Unfortunately, being at the head of the imagist movement also garnered her some of those “bad” regards I mentioned previously. During this time, poet Ezra Pound, the founder of the imagist movement, saw Lowell’s embrace of the movement as a sort of hi-jacking…and both ruthlessly ridiculed and critiqued her for it. In fact, from this stemmed a nickname that would stalk her career–being a larger woman as the result of glandular problems, her enemies took to referring to her publicly and privately as the “hippopoetess.”
Poets, as you see, as emotional a breed as they can be, are not wholly spared the pettiness that stalks the rest of mankind.
Nonetheless, Lowell pushed forward, and though she did not live to see the greatest recognition of all, in 1926–a year after her death–she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Though it was her book of poetry, What’s O’Clock, that won her the Pulitzer, today we examine another of her more prominent works: “Lilacs.”
Color of lilac,
Your great puffs of flowers
Are everywhere in this my New England.
Among your heart-shaped leaves
Orange orioles hop like music-box birds and sing
Their little weak soft songs;
In the crooks of your branches
The bright eyes of song sparrows sitting on spotted eggs
Peer restlessly through the light and shadow
Of all Springs.
Lilacs in dooryards
Holding quiet conversations with an early moon;
Lilacs watching a deserted house
Settling sideways into the grass of an old road;
Lilacs, wind-beaten, staggering under a lopsided shock of bloom
Above a cellar dug into a hill.
You are everywhere.
You were everywhere.
You tapped the window when the preacher preached his sermon,
And ran along the road beside the boy going to school.
You stood by the pasture-bars to give the cows good milking,
You persuaded the housewife that her dishpan was of silver.
And her husband an image of pure gold.
You flaunted the fragrance of your blossoms
Through the wide doors of Custom Houses—
You, and sandal-wood, and tea,
Charging the noses of quill-driving clerks
When a ship was in from China.
You called to them: “Goose-quill men, goose-quill men,
May is a month for flitting.”
Until they writhed on their high stools
And wrote poetry on their letter-sheets behind the propped-up ledgers.
Paradoxical New England clerks,
Writing inventories in ledgers, reading the “Song of Solomon” at night,
So many verses before bed-time,
Because it was the Bible.
The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.
Color of lilac,
You have forgotten your Eastern origin,
The veiled women with eyes like panthers,
The swollen, aggressive turbans of jeweled pashas.
Now you are a very decent flower,
A reticent flower,
A curiously clear-cut, candid flower,
Standing beside clean doorways,
Friendly to a house-cat and a pair of spectacles,
Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms.
Maine knows you,
Has for years and years;
New Hampshire knows you,
Cape Cod starts you along the beaches to Rhode Island;
Connecticut takes you from a river to the sea.
You are brighter than apples,
Sweeter than tulips,
You are the great flood of our souls
Bursting above the leaf-shapes of our hearts,
You are the smell of all Summers,
The love of wives and children,
The recollection of gardens of little children,
You are State Houses and Charters
And the familiar treading of the foot to and fro on a road it knows.
May is lilac here in New England,
May is a thrush singing “Sun up!” on a tip-top ash tree,
May is white clouds behind pine-trees
Puffed out and marching upon a blue sky.
May is a green as no other,
May is much sun through small leaves,
May is soft earth,
And windows open to a South Wind.
May is full light wind of lilac
From Canada to Narragansett Bay.
Color of lilac.
Heart-leaves of lilac all over New England,
Roots of lilac under all the soil of New England,
Lilac in me because I am New England,
Because my roots are in it,
Because my leaves are of it,
Because my flowers are for it,
Because it is my country
And I speak to it of itself
And sing of it with my own voice
Since certainly it is mine.
brian miller said:
ha. i rather like this…perticularly the last verse…i remember reading a bit of her when we did imagists as our poetics prompt a couple months ago…and of the history between her and pounds…nice one chris…
wow wow wow…i love this…Making poetry out of a bit of moonlight
And a hundred or two sharp blossoms…. dang this woman knew how to make poetry out of whatever…i’m spellbound…
Hi Chris–you know, she reminds me a great deal of Whitman, in the listing and in the universal sort of view, but, of course, such a different lilac poem. I’m thinking of “When Lilacs Last in the dooryard bloomed,” about Lincoln’s death. K.
I can’t even take it all in in just one reading, so many images, I love the way she has taken this one flower that everyone knows, and created this amazing tapestry of words and image and scent and senses. I will have to re-read several more times and savor.
Victoria C. Slotto said:
I’m a huge fan of imagism. I think it represents a poet’s ability to SEE (and all the other senses. Nothing hidden. Just what’s there. Very good post, Chris, as always. I have some of her work on my Kindle. This makes me want to go and savor a bit more.
I think this article is so kool. I have recently been studying the writings of Anna Akhmatova and her Acmeist movement which, so they say, paralleled the writings of T.E. Hulme in England and his development of imagism. It is not so much the voice I’m after, but the delivery of the voice stressing clarity and craft. Anyway, well done. I enjoyed this tremendously. And if I ever get to feel comfortable with the delivery, I’ll probably be giving it a try. I also loved the poem you posted!!!
Thanks, Chris. I’m headed off to hunt down some more of her poems.
Didn’t realize that there was a Sunday treat hidden here.
Thank you so much for acquainting me with poets that are unknown to me.
Badtempered lot, poets, by all accounts and there was me thinking they were all mild-mannered and friendly 🙂
Ha! As if. 🙂
Sharon Ingraham said:
very nice item on a sometimes over-looked poet; and as much as I like Pound, he could be outrageously cruel to others at times and for that I don’t forgive him, talented or no … as aprille said, I think, bad-tempered – indeed – guess his mama never told him there’s really no excuse for bad behaviour … in any case, thanks Chris for giving Amy Lowell and her work so much needed publicity, in my view …
like walt whitman based around a flower, a fantastic read, glad you featured amy’s poem along with the bit of history; i hadn’t been aware enough of her, great stuff –
thanks so much 😉
Semaphore / Samuel Peralta said:
Great spotlight, Chris. Amy Lowell was one of my touchstone poets while developing my own craft. She was able to sustain an imagist theme over a much more substantial tapestry than many of her contemporaries, and that was what attracted me to her writing.
Rosemary Nissen-Wade said:
Wonderful poem! Thank you so much for posting it. [A pox on you, Ezra, for your mean-spiritedness! But then again, I’ll forgive him for the sake of those petals on the wet black bough … and a few other things. 🙂 ]
Lindy Lee said:
“hippopoetess” indeed; what envious, would-be poet dreamed that one up? And, the shame of it all that she received a posthumous Pulitzer to boot. Somewhere, some place, at some other spot in time Ms. Lowell must still be writing her fine verses.
Lilacs are lovely but much more so as portrayed in Amy Lowell’s unique style of imagery.
Thank you, Chris G, for this post…