But it is always somebody feeling something at white heat" (4). Unlike Eliot, Lowell is not willing to separate body and text. Lowell and Curry share the idea of a unity between body and mind. However, despite the fact that Lowell sometimes sounds like Curry in her theoretical writings, I argue that her poetry questions Curry's ideas, in particular his essentialisms. Like Curry, Lowell does not want to reduce meaning to the verbal, written text, but also include the languages of the body. But despite what she claims in theory, her dramatic poetry is in fact performative5 rather than essentialist, calling into question the possibility to express an authentic, interior self.

"Underneath my stiffened gown": Performativity in "Patterns"

In order to prove this point, I want to give an exemplary reading of Lowell's dramatic monologue "Patterns," the opening poem of her 1916 volume Men, Women and Ghosts. To analyze a monologue is particularly interesting in the given context since it was Curry himself who coined the term "dramatic monologue" in his 1908 study on Robert Browning's dramatic poetry, Browning and the Dramatic Monologue. In this work, he makes a case for the importance of the monologue as a paradigmatic form of poetry which for him unveils the inner truth of human personality and thinking (Browning 88). He regards the monologue as an art form which must be spoken in order to reveal the personality of the poem's persona. Therefore, in his view, the monologue "elevates the study of the spoken word" and "prevents the courses in literature from becoming a mere scientific study of words" (Browning 256). Lowell's poem performatively questions this cult of personality, undercutting the essentialisms behind the expressive theory.

The persona in "Patterns" is an eighteenth-century noblewoman awaiting the return of her fiancé who has gone off to fight with the duke in Flanders. Dreaming of the sexual consummation of their marriage, she receives message that her Lord was killed in the war. In the last stanzas, she envisions her future as one that will forever remain trapped within the patterns of her current life, without any hope of being liberated from the sexual restrictions of an unmarried woman. Those restrictions are metaphorically represented by the "stiff, brocaded gown" she wears. The metaphor seems to call for a classically feminist reading: If the brocade represents culturally imposed conventions, then there is a natural self underneath which yearns to be freed from its restrictions. Many readers have analyzed the poem along these lines, as the "sharp cry of pain" (Ruihley 41) of a woman suffocated by a patriarchal society. Lowell biographer Jean Gould suggests that the poem "was designed to reveal Amy Lowell's inner conflict as well as her outer rebellion against world values" (81). S. Foster Damon explains that "Patterns," in "expressing the tragedy of woman in wartime, […]  transcends both war and love, and is ultimately an expression of the repressed rebellion against the conventions and laws of life that bind the heart of every living soul" (375). In spite of this, as Melissa Bradshaw has already pointed out, it is hard to read this poem as a psychological portrait or the expression of an interior essence (161-66). There are no references at all to the speaker's inner feelings or mental states. Underneath the brocade, it says in the third stanza, "[i]s the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin" (MWG 5). Inside and outside are contrasted, but the inside itself is in fact another physical, bodily surface. The image of a bathing woman is erotically evocative; "softness" here does not refer to a character trait, but to a bodily sensibility, to physical passion. The sensuality of the soft consonants, assonances, and alliterations in this line enforces this physicality.

The form of "Patterns" undercuts the psychological reading and continually questions the idea of interior essence by the attention it gives to surfaces and artifice. The title "Patterns" itself points to the decorative, artistic design of the poem. Thereby, the poem underlines its own constructedness as text. The poem is moreover openly theatrical, which becomes especially evident in the first two stanzas:

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whalebone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree. For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime-tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom. (MWG 3-4)

Reiterating in variations the line "I walk down the garden paths," the speaker focuses on the act of walking in her garden as she introduces herself. Her self-description reads like a blazon—a poetic convention in which usually a male speaker lists a catalogue of a woman's physical attributes. The lady in "Patterns," however, directs the reader's gaze less to her body parts than her apparel. The elaborate costume as well as the insistence on the activity of walking elicit the association with an actress on stage. Moreover, the speaker is clearly portrayed as a type rather than as an individual. She points to her stereotypical femininity when she says: "With my powdered hair and jewelled fan, / I too am a rare / Pattern." In the second stanza, she calls herself "a plate of current fashion." Thus the speaker points to the fact that her femininity is not natural, but culturally inscribed. A plate, in its original meaning, is a surface of metal, originally used to denote a metal suit of armor for the defense of the torso. The speaker contrasts this stiff outer surface with her interior life, her "passion" which "wars against the stiff brocade." Again, as the poem ostensibly contrasts interior and exterior, this opposition is undermined by the physical connotations of "passion." Throughout the poem, the speaker performs her role as lady without ever referring to her own mental states or feelings. With its persistent emphasis on surfaces, the poem suggests that the "natural," "essential"—that which presumably exists prior to its expression in language—is a performative effect. The poem is performative in the sense that it stages interiority or subjectivity as a construct, an effect created by language. The poem here draws attention to this constructedness in its persistent concern with decorum and artifice. If we as have an impression of a woman suppressed by a patriarchal society, whatever we assume to know about the lady's personality and feelings is a result of surface descriptions. The lady in the poem does not express the mental states we ascribe to her; she consists of surfaces. The theatricality of the poem is a means to point to these surfaces and thus contributes to its performativity.6 By staging the way in which subjectivity is constructed rather than expressed in poetry, Lowell's text questions Curry's theory according to which the dramatic monologue reveals the personality of the poem's persona.

The form of the poem weaves an intricate pattern itself. While writing in free verse, Lowell creates a rhythm which almost seems metric through the use of repetitions, frequent end- and internal rhymes as well as a great variability in line length. The emphasis on rhythm underlines Lowell's demand that poetry be spoken. In fact, the rhythm only plays out if one actually if the poem is read aloud. Especially the alternation between very short and very long lines contributes to the rhythmic effect. Shorter lines have a tendency to emphasize individual words more and be slower than longer ones. In many instances, Lowell uses enjambment to sever phrases, as for example at the end of the first stanza. At the same time, the period following the word "pattern" creates a caesura. Had she made only two lines out of these three, with a break after Pattern, the rhythmic effect would have been different, following the syntactical structure of the sentences. The way Lowell sets the lines, the effect is a stress on "rare," "Pattern," and "down." In many other places, Lowell employs enjambment to create end rhymes and thus again uses a poetic device for aural purposes.  In the first stanza, enjambments occur at the end of lines two and seven, creating the end rhymes daffodils / squills and down / gown. Later in the poem, lines become extremely short, conveying rigidity:

I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown. (MWG 8)

This emphasis on rhythm and sound effects shows Lowell's investment in poetry as a spoken art; as we will see in the next section, her insistence on the aural qualities of poetry led to her experiments in "polyphonic prose," a poetic form which she invented and which depends even more radically on the aspect of performance.

A Plurality of Voices: Lowell's Non-Monologic Dramatic Poetry

While Curry thought of the dramatic monologue as the quintessential form of poetry, in fact only a small number of Lowell's dramatic poems are monologues. Like many other modernists, Lowell experiments with a plurality of voices and with different verse forms, leading her to create a distinct form of prose poetry which she called "polyphonic prose." For Lowell, it is the theatrical aspect of poetry that is important, rather than the speaker's unity of voice which Curry emphasizes for the dramatic monologue. She thus shifts the accent in dramatic poetry from the aspect of speaker to the aspect of performance.

"The Cremona Violin," another poem from Men, Women and Ghosts, further exemplifies the theatricality of Lowell's poetry as well as her formal experiments. Here she employs the Chaucerian stanza, seven lines in iambic pentameter, and contrasts it with free verse. With the latter, Lowell intends to reproduce the tone of a violin, "the flowing rhythm of music" (MWG viii). Unlike "Patterns," "The Cremona Violin" is written in the third person, and not from the perspective of one of the characters. Running over 58 pages in the original edition of the book, this poem has also confirmed a common charge against Lowell's poetry as excessive and melodramatic.

Divided into five parts, the poem follows the plot structure of classical drama. The protagonist, Charlotta Altgelt, begins an extramarital love affair because her husband Theodore, a successful violinist, fails to respond to her sexual desires. Preoccupied with his daily violin practice, he neither realizes that Charlotta is aroused by the sensuality of his play nor does he betray any sexual desires himself. Charlotta thus falls for the seductions of the beer merchant Heinrich Marohl. The poem ends with Charlotta violently destroying her husband's beloved cremona violin and her fulminantly leaving house and marriage behind. Like the lady in "Patterns," the figures in this poem are types rather than round characters. Charlotta is portrayed as excessively feminine and her relationship with her husband is also highly stereotypical. The two opening stanzas set the scene for the melodrama which follows:

Frau Concert-Meister Altgelt shut the door.
A storm was rising, heavy gusts of wind
Swirled through the trees, and scattered leaves before
Her on the clean, flagged path. The sky behind
The distant town was black, and sharp defined
Against it shone the lines of roofs and towers,
Superimposed and flat like cardboard flowers.

A pasted city on a purple ground,
Picked out with luminous paint, it seemed. The cloud
Split on an edge of lightning, and a sound
Of rivers full and rushing boomed through bowed,
Tossed, hissing branches. Thunder rumbled loud
Beyond the town fast swallowing into gloom.
Frau Altgelt closed the windows of each room. (MWG 55-56)

This introduction creates an apocalyptic scenario. The dramatic force of the upcoming storm is underlined by onomatopoetic effects, as evident in "the heavy gusts of wind" which "swirled" and the "scattered leaves." In front of a black sky, the distant city hovers. The skyline of the roofs and buildings appears "superimposed and flat like cardboard flowers." Directly pointing to the poem's theatricality, this simile does not compare buildings to real flowers, but to stage props, to artificially manufactured, two-dimensional elements which would be used for decoration purposes. Moreover, they do not even seem real, but appear "flat" and "superimposed," like a stage setting. The atmosphere of artificiality is even intensified in the first two lines of the second stanza which again renders the whole panorama of the city as two-dimensional. The city appears like a cardboard cutting glued to a painted surface. The following lines appeal to different senses, evoking a number of sounds and images. Again, dramatic effects are created with the help of alliteration and onomatopoeia. With these devices, Lowell creates a theatrical scene, presenting the poem as a performance.

Critics have taken issue with Lowell’s "bad rhymes" and attributed these to a lack of skill or imagination on her part. Owing to such apparently jaundiced critical verdicts, however, scholarship has neglected the possibility that Lowell used clichéd rhymes intentionally and deliberately. If the Chaucerian stanza in "The Cremona Violin" seems forced, this can also be read as a textual effect, comparable to Marianne Moore's appropriation of syllabic verse.7 Lowell appears to press the content into a form which does not fit: She selects a strict formal scheme—ababbcc and iambic pentameter—and maintains it by relying on enjambment in unusual places and by rhyming words which would not usually be stressed, e.g. adverbs like "behind," exclamations ("Oh!"), or even onomatopoetic words like "pit-a-pat" (to rhyme with "that"). Moreover, she uses enjambment not only within, but also between different stanzas, as between stanza three and four: "A straying lock, or else a ribbon thrusting // This way or that to part suit her." The rigidness of the Chaucerian stanza stands in contrast to the flow of the parts in free verse which Lowell uses to highlight the musicality of language. By opposing these two verse forms, she points to her central concern with rhythm.

Lowell's idea of "poetry as a spoken art" culminated in her invention of "polyphonic prose," a form which looks like prose on the page but which, according to Lowell, needs to be read aloud in order to reveal its poetic character.8 Lowell imagined the different 'voices' of poetry—referring to different poetic properties like meter, cadence, rhyme, assonance, and alliteration ("A Consideration" 114-15)—playing together like the instruments in an orchestra. Polyphonic prose would thus render an "orchestral effect." Beyond underscoring the musical dimension of language, however, she strives for a synaesthetic experience, approaching her subject matter "at once musically, dramatically, lyrically, and pictorially" ("Some Musical Analogies" 155). Especially the conception of polyphonic prose illustrates how Lowell moves between the two trajectories of expressive culture and high modernism: On the one hand, Lowell suggests that she based her version of polyphonic prose "upon the long, flowing cadences of oratorial prose" (CGC xii), implying a commitment to poetry as a spoken art and expressive culture. On the other hand, her concern with a plurality of voices contrasts with Curry's desire for a unified voice and moves her closer to high modernist experiments with voice. Indeed, like Pound, Eliot, Williams, and Gertrude Stein, Lowell shared the aspirations to write a modern epic and believed polyphonic prose the suitable form for such an endeavor ("Some Musical Analogies" 154-55).

Many of Lowell's polyphonic prose poems deal with quintessentially modern subject matter, for instance the experience of urbanity in "Towns in Colour" or "Spring Day," or the cruelty of the First World War in "The Bombardment" (all published in Men, Women and Ghosts). The latter, first published in 1914, is one of Lowell's earliest poems in this form and also one of the first poems she publicly performed. She first read it in December 1914 in front of an audience of four hundred in Boston. Behind the scenes, her composer friend Carl Engel reproduced the sound of a cannon on a bass drum at the proper points (Damon 280). This is the opening paragraph of "The Bombardment":

Slowly, without force, the rain drops into the city. It stops a moment on the carved head of Saint John, then slides on again, slipping and trickling over his stone cloak. It splashes from the lead conduit of a gargoyle, and falls from it in turmoil on the stones in the Cathedral square. Where are the people, and why does the fretted steeple sweep about in the sky? Boom! The sound swings in the rain. Boom, again! After it, only water rushing in the gutters, and the turmoil from the spout of the gargoyle. Silence. Ripples and mutters. Boom! (MWG 228)

According to Richard Benvenuto, "The Bombardment" constitutes "a melodramatic failure, though apparently it made for good theatrics when Lowell read it aloud" (97). Lowell creates an apocalyptic vision with great momentum, presenting the hyperbolic destruction of culture due to the war. At the same time, she highlights the constructedness of the poem as text. The poem offers a synaesthetic experience which involves both sight and sound. Visual impressions are given through the concrete description of the movement of the rain on the statue or the water that gushes from a gargoyle. Sounds are rendered predominantly by the use of onomatopoetic language, especially verbs such as "drops," "slides," "trickling," and "splashes."  Sound is also important in terms of the frequent internal rhymes as well as alliteration and assonance ("steeple sweep," "sound swings"). In comparison to "Patterns," "The Bombardment" places even more emphasis on extra-textual elements by incorporating the sound of the drum. Moreover, in the absence of lineation as a defining feature of the poem's rhythm, the reader of the poem may determine the reading speed during the performance, using acceleration as a dramatic effect.

Throughout her career, Lowell had to defend her polyphonic prose against criticism that classified it as prose rather than poetry, only because it did not look like poetry on the printed page—a charge that she always answered by pointing out the necessity that poetry be spoken, performed. Lowell's experiments in polyphonic prose thus underline her commitment to poetry as a spoken art. At the same time, they show that formal innovation for Lowell is not limited by anti-modernist sentiment, despite her sympathies for the expressive culture movement.


In The Poetics of Impersonality, Maud Ellmann has argued that Pound and Eliot "often smuggle personality back into their poetics in the very terms they use to cast it out" in their campaign against Romanticism (2-3). Indeed, Eliot's attempts to separate author and text lead to a near-obsession with personality, and selfhood remains a central concern. In concluding this essay, I want to argue that Lowell's performative poetics might be viewed as a possibly more successful alternative to Eliot's impersonality theory. Lowell's poetry rejects the cult of personality more completely than Eliot by performatively questioning the idea of a natural, essential self. Instead, by borrowing from the genre of the melodrama, she emphasizes the theatricality of language.

At the same time, Lowell's version of modernism, in contrast to high modernism, also has a role for the body: For Lowell, "voice" is not a metaphor or an instance in a text, but the concrete speaking voice of the oral interpreter of poetry. While eschewing personality, her poetry works against a conception of modernism that sees poetry as disembodied. Yet Lowell also shares central concerns of fellow modernist writers including the desire for formal innovation, as witnessed to by her experiments in polyphonic prose.

Finally, it seems to me that Lowell's performativity in a way also speaks back to contemporary versions of performativity, for instance in Judith Butler's theory of performativity. In Gender Trouble and especially in Bodies That Matter, Butler struggles to incorporate the physical body and ultimately fails, because she treats the languages of the body like verbal discourse, assuming that non-verbal modes of communication work in the same way as verbal signification does (cf. Walker, "Performance" 165). In Butler's account, performance remains a metaphor, and in consequence, she can conceive of the physical body only as a power effect, as the result of the regulatory power of social discourse.9 With Lowell's idea of poetry as a spoken art, one may arrive at a concept of performativity which incorporates the materiality of the body.

1 In this respect, Melissa Bradshaw's dissertation on Lowell, Modernizing Excess (2000), is of special importance, as well as her co-edited volume Amy Lowell, American Modern (2004, with Adrienne Munich) which brings together contributions by many current Lowell scholars.

2 "Pound had genius, Amy had mild talents" (Homemade World 12), is about the most positive statement Kenner makes about Lowell. His references to her are condescending throughout and refuse to take her seriously as a poet. Kenner's Lowell is a bossy, eccentric heiress who appointed herself to a career as a poet because she had nothing else to do. According to Kenner, Lowell viciously stole the Imagist movement from Pound, driving a wedge between him and the other Imagists, and even spreading foul rumors about Pound. For Kenner, Lowell is an incompetent opportunist who soiled the poetry world with her "impregnable vulgarity" (Pound Era 298). Earlier critics had come to similarly condemning conclusions with respect to Lowell's poetic legacy: thus Clement Wood summarized in 1926 that Lowell was "neither distinguished poet nor great critic" (185); Horace Gregory, in his 1958 study of her poetry, called Lowell's posthumously published Collected Poetical Works "a lifeless monument to ten years of industry in jotting observations down on paper" (212).

3 Richard Benvenuto dedicates much space to Lowell's dramatic poetry in his book-length study on Lowell in 1985, but rather than analyzing the texts, he often merely paraphrases them. Recently, in-depth studies of individual poems have been offered by Melissa Bradshaw, Mari Yoshihara, and Andrew Thacker.

4 Cf. for instance Susan McCabe, Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005); Cassandra Laity, "T. S. Eliot and A. C. Swinburne: Decadent Bodies, Modern Visualities, and Changing Modes of Perception," Modernism/Modernity 11.3 (2004): 425-48; Maggie Humm, Modernist Women and Visual Cultures: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2003); Karen Jacobs, The Eye's Mind: Literary Modernism and Visual Culture (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001).

5 My use of the term "performative" derives from Judith Butler's theory of subjectivity. For Butler, subjectivity is no "stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts" ("Performative Acts" 519; Butler's emphasis). She emphasizes that the self is constituted in social discourse, and moreover, that "the ascription of interiority is itself a publically regulated and sanctioned form of essence fabrication" ("Performative Acts" 528).

6 The terms "performativity" and "theatricality," as I use them here, are closely related to each other, but not synonymous. "Theatricality" marks aspects of texts "that gesture to their own conditions of production" (Reinelt 206), aspects which present the text as a performance and point to a consciously intended artificiality. "Performativity," in contrast, refers to the ways in which a text self-referentially points out that it is productive rather than expressive with respect to subjectivity and explicitly rejects "the mimetic aspects of representation" (Reinelt 206). Thus, theatricality is one way to make visible the performativity of a text.

7 Marianne Moore, in many poems like her well-known "The Fish," structures her stanzas by choosing an arbitrary number of syllables for each line. Content here is subordinated to the syllabic principle, to the point that Moore enjambs lines in mid-word. Lowell similarly lets the form control the poem here.

8 For a more detailed discussion of Lowell's polyphonic prose, cf. Andrew Thacker's essay "Unrelated Beauty."

9 In Bodies That Matter, Butler defines materiality as "power's most productive effect" (2). For her, every reference to the material body actually produces the body in discourse rather than referring to an existence prior to discourse: "The body posited as prior to the sign, is always posited or signified as prior. That signification produces as an effect of its own procedure the very body that it nevertheless and simultaneously claims to discover as that which precedes its own action. If the body signified as prior to signification is an effect of signification, then the mimetic or representational status of language, which claims that signs follow bodies as their necessary mirrors, is not mimetic at all. On the contrary, it is productive, constitutive, one might even argue performative, inasmuch as this signifying act delimits and contours the body that it then claims to find prior to any and all signification" (Bodies 30; Butler's emphases).

Works Cited

Benvenuto, Richard. Amy Lowell. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Bradshaw, Melissa. Modernizing Excess: Amy Lowell and the Aesthetics of Camp. Ph.D. Diss., SUNY at Stony Brook, 2000. 

Bradshaw, Melissa and Adrienne Munich, eds. Amy Lowell, American Modern. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004.

Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519-31.

—. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits ofSex." New York: Routledge, 1993.

Curry, Samuel Silas. The Province of Expression: A Search for Principles Underlying Adequate Methods of Developing Dramatic and Oratoric Delivery. New York: Expression Co., 1891.

—. Foundations of Expression: Studies and Problems of Developing the Voice, Body, and Mind for Reading and Speaking. Boston: Expression Co., 1907.

—. Browning and the Dramatic Monologue: Nature and Interpretation of an Overlooked Form of Literature. Boston: Expression Co., 1908.

Damon, S. Foster. Amy Lowell: A Chronicle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935.

Ellmann, Maud. The Poetics of Impersonality: T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Brighton: Harvester, 1987.

Eliot, T. S. "Little Gidding." Collected Poems, 1909-1962. New York: Harcourt, 1970. 204.

—. "Tradition and the Individual Talent". Selected Essays. London: Faber, 1951. 13-22. 

Faderman, Lillian. "Warding off the Watch and Ward Society: Amy Lowell's Treatment of the Lesbian Theme." Gay Books Bulletin 1.2 (1979): 23-27.

Gould, Jean. Amy: The World of Amy Lowell and the Imagist Movement. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1975.

Gregory, Horace. Amy Lowell: Portrait of the Poet in Her Time. Freeport: Books for Libraries P, 1958.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era: The Age of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis. London: Faber, 1975.

—. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Lowell, Amy. "Poetry As a Spoken Art." On Poetry and Poets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930. 10-23.

—. "Why We Should Read Poetry." On Poetry and Poets. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930. 3-9.

—. "A Consideration of Modern Poetry." North American Review 205 (1917): 103-17.

—. "Some Musical Analogies in Modern Poetry." Musical Quarterly 6.1 (1920): 127-57.

—. Men, Women and Ghosts. New York: Macmillan, 1916. [Cited in text as MWG.]

—. Can Grande's Castle. New York: Macmillan, 1919. [Cited in text as CGC.]

Morrisson, Mark. "Performing the Pure Voice: On Elocution, Verse Recitation, and the Modernist Poetry in Prewar London." Modernism / Modernity 3.3 (1996): 25-50. 

Pound, Ezra. "A Retrospect." Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. London: Faber, 1954. 3-14.

—. "Vers Libre and Arnold Dolmetsch." Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. London: Faber, 1954. 437-40.

Reinelt, Janelle. "The Politics of Discourse: Performativity Meets Theatricality." SubStance 31.2-3 (1998-99): 201-15.

Ruihley, Glenn Richard. The Thorn of a Rose: Amy Lowell Reconsidered. Hamden: Archon, 1975.

Ruyter, Nancy. The Cultivation of Body and Mind in Nineteenth-Century American Delsartism. Westport: Greenwood, 1999.

Steele, Timothy. Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter.  Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1990.

Thacker, Andrew. "Unrelated Beauty: Amy Lowell, Polyphonic Prose, and the Imagist City."  Amy Lowell, American Modern. Ed. Melissa Bradshaw and Adrienne Munich. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004. 104-19.

Walker, Julia. Expressionism and Modernism in the American Theatre: Bodies, Voices, Words. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

—. "Why Performance? Why Now? Textuality and the Rearticulation of Human Presence." Yale Journal of Criticism 16.1 (2003): 149-75.

Wood, Clement. Amy Lowell. New York: Harold Vinal, 1926.

Yoshihara, Mari. "Putting on the Voice of the Orient: Gender and Sexuality in Amy Lowell's 'Asian' Poetry." Amy Lowell, American Modern. Ed. Melissa Bradshaw and Adrienne Munich. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004. 120-35.


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