The Letter Project

February 14, 2010

Special Delivery (53, 54, 55)

Filed under: Letters — Theresa Williams @ 1:12 am
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In these letters to her mother, Jeannine Dotts discusses the life and poetry of Amy Lowell.  Of particular interest to me was Jeannine’s fine treatment of Lowell’s poem, “Red Slippers.” 

People hurry by, for these are only shoes, and in a window farther down is a big lotus bud of cardboard, whose petals open every few minutes and reveal a wax doll, with staring bead eyes and flaxen hair, lolling awkwardly in its flower chair.

Jeannine is a Creative Writing major at Bowling Green State University.–TW

 

Letter 1

Dear Mom,
Another semester of classes have begun and the next sixteen weeks will be very busy. One of my classes is Modern Poetry and the professor, Theresa Williams, has assigned each student a poet. My poet is Amy Lowell. During the next few months I’ll be writing letters to you explaining and sharing what I discover about this particular woman and her poetry. Hopefully we will both find her interesting and her poetry exciting. I am thrilled to have this opportunity to share poetry with you and I’m sure you will enjoy the next sixteen weeks as much as I will.

At this time I don’t know very much about Amy Lowell. She was born in 1874 to a prominent New England family in the state of Massachusetts and died in 1925. She would have only been about 51 years old. A distant cousin of hers was the famous poet Robert Lowell.

I also learned that she was a very large woman and was once referred to as “hippopoetess” by Ezra Pound. Not a very nice word and I am glad I did not get assigned Erza Pound as my poet since he was obviously not a very nice man. But back to Amy Lowell…She was also a lesbian and had a long time companion that worked as an actress. She was a feminist, she was outspoken and liked a good cigar. That is really all I know of her so far. I’m looking forward to learning more about her life.

Amy Lowell’s poetry falls under the category of ‘imagists’ and right now I have no idea what that means. I’m sure I’ll find out and when I do I’ll share that information with you. I’ve read a few of her poems in class and while one poem, “The Pike,” seemed to a straightforward poem about a fish, other poems such as “Venus Transiens” and “New Heavens for Old” feel as if they are intended to say more than they first appear to say. Since the one part of poetry I actually enjoy is digging into poems and finding hidden messages or meanings, analyzing each word or phrase for context and insights, I’m hoping this proves to be the case with Amy Lowell’s poetry.

By the end of this semester we should both know more about Amy Lowell and her poetry. I will keep you informed of my discoveries since I’m sure you will look forward to learning about her poetry. During the week of Halloween the class will hold a ball and each student is to dress and act as their poet. Put on your thinking cap because I’ll have to transform myself into this woman. Hopefully I can locate a picture of her and you can help me think of ways to dress and look like her.

Thanks for helping me with this assignment,  Jeannine

Letter 2

Dear Mom,
Hello again. I’m writing to give you more information on Amy Lowell, the poet assigned to me for my Modern Poetry class. I’ve read quite a bit about her since my last letter.

I think I mentioned before that she was born in Brookline Massachusetts. She was the daughter of wealthy New England aristocrats who were prominent members of society. Her father Augustus Lowell was a businessman, civic leader and horticulturalist, while her mother Katherine was an accomplished musician and linguist. They lived in a house called Sevenels – named for the seven Lowell’s that lived there. Although she was educated, an English governess left her with a lifelong inability to spell. (I thought you would understand that burden) Once she started attending private schools she became indifferent to classroom etiquette and became known as the “terror of the faculty.” It seems she picked on and terrorized other students, talked back to the teachers. She was noisy, loud, opinionated and spoiled. (I have no idea how I’ll be able to become her for the Halloween party because that’s just not me!)

She traveled with her family as a teenager and kept a journal. She wrote two stories during this time period, Dream Drops or Stories from Fairyland and with contributions from her mother they privately published the book and all of the proceeds were donated to Perkins Institute for the Blind.

Once finished with school she made her debut. She was very popular but did not receive a proposal for marriage. She instead turned to educating herself since Lowell women were not allowed a higher education. Her father collected books, he had a 7,000 volume library, and Amy decided to read them all. It also ignited her own passion for book collecting and she would collect books throughout her lifetime. She would eventually come to be in the forefront of international book collectors.

After the death of her mother in 1895, a broken engagement and problems arising from her weight, Amy went to Egypt. Her doctors believed the Egyptian heat and a diet of nothing but tomatoes and asparagus would cure her. (I don’t think the people at Weight Watchers would approve!) Instead of curing her it nearly killed her and resulted in a “prolonged nervous collapse.” I’m not sure what that means. Five years after the death of her mother, in 1900, her father died. Amy bought her childhood home, Sevenels along with a summer home in New Hampshire which she named Broomley Lacey.

Taking over some of her father’s duties, she gave a speech against the reappointment of an elderly superintendent of the Brookline public schools. She was the first woman in her family to make a speech in public. The audience booed her but Amy held her ground and kept going. By the end of the speech she received applause. She went on to become a member of the executive committee of the Brookline Education Society and a chair it’s library.

In 1902 Amy became a poet. She was twenty-eight years old and felt she had found her true calling. She had been gaining an interest in poetry for some years but it was after seeing Eleanora Duse perform that she began writing her own poetry. It wasn’t until 1910 that four of her poems were published in the Atlantic Monthly. By 1912 she published her first book of poetry, A Dome of Many Colored Glass. It wasn’t a best seller. One critic wrote “to be brief, in spite of its lifeless classicism, can never rouse one’s anger. But, to be briefer still, it cannot rouse one at all.” (Yikes, that had to hurt.)

But 1912 wasn’t altogether a bad year for Amy. It was at this same time that she met Ada Dwyer Russell. The friendship developed into something more and they had what was referred to as a “Boston’s Marriage.” (I had to look this up, it simply means that two women live together without the support of a man. It isn’t necessarily a lesbian relationship since it could be for financial or safety reasons.) The two women lived together until Amy died. Ada became her companion as well a kind of secretary and personal aide. Ada is credited for being a muse to Amy since her most creative work came from the years they were together.

A year after meeting Ada, Amy read some poetry by Hilda Doolittle and identified with her style of poetry. Anxious to discover more about the imagist poetry Amy traveled to London to meet Erza Pound, the head of imagist movement. She learned about imagism and free verse, meeting several other poets who would become lifelong friends. As a matter a fact, she would correspond with these poets for years, along with helping to encourage and support other poets with money and gifts and favorable reviews. Meanwhile her poetry was appearing more often in journals and she was also writing essays and reviews.

Life seemed to be going well for Amy but in 1915 she had a falling out with Erza Pound over the direction of imagist movement. Erza Pound would later call the movement Amygism- he did not mean this in a nice way. Amy fought hard to sell the new type of poetry here in the United States.

Amy began publishing a book a year. Some were poetry, short and long verse. Her last book was a biography of John Keats. Amy Lowell died of a cerebral hemorrhage at her home in 1925 . What’s O’clock was published after her death and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. (An interesting side note is that in the last years of her life she had a similarity to Grandma Smith, overweight, with the round face and hair worn up.)

During her lifetime Amy Lowell wrote more than 650 poems. She was not appreciated at the time but today she is acknowledged as the first American woman poet to see herself as part of the feminine literary tradition. She was relentless in her pursuit of acceptance for the “new poetry” she was pushing. She gave lectures to large crowds and insisted they accept her literary judgments “as nothing more than gospel.” I’m sort of impressed by her but also a little scared. She must have been a very formidable, speak her mind, live her life as she wants kind of woman.

That is pretty much her life in a nutshell. I probably won’t be writing much about her biography after this letter. I did want to include a poem by her though.

Madonna of the Evening Flowers
All day long I have been working,
Now I am tired
I call: “Where are you?”
But there is only the oak-tree rustling in the wind.
The house is very quiet,
The sun shines in on your books,
On your scissors and thimble just put down,
But you are not there.
Suddenly I am lonely:
Where are you? I go about searching.

Then I see you,
Standing under a spire of pale blue larkspur,
With a basket of roses on your arm.
You are cool, like silver,
And you smile.
I think the Canterbury bells are playing little tunes.

You tell me that the peonies need spraying,
That the columbines have overrun all bounds,
That the pyrus japonica should be cut back and rounded.
You tell me all these things.
But I look at you, heart of silver,
White heart-flame of polished silver,
Burning beneath the blue steeples of the larkspur,
And I long to kneel instantly at your feet,
While all about us peal the loud, sweet, Te Deums of the Canterbury bells.

This particular poem is a sort of love letter to Amy’s friend Ada. I think it states quite obviously of how she felt about her friend and wouldn’t it be nice to have someone not only feel this way but to state it in poetry like this? More importantly, you can see the way Imagism works within this poem. Amy Lowell gave a few rules that should be followed in order for a poem to fall under the category of Imagism. These rules are:

1. The poem must regularly use everyday speech, but avoid clichés
2. Create new rhythms
3. Address any subject matter the poet desires
4. Depict it’s written subjects precise, clear images

As you can see she managed to do all of the above in her poem. There is every day speech, or at least the everyday speech of her time period. There is a rhythm although I think it could be read differently by different people. She chose to write about a woman she loves, not a topic everyone would approve of but most importantly, she has images that are very clear as you read the poem. You can see the woman as she stands with a basket of roses, you can picture the blue larkspur and all the other flowers growing around her.

So, my letter has gone a little long. I’m sure you’re not surprised. The biography took much more time and space then I thought it would. I thought it was pretty interesting so I guess I lingered on her life. Next letter I’ll try to stick to more of her poetry.
See ya soon, Jeannine

Letter 3

 Dear Mom,

This is my last letter regarding Amy Lowell. She was an interesting woman and I’m glad she was assigned to me. I hope you also found her interesting.

In this letter I will be sharing one of her poems, “Red Slippers” and writing about why I chose this poem over all the other poetry she created. Obviously this particular poem caught my attention for a reason and it is those reasons I will write about today. I’m including the poem on a separate page at the end of the letter. I think you’ll enjoy reading it in its entirety, rather than trying to piece together words, lines and sections as you read through this letter.

If you remember, Amy Lowell was an Imagist poet. Her poetry was meant to show one very clear, precise image (a tenet of Imagist poetry) and she succeeds very well with the image of the red slippers seen through a store window. We, the reader, can see the slippers perfectly as they are described hanging “in long threads of red” with “arched insteps” and “curved heels” that “flatten out heeless.” But it is not the real, the physical, descriptions that allow us to picture the slippers in our mind; it is the way they are revealed by the speaker. These slippers demanded her attention and now they demand ours.

To begin with, these are not just regular old slippers. They are not displayed in a pretty box like the wax doll farther down. These slippers are “festooning from the ceiling like stalactites of blood.” Festooning is to decorate something, usually with garlands, and the use of it here shows that the person who hung those slippers were determined to show them off in a pretty, festive sort of way. But the speaker also says they are like stalactites of blood and that does not sound quite so festive. It feels hard and dangerous, giving the slippers a more ominous air to them. The threat of these slippers becomes stronger as we are told of them “flooding the eyes of passers-by with dripping color,” and “jamming their crimson reflections . . .” Amy Lowell chose some interesting words here (another tenet of the Imagist poets – the use of common speech but every word needs to be the right word). She uses “flooding” and “jamming” and both of these words have unpleasant conations. Flooding is uncontrollable while jamming is forceful. The slippers are also “dripping” with color and since the “stalactites of blood” are still very fresh in our mind, it causes the reader to feel weary of these slippers. These slippers are also “screaming their claret and salmon into the teeth of the sleet” which sounds like they are attacking. Sleet is hard, cold and hurtful and with teeth added to them it becomes dangerous. Yet the slippers aren’t afraid of the sleet and they not only attack but invade and infect “plopping their little round maroon lights upon the tops of umbrellas.”

The effects of the slippers are revealed in the third stanza. The reference to blood from the second stanza has continued and the shop fronts are “gashed and bleeding.” The blood now “spout[s] under the electric light” almost like an infection that has begun to spread. The simile of the slippers as an infectious disease is further played out by Lowell’s describing the reflection of the slippers as “fluid and fluctuating” and by the fact they have “myriadly multiplied,” meaning they’ve multiplied over and over again. And they keep invading and spreading in the sixth stanza as “they plunge” into the crowd.

Amy Lowell also brings the slippers to life by her use of color. The slippers are not only red but they are “dripping color” – the color of blood. Their reflection is crimson, and when they scream it is “claret and salmon,” all three are shades of red. They are maroon colored as they land on the umbrellas. They are also “crimson lacquer” and look like “red rockets” reflecting in a July pond. The image of rippling waters dotted with red fireworks bursting from the sky is great because it not only shows the movement of the slippers as they hang, but it validates the color and gives the impression of warmth since July is a summer month.

The theme of red continues as the slippers are called “cracker sparks of scarlet,” and the comparison to billions of vermilion trumpets” and how they “echo in faint rose over the pavement.”

The world around these slippers is a colorless one. There are “flaws of gray,” and flaw is an interesting word because it means a blemish or a mistake and while cold, gray days are dreary and depressing, they usually aren’t considered mistakes or failings. The world is also cold with “windy sleet” while the slippers reflection is referred to as “hot rain.” The shops are “white” and we are told in stanza five that they are also “monotonous.” There are no other colors given in the poem, not to the umbrellas that are carried to ward off the sleet, not in the other shop windows, not even the “big lotus bud” that hides the doll. There is quite a contrast between the slippers and the world.

The slippers, with their vibrancy, the heat of their coloring, their ability to add life to the worlds inside and outside of the shop, seem alive. They are more alive than the “wax doll, with staring bead eyes and flaxen hair, lolling awkwardly in its flower chair” that is located in a window farther down. And yet, in the last line of the poem, the ninth stanza, the speaker states that they “are only red slippers,” making them seem as ordinary and as dull as they had in the first line.

After reading this poem and thinking about the red slippers, I wondered what made them so dangerous. It could be the way they affected the world around them. If they could create the chaos and sense of danger while hanging in a store, what could they do if set free? If someone actually bought them, took them outside and wore them, what could they do? Then again, maybe it was their color. Red is sexy and sometimes sex appeal can be dangerous. You could attract unwanted attention in these slippers; you could attract too much attention. This poem was published in 1917 and if a woman was thought of as ‘loose’ it could mean trouble for her. Or maybe it’s a much more simply explanation. Perhaps the speaker likes shoes and knows she has no need for them and needs to talk herself out of buying them. It could also be that she really likes and wants the shoes but can’t afford them. Whatever the reason, these red slippers made an impression on the speaker and now on us, as readers.

It’s easy to see why this particular poem appealed to me. Not only did Amy Lowell write a piece of poetry that shows a hard, clear image of red slippers, but she gave life to them. The world around the shoes became less animate as the slippers became more so. The readers were transported from a cold windy day, to a Fourth of July celebration, and back to the cold again. We experienced the energy of the color red in all its many hues and the lifelessness of the color white. We stood with the speaker as she alone, in a crowd of others, noticed the red slippers.
There are so many different aspects to this poem that I find fascinating and I hope you have too. If, after reading the poem and thinking about it, you have different ideas or other conclusions about the “Red Slippers” you’ll have to let me know. It would fun for me to hear what you think.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Amy Lowell as much as I have this semester.
Love,

Jeannine

“Red Slippers” by Amy Lowell
Red slippers in a shop-window; and outside in the street, flaws of gray, windy sleet!

Behind the polished glass the slippers hang in long threads of red, festooning from the ceiling like stalactites of blood, flooding the eyes of passers-by with dripping color, jamming their crimson reflections against the windows of cabs and tram-cars, screaming their claret and salmon into the teeth of the sleet, plopping their little round maroon lights upon the tops of umbrellas.

The row of white, sparkling shop-fronts is gashed and bleeding, it bleeds red slippers. They spout under the electric light, fluid and fluctuating, a hot rain—and freeze again to red slippers, myriadly multiplied in the mirror side of the window.

They balance upon arched insteps like springing bridges of crimson lacquer; they swing up over curved heels like whirling tanagers sucked in a wind-pocket; they flatten out, heelless, like July ponds, flared and burnished by red rockets.

Snap, snap, they are cracker sparks of scarlet in the white, monotonous block of shops.

They plunge the clangor of billions of vermilion trumpets into the crowd outside, and echo in faint rose over the pavement.

People hurry by, for these are only shoes, and in a window farther down is a big lotus bud of cardboard, whose petals open every few minutes and reveal a wax doll, with staring bead eyes and flaxen hair, lolling awkwardly in its flower chair.

One has often seen shoes, but whoever saw a cardboard lotus bud before?

The flaws of gray, windy sleet beat on the shop-window where there are only red slippers.

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