Friday, August 26, 2005

Louis Untermeyer & Amy Lowell

Yes, we have been reprieved. Until the very last minute, it looked as tho Katrina would give us a fairly serious evening; our lights went out around 3 in the afternoon, and then the winds started really kicking up. But they kicked up, and then ratcheted down. The power came back before midnight, just in time to save the contents of the fridge. The driveway is carpeted with leaves and small branches, but nothing significant was blown down – aside, that is, from a little camping pavilion I'd set up beside the house for shady reading, and which I'd forgotten to take down. Oh well.
Michael Peverett responded to my post on Olson & his critics with a rather interesting journey into Amy Lowell-land, a place in which I haven't spent much time. He begins by noting my comment on Don Byrd's calling Robert von Hallberg "Mr. von Hallberg," and my offhand parallel of that to Hugh Kenner's "Miss Lowell":

The polite form used to be, that dead authors could be referred to by their first name ("Jane Austen") but that living people should be referred to by title ("Dr Leavis", "Mr Eliot"). This usage was pretty much extinct by the 1950s. It's no doubt true that most scholars prefer dead writers to living writers, which perhaps is why the use of titles often bristles with dislike.

[Thanks, Michael – seriously; this clears up a few dictional questions that buzz around in my mind when I read criticism from the first half of the 20th century. Of course, everything's different now, and I sense there're differences transatlantically, as well. I'm just trying to get my students to drop that damned provicial "Dr." and call me "Professor" (if they must use a title).]

Obviously this usage couldn't apply in Hugh Kenner's case, Amy Lowell having died in 1925 when he was two. Perhaps what really stuck in his craw was a memory of Louis Untermeyer's utterances, as given below (Modern American Poetry: A Critical Anthology, 1919).

Perhaps he was just drawing on the age-old folk-hatred of the unattached woman. Untermeyer and Kenner between them seem to typify very neatly the traditional (not yet extinct?) pattern of male critical response to female poets as outlined by Germaine Greer, namely (1) take them up and over-praise them in an ultimately patronising way, then (2) take violent revenge on their reputations for having been so blatantly over-praised.

Certainly probably for Untermeyer. But HK, so far as I know, never gave Lowell a word of praise, grudging or otherwise. And I suspect that his treatment of her in The Pound Era gave a whole generation of us the sense that we never really needed to read her work at all. Now I'm a great fan of brutal criticism, of twisting the knife & so forth, but what Lowell gets subjected to in that book rather goes beyond the boundaries – gives one a more than slightly shocking insight into a critical universe that's far more misogynist and homophobic than one expects even for 1971. Were there no editors at the University of California Press? (Note to self: post on editors, editing.)

Michael goes on to quote several paragraphs of Untermeyer on Lowell, all of them somewhat flowery and impressionistic, but cumulatively enough to make me want to turn over some pages of Lowell for myself – to see why someone like Untermeyer (far from a first-rate thinker or critic, but certainly a major power broker in American poetry for the first half of the century) would take her so seriously. And why someone like Kenner, whose working thesis in The Pound Era is that these little canonical battles have already been fought and won, would spent so much vituperative energy in trying to reduce her to a figure of comedy.


Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention Amy Lowell. A friend of mine has been nudging me to give her a serious reading for some time now, and to that end I just acquired her Collected Poems. It comes in the "Cambridge Edition": small print and double-column pages, with an enormous number of overhanging lines--a format I associate with the Romantics and Victorians.

Which leaves me to ask this question:

Did any other Modernist poet ever receive the double-column treatment? I can't think of one off the top of my head.

Ben Friedlander

Mark Scroggins said...

the list of the funny old "Cambridge Editions" -- which I seem to own a half-dozen of -- is an awfully conservative one, with a great affection for the canonized figures of mid-19th century New England literary culture: Barrett Browning, Browning, Burns, Byron, Dryden, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Keats, Longfellow, James R. Lowell, Pope, Shelley, Spenser, Tennyson, Whittier, Wordsworth, and Thoreau.

I suspect more than anything that that's owing to the press' location -- Cambridge MA rather than Cambridge UK. Amy Lowell is probably there because Houghton Mifflin was her original publisher; she's certainly the lone modernist of the lot. I can't either think of any other modernists who got the "double-column treatment," though I suppose such late Victorians as Hardy and Robert Bridges *might* have.

Anonymous said...

Region trumps poetics!

(Thanks for the speckuhlation.)