Lowell, Pound, Imagism

On this day in 1914 Amy Lowell hosted an “Imagist” dinner party in London attended by Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and others prominent in modernist literature. Though intended as a joining of avant-garde forces, the legendary dinner became an early skirmish in a longer war between Pound and Lowell over who would lead modern poetry, and in what direction.

Lowell, says one critic, was “the Liberace of modern poetry.” She had some talent, lots of money and connections, and a Yankee approach to selling the product: “Publicity first. Poetry will follow.” From the start, Pound seems to have welcomed Lowell not for her poetic talent or taste — “the fluid, fruity, facile stuff we most wanted to avoid” — but for her pocketbook and her promotional abilities: “Re/Amy. I DON’T want her. But if she can be made to liquidate, to excoriate, to cash in, on a magazine . . . THEN would I be right glad to see her milked of her money, mashed into moonshine, at mercy of monitors.”

When he found that Lowell had her own ideas about her money, and about making modern poetry more accessible to the general reader, Pound left “Amygism” for Vorticism, freeing Amy to return to America “with the Imagist ark of the covenant, varnished and empty.” Shortly afterward, Pound became foreign editor for The Little Review and distanced himself further from “Amy-just-selling-the-goods” by changing the magazine’s masthead to read, “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste.” By 1920 he was on to other alliances, causes, and controversies, and on his way to becoming one of modernism’s most influential figures.

What happened to Lowell is still causing some head-scratching. Before her sudden death in 1925, aged fifty-one, she authored or edited over a dozen books — poetry collections, literary criticism, biography — and became so synonymous in America with poetry that she was on the cover of Time magazine. One of her posthumously published collections won a Pulitzer, but then she was quickly and decisively forgotten. Now, except for her cigars, her lesbianism, and such incidents as her quarrel with Pound, she has been “reduced to a footnote, sometimes a derisory one, in the history of modern poetry.” That comment is from the Introduction to Amy Lowell, American Modern, a 2004 collection of essays that offers itself as “a starting point for putting Amy Lowell back into a conversation, into a literary history, where she belongs.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.