Five Feminist Poems for National Poetry Month: “The Letter” by Amy Lowell

My historical work on lesbian-feminism tends to cover work that happened in my lifetime, but with this selection of five poems to celebrate National Poetry Month, I am reaching farther back into history. The contemporary scene of feminist poetry is vibrant and engaging—and so is the history of feminist poetry. This series offers five poems by women poets born between 1861 and 1922. A longer history of poetry demonstrates how feminists send messages across the ages.

TIME Magazine cover from 1925 featuring Amy Lowell. (May be from Houghton Library.)

Perhaps it is my own epistolary practice that makes me love this poem by Amy Lowell. Lowell was a prolific poet and one of the champions of imagism, a poetic movement that placed primary importance on the image; it brought prominence to the work of H.D. among others.

Epistolary poems, or poems in the form of a letter, are a long poetic tradition. They often reveal some of the most intimate human longings. Aracelis Girmay’s excellent contemporary epistle, “Consider the Hands that Write This Letter” demonstrates the continued significance of letter writing, even in a world dominated by email. Like Girmay’s poem, Lowell’s poem “The Letter” takes readers onto paper where “cramped words” scrawl “like draggled fly’s legs.” Lowell animates the letter with multiple similes and metaphors evoking the natural world.

In last week’s poem by Genevieve Taggard, “The Quiet Woman,” the emotional undertone was one of seething anger. “The Letter” is playful and fanciful, celebrating the beloved through letter writing—although in the final stanza, Lowell reveals the complexity of her emotions.

The Letter

Little cramped words scrawling all over the paper
Like draggled fly’s legs,
What can you tell of the flaring moon
Through the oak leaves?
Or of my uncurtained window and the bare floor
Spattered with moonlight?
Your silly quirks and twists have nothing in them
Of blossoming hawthorns,
And this paper is dull, crisp, smooth, virgin of loveliness
Beneath my hand.
I am tired, Beloved, of chafing my heart against
The want of you;
Of squeezing it into little inkdrops,
And posting it.
And I scald alone, here, under the fire
Of the great moon.

“The Letter” appears in the 1915 Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology.

p1030388-150x150Julie R. Enszer, PhD, is a scholar and a poet. Her book manuscript, A Fine Bind, is a history of lesbian-feminist presses from 1969 until 2009. Her scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern Cultures, Journal of Lesbian Studies, American Periodicals, WSQ, and Frontiers. She is the author of four poetry collections—Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sisterhood and Handmade Love—and editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker, which won the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, which was a finalist for the 2012 Award. She also edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and is a regular book reviewer for the The Rumpus and Calyx. Julie earned her MFA and PhD from the University of Maryland. 

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