The word “diva” conjures up a number of occupations: opera singer, pop musician, actress. But Melissa Bradshaw, PhD, of the English department, researches a cultural phenomenon that has all but vanished from American society: the celebrity poet.
Bradshaw’s recent book, Amy Lowell, Diva Poet, was recently awarded the Modern Language Association Book Prize for Independent Scholars.
“She was one of many celebrity poets, like Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Carl Sandburg, who read to capacity crowds,” Bradshaw says. “She spoke to rooms of over 3,000 people, with adjacent rooms filled with people listening from outside.”
Audiences enjoyed Lowell’s dramatic readings of her poetry, which, unlike the lofty writing of many of her contemporaries, was more accessible to the common reader.
“Some of it is pretty old-fashioned, but I’d say half of it—the shorter, lyrical poems—could be written by anybody writing today,” says Bradshaw.
This commitment to keeping her poetry simple was partnered with a belief that poetry should not follow strict forms that govern language, rhythm, or subject matter. “She made audiences feel like not only was it okay for poetry to break the rules, but that it was fun if it broke the rules,” Bradshaw says.
But it was not just Lowell’s talent as a writer that kept her in the spotlight. A member of the wealthy and influential Lowell family (the namesake of the mill town Lowell, Massachusetts, and a lineage that includes poet Robert Lowell and astronomer Percival Lowell—Amy’s brother), she was the closest thing 20th-century New England had to a Kardashian.
“People were really fascinated by this woman from this incredibly old, upright Boston family who was interested in traveling around the country delivering poems,” says Bradshaw. Forbidden by her family to pursue a college education, Lowell’s aspirations were unconventional, and so was her public persona.
“She was scandalous…she smoked cigars; she was rumored to be a lesbian; she was filthy rich,” says Bradshaw. “Some of her poems will make you blush. When I first read her, I couldn’t believe that someone was getting away with the stuff she was writing in 1914.”
As popular as Lowell was in her time, her name does not carry the same weight to modern ears as contemporaries like Frost or Ezra Pound. In her research, Bradshaw sought to understand how Lowell’s legacy became buried under the American literary tradition. Her fall from popularity, to Bradshaw’s mind, is part and parcel of Lowell’s identity as a diva.
“I think that when we think of female celebrities, we focus a lot on their quick rise to fame and their imminent fall,” says Bradshaw. She attributes much of Lowell’s lack of enduring fame to her influential rivals, like Pound, whose acolytes praised his work and removed much of Lowell’s success from the narrative.
According to Bradshaw, commentary on Lowell’s gender and appearance—she was overweight—added to her decline in popularity.
“I researched all of the different incidences of people making comments about Lowell’s body, and it’s used by people to dismiss her as a person,” Bradshaw says. “But it comes to influence the way people think about her work. People talk about women and their bodies in a way they never talk about men. Ezra Pound had really bad hair, but no one ever says, ‘His hair was crazy.’”
Although Lowell’s reputation was overshadowed by that of her male contemporaries for much of the 20th century post-World War I, Bradshaw says it is time to give her her due as an influential literary and cultural figure.
“She was always here,” Bradshaw says. “I’m not uncovering some forgotten woman who was obscure and difficult to find.”
Amy Lowell died in 1925 at the age of 51. In 1926, she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.