Amy Lowell and the Art of the Audience

On a cold, wet day in March of 1915, Amy Lowell stepped up on the dais in the large meeting room of the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park in New York City. She had been asked to address the Poetry Society of America about a new genre of poetry called “Imagism.” The room was filled with poets and poetry lovers, literary critics and publishers. Amy felt nervous but betrayed no sign of it as she settled her notes on the podium, then straightened the pince-nez on her nose. She raised her eyes and looked out over the rows of filled seats. She been allocated five minutes to speak. Time constraints meant nothing to Amy. She was certain that once she began to talk, the audience would become so enthralled that all sense of time would slip away.

She wore a gray silk suit that artfully covered her large bulk; the high collar of her white shirtwaist framed her delicate face. Lowell’s thin hair had been augmented with a wig and was arranged into a bun to give her some height. A pin of polished silver was stuck in her lapel. She wore a plain pince-nez on her nose. The only color was on her fingers, rings studded with semi-precious stones: garnet, opal, and tourmaline.

Amy began her talk. She briefly described the tenets of Imagism and what the movement could mean for American poets. By using common words and language, and writing in free verse, a poet could express things in a new and creative way, and in a way that drew the audience in to the experience. The use of images was crucial to creating that immersive experience.

To illustrate her points, Amy began to recite her poem titled “Spring Day.” , At first her audience listened politely, soothed by the opening lines and interested in what would follow. But what followed was a vivid image, and one that made them increasingly uncomfortable. It was as if the tasteful and elegant clothing Lowell had dressed herself in that morning was now falling away before their eyes, revealing a naked Lowell, frolicking lazily in a bath:

Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot, and the planes of light in the water jar…

Discomfort gave rise to snickers, then the audience began to call out in reproof. Lowell did not falter. She continued on reciting, her voice clear and steady:

I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me… I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots….[1]

By the time Lowell finished reciting, the crowd was booing loudly and angrily. No matter, thought Amy Lowell. She had wanted a reaction and she’d gotten one. Her new way of writing poetry would be the talk of the poetry community and eventually the larger reading public. She had manipulated the reaction through a masterful performance, a mastery she would employ for years to come.

From her first public reading, when Lowell arranged for backstage drums to accompany her reading of a poem titled Bombardment, to the hundreds of appearances that followed (many standing room only), Lowell always gave a great performance. She chided (“Clap or hiss, I don’t care which, but do something!”[2]); provoked (“when she lighted up a very long and very black cigar, she presented a spectacle such as Ann Arbor had never seen…”[3] ); and seduced her audience into adoring her — or if not adoring her, at least never forgetting her.

She published seven books of poetry before she died at the age of fifty-one, appeared on the cover of Time, and won the Pulitzer Prize. But her writing of poetry would never have been enough to propel her to prominence. It was her stagecraft, the art of performance, that made her a star. Robert Frost wrote after she died, “how often have I heard it in the voice and seen it in the eyes of this generation that Amy Lowell had lodged poetry with them to stay….”[4]Poetry held a permanent place in the hearts of her audiences, and seated right on top was the queen herself, Amy Lowell.

[1] Amy Lowell, “Spring Day,” Men, Women, and Ghosts, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916), p. 330.

[2] Melissa Bradshaw, Amy Lowell, Diva Poet (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011) p. 52.

This post previously appeared on Medium.