Poem Guide

Amy Lowell: “The Garden by Moonlight”

Ezra Pound thought she ruined imagism, but her erotic lyricism turned it into a style all her own.
Amy Lowell Reading Book

When I first began reading the modernists, Amy Lowell had already become little more than a footnote to the work of Ezra Pound. His insistence that she had ruined his early movement, imagism, seemed entirely justified by that one Amy Lowell poem that was repeatedly anthologized, the awful “Patterns.” But when I read her transgressively erotic poem “Venus Transiens” in the newly published Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, I began to suspect that Pound had been wrong. It seemed plausible to me, knowing what I knew of E. P. by then, that he was perhaps jealous of Lowell’s work and Lowell’s seemingly larger audience. Perhaps his dismissal had more to do with ego than with craft.

Indeed, as I read more and more of Amy Lowell’s brand of imagism, I began to see that in fact she was an artful practitioner of modernist tendencies, drawing upon the same deft strokes in Chinese and Japanese poetries that Pound had mined. Moreover, Lowell was creating an eroticized world in which her relationship with Ada Russell was central, pushing the boundaries of gender, sexuality, and social mores. Whereas Stein employed code words for her lesbianism in writing about her relationship with Alice Toklas, Lowell was drawing upon the natural world—in the way that Whitman had done in his homoerotic “Calamus” poems—to write lyrical, openly sexual love poems to Russell.

Oddly, Pound’s dismissal of Lowell has remained canonical, without anyone really challenging the heterosexism and misogyny that might have been behind it. Too bad, because I think contemporary readers would find great pleasure in Lowell’s work, particularly the later poems. This is why I’ve chosen “The Garden by Moonlight” from Lowell’s oeuvre, to showcase her deft use of image and the freshness of tone and diction that shape her work. In this poem, the feminine eros is invoked through the topoi of cat, moonlight, folded poppies, ladies’ delight . . . the garden is a metonym of the female body, reminiscent at times of The Song of Songs. The yonic energy of the poem culminates in orgasm, described as the sparks of fireflies. And in a moment deeply contemporary, the poet turns at the end to the subject of childlessness, just as the language itself changes from dense, rich texture to a kind of barren tone.

Robert Lowell, writing to Elizabeth Bishop in the 1950s, reports a conversation with Robert Frost, in which the latter Robert said of the former Robert’s distant cousin, “somebody really ought to unbury Amy.” Since the time I first proposed to include Amy in Dark Horses, a new Selected Poems of Amy Lowell has appeared, lovingly edited by Melissa Bradshaw and Adrienne Munich. Munich writes that Lowell’s “brand of imagism swept away self-consciously poetic diction in favor of a clean, unadorned, musical line.” And now Honor Moore has produced a graceful Selected Poems of Lowell for the American Poets Project. In the end, Amy Lowell did indeed fulfill Pound’s vision, whether Pound approved of it or not. And Lowell has finally made it into that most hallowed of texts, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry in English.

Perhaps this is but the beginning of a resurgence of interest in Lowell, as we’ve had with Mina Loy and Lorine Niedecker. I hope that more of Lowell’s “brand of imagism” will surface, and that the poems will be taught alongside those of her male counterparts. I find in Lowell a grace and daring beyond measure. The pared-down rhythms and the rich imagery of her work are exquisite.

D.A. Powell on Amy Lowell’s “The Garden by Moonlight” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.

Originally Published: February 4th, 2009

Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...

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  1. February 6, 2009
     Aikhimiemonah Fitzalfred

    Amy Lowell Kudos to you. you are so genius in your fictions, dictions, imagisms, and image constructions. whenever i read through your work, i am motivated to develop in my own constructions. Keep on the good work. It is so astonishing and fascinating to human from nature. I mean real and raw nature. Once again my dear, keep on the good work, i am gazing forward to see more of your attractive work on my email.

  2. February 6, 2009
     Aikhimiemonah Fitzalfred

    Amy Lowell Kudos to you. you are so genius in your fictions, dictions, imagisms, and image constructions. whenever i read through your work, i am motivated to develop in my own constructions. Keep on the good work. It is so astonishing and fascinating to human from nature. I mean real and raw nature. Once again my dear, keep on the good work, i am gazing forward to see more of your attractive works on my email.

  3. February 12, 2009
     Jason Scofield

    Amy Lowells the Garden By Moonlight was a very descriptive poem.She basically paints yo a picture of the environment in this poem.As stated by an earlier review ,I picked up on how the tone and the imagery builds.The result is a poem that is calm at first then builds in imagery to describe a orgasm that is shown by the sparks of the fireflies and the part where she just blurts out comes.I wasn't sure what she was describing at first but those two parts made it very clear!

  4. February 15, 2009
     Raymond Mpubani

    It's only my opinion but I think A.Lowell was a better poet than Pound. Pound was only envious. And I love Patterns-I think its the best of her poems, those I have read so far.

  5. February 16, 2009
     Georgina B

    Unless someone can prove he or she has the ability to read the dead Ezra Pound's mind, all this talk of his being misogynistic, heterosexist or envious is mere speculation. I do know that even though he didn't like Amy Lowell's poems he did champion those of another lesbian, HD.

  6. February 17, 2009

    Pound or no Pound, Amy Lowell stands on her own as one the excellent American poets of the early 20th century. Some of her work is exquisite: see "Wind and Silver." Also "A Decade," "A Sprig of Rosemary," and "The Giver of Stars" are fine.

    Don Lilliput Review/Issa's Untidy Hut

  7. February 18, 2009
     G the Art Spy

    I recently read Lowell's Imagist anthology and was struck by the same thought as Powell: Lowell is quite good. Her work there was similar to HD, but less austere, more personal. However, I don't see the point of Powell's unwarrented speculation about Pound's jealousy, etc. Very quick and low level thinking, that, a "put down." (One which DA Powell would not want asserted without evidence about himself.)

    Pound championed more poets than most, and he often was right in his judgements. Pound, if nothing else, is honest, even when wrong, such as in his economic essays. The Lowell poem that is linked here is very flaccid, voice-driven, very post-1970s, very today really. Every line is not necessary in the sense of imagism as practiced by early Pound, HD, and the sometimes pithy Amy Lowell.

  8. March 3, 2009
     Lilawattie Jainath

    The Garden Moonlight by Amy Lowell was a very descriptive poem. I agree it describe an orgasm. At first all was calm and then line 8 describes when the first sensation occurs. Lines 14-16 is when the orgasm occurs. She then continues to describe the orgasm after by using similes.

  9. March 6, 2009
     Emily DeSalvatore

    I completely disagree with D.A. Powells assessment of 'The Garden by Moonlight' concerning the description of orgasm.

    If Amy Lowell is describing a female orgasm in lines 8 and 15, then I feel bad for the girl if her orgasm is as brief and uneventful as the dim glow of a firefly or the breaking of a branch.

    Nowhere in this poem is there any glimpse that the garden is a metonym of the female body. Line 10 states that flowers are at her feet, not that the flowers are her feet.

    This poem is about the beauty and calm of a garden and the memories it can hold. When her lover appears, shes shares her precious garden and the memories of her mother. Line 23 asks if the relationship will last - will the flowers call you mine when I'm gone?

  10. March 10, 2009
     Garman Lord

    I'm puzzled; can anyone unpuzzle me? First off, I just read "Patterns," and I think it's a pretty good poem, so wonder why Pound or Powell or anybody else would think it's a bad one. Secondly, I notice it's an heterosexual poem, which makes me wonder why the issue of sexual orientation seems so important, if it was as seemingly uinimportant as that to the poet herself. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson's remark that the speaker in her poem is "not me, but a supposed person." Was Amy Lowell really lesbian or just bi? Personally I happen to be hetero, which means that more people tend to like my love poetry than otherwise, simply because more people happen to be hetero, but all in all it's just an accident of birth all around, so what difference does it make? Undoubtably a poet's sexual orientation will have some effect on his poetizing, but I sometimes wonder if it warrants making as much of an issue of as we seem to, tending perhaps to politicize an issue that should be mainly about art.

  11. May 7, 2009

    Just a footnote here to a thread pretty much abandoned. Powell's charge of Pound's misogyny and hetero-sexism is wrong, flat out.

    There was a minor poet by the name of John Gould Fletcher who first ran with the Imagistes and would later run with the Southern Fugitives. The son of a wealthy banker who had left him well inherited, Fletcher bank-rolled the Imagistes in the earliest days. In his autobiography he describes those days. And he was witness to the Pound/Lowell dynamic. He tells the story of one business dinner in London conducted to discuss Imagiste stuff. Pound and Lowell were there. From Fletcher's description of the scene it is pretty clear to me that Lowell and Pound simply did not like each other, she him no more than he her. The chemistry between them was bad from the get go, and probably it was because they were so much alike. In my view they could both be called literary Imperialists looking to colonize the scene.

    Upthread it is mentioned how Pound championed H.D. The case is a bit more complicated than that she was a lesbian. In college she had been in love with him. In the course of their friendship he pretty much broke her heart. Maybe no more than when he urged her to marry Richard Aldington. But he did champion her and for good reason. She was the best of the Imagiste bunch, the only one who thoroughly absorbed the then new aesthetic and who could pull it off effectively.

    Here is where the article gets squirrely. While Powell mentions the poet Mina Loy, he leaves out the fact that Pound championed her too. He called her the best of the Modernists working in the English language. And there was a third Modern great Pound championed, another woman who was a lesbian. Djuna Barnes, who was also consigned to obscurity and who called herself late in life "America's best kept literary secret."

    Of course Amy Lowell should be rehabilitated. She was one of the best of the group. That she has been dismissed is not Pound's fault. No more than that Mina Loy was for long forgotten, that H.D. has rarely been taken all that seriously, or that the name of Djuna Barnes, so far as I know, is still somewhere in the backyard's compost pile.

    The larger question should be this: why have these women Greats all but been forgotten? And who was it that refused them a place at the table? My suspicion is this: the generation that followed theirs, the mid-century poets, critics, and academics, at least in America, is to blame, whatever the motive was.