The Modernist Review

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Tag: Poetry

Write Like a Lady: The Feminine/Feminist Creator and Mina Loy

If she could dress like a lady, why couldn’t she write like one?

– Alfred Kreymborg on Mina Loy

 

As Mina Loy began her flirtation with the Futurists, she joked about her identity as a writer with her friend, Carl, declaring, “I am so interested to find that I am a sort of pseudo Futurist. Couldn’t I become an absolutist or something as I evolve?” Loy never stopped resisting limiting categories as she pursued her creative work, yet critics frequently depict her using the very binaries she bucked. Although critics often describe Loy’s work, language and even typography as masculine, Loy was not simply defining herself by negating her femininity; instead, she was actively re-defining gender identities—particularly feminine identities—through the content and form of her poetry. Her poems “Parturition”, “Lunar Baedeker”, and “Gertrude Stein” are just a few of her texts that attempt to re-contextualize famous cultural figures, familiar symbols, and traditional forms in order to explore a more fluid construction of gender identity, but her exploration of gender construction becomes most transcendent in “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”. While Loy frequently espoused the modernists’ troubling views on eugenics in regards to gender, her stances on gender also promoted a notion of active femininity. As she outlines in her manifesto, Loy advocates a woman with an “indomitable will, irreducible courage, & abundant health the outcome of strong nerves”. By revisiting Loy through a close reading of “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”, we can better understand the development of modern(ist) feminism by reclaiming the chorus of forgotten voices like Loy’s.

We often examine the works of female writers to see how the texts represent the subjected subject, and our examination consistently circumscribes the texts through gendered language–even as we proclaim liberation. But like male writers, female writers cannot be reduced to a monolith defined by gender, and so by continuing to apply notions of what it means to write like a woman, we continue to ignore many of the techniques women writers have long employed. Although critics such as Carolyn Burke, Susan Stanford Friedman, and Natalya Lusty have done significant work for feminist interpretations, they have also continued to analyze the techniques of writers through a strict gendered binary; consequently, scholars continue to refer to the voices of female writers like Loy as masculine or masculinized, ignoring the feminine attributes she instills throughout her works. This and similar approaches to Loy’s texts erase the important work Loy accomplishes not to simply emulate traditional masculinity but to synthesize the male and female through language. While Ezra Pound referred to Loy’s approach as “logopoeia or poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters”, we can also understand Loy’s wordplay as gender play.

Loy’s logopoetic fusion of the gender binary flourishes in “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”. It is in this poem that Loy moves from masculinizing feminine symbols to feminizing masculine symbols. Loy opens the poem with an “aesthetic archetype” as a pseudo-thesis statement for the poem. Although many of her contemporaries “shuddered” and “derided” her grammatical choices, Loy’s refusal to conform to grammatical regulations allows her first lines to operate on multiple levels: “The toy/ become the aesthetic archetype.” The toy becomes both singular and plural, allowing the golden bird to become a metonym for artistic creation. Those familiar with the poem’s inspiration, Constantin Brancusi’s “Bird in Space”, might immediately imagine the looming golden crescent which penetrates the air—an archetypal phallic symbol. The sculpture became the focus of a U.S. legal case which attempted to challenge the official definition of ‘art’ for tax purposes. Instead of being categorized as a work of art, the sculpture was initially taxed as a “Kitchens and Utilities” item. As the case raged on within the courts, the “Bird in Space” became a stand-in—or archetype—for all modern art and its purposes.

Loy expands upon her initial thesis throughout the poem. As the “patient peasant God” “rubbed and rubbed” the bird, the poem takes on a masturbatory quality before Loy begins her transformation of the bird in flight. The masculine form (its beak-like form taking on a penetrative quality in Brancusi’s interpretation) is first stripped of its ornamentation–“unwinged   unplumed”—de-gendering the “lump” into pure act, “a nucleus of flight”. Loy then pivots and feminizes the bird by turning it into a breast, a curve, and a gong—feminine circles—before it completes as an “immaculate/ conception”—the ultimate female act without any male influence. The unproductive male sexuality is represented as a generative female, and so the previously masculine “archetype” becomes a feminine representation of artistic formation. Consequently, Loy creates a space for the modern(ist) female artist and feminine creation within a space that was commonly defined as explicitly and inherently male.

Feminine creation has historically been erased or reduced to the margins, but recent attempts within feminist criticism, gynocriticism, and modernist scholarship to reclaim forgotten texts have been slow to recuperate Mina Loy. As Loy explored feminist theories and texts by Margaret Sanger and Havelock Ellis, Loy admitted, “what I feel now are feminine politics—but in a cosmic way that may not fit anywhere”. Loy’s feminism was frequently an effort to see where the modernist woman fit. Loy countered reductive notions of femininity and used her works to counter assertions of male superiority. By deconstructing these limiting roles, Loy opened the world for female writers to take center stage. Writers like Loy—Gertrude Stein, Nella Larson, and Marianne Moore—endeavored to operate outside binary identities, and so they, too, incorporated their own variances of Loy’s notion that to be a modernist woman in the early twentieth century was to be a creator.

 

About the author

Margaret Mauk is a doctoral student in Florida State University’s literature program. She studies 20th-century British and Irish literature with a particular focus on modernism, motherhood, and identity formation. She is the recipient of the May Alexander Ryburn fellowship. Her work has been presented at Feminisms and Rhetorics, the North American James Joyce Conference, and University of Portsmouth’s Orphan Identities Symposium. She is currently blogging her prelim process while sometimes tweeting as @QuestionMauk

Review: Sadakichi Hartmann’s ‘Collected Poems’

In The Cantos, Ezra Pound includes a memorable lament for a “lost legion” of modernist figures, including a particularly pointed concern for the lost work of Sadakichi Hartmann (1867-1944):

as for the vagaries of our friend Mr. Hartmann,

Sadakichi a few more of him,

were that conceivable, would have enriched

the life of Manhattan

or any other town or metropolis

the texts of his early stuff are probably lost

with the loss of the fly-by night periodicals.

Less concerned with his staying power, Gertrude Stein would echo Pound’s praise for Hartmann when she remarked that “Sadakichi is singular, never plural.” Indeed, much of what has been remembered about Hartmann has, like other liminal figures of the age, been formed by a cult of personality perhaps more so than any direct appreciation of literary work. Alongside many publications regarding the work of Hartmann one inevitably finds comments of praise from the likes of Pound (“If one hadn’t been oneself it would have been worthwhile to have been Sadakichi”) and Walt Whitman (“I have more hopes of him, more faith in him than any of the boys”).

In the case of Hartmann, such keen interest in the poet himself is understandable. The son of a German father and a Japanese mother, Hartmann was born in Japan, spent his youth flitting from Germany to the United States and across Europe, striking up friendships with Whitman, Pound, and Stein, Mallarme, Heyse, Brandes and Maeterlinck. He brought symbolist-inflected poetry and drama to the U.S., became a respected art critic publishing in Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work and Alfred Kreymborg’s Others, wrote some of the earliest English-language haiku, and even became a Hollywood showman later in life, famously playing the court magician in Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad, before dying on a trip to Florida, having lived out his later years in relative obscurity.

For a long time, Pound’s worry that Hartmann’s work would be lost to history rang true, with much of his poetry and criticism remaining in archives or hidden under various pseudonyms in the contents of the modernist little journals. Yet Hartmann’s obscurity and the unavailability of much of his work has been at least partially remedied by attempted recoveries since at least 1971, which saw the publication of three of Hartmann’s symbolist dramas, and the 1991 publication of some of Hartmann’s criticism in an indispensable collection put together by Jane Calhoun Weaver titled Sadakichi Hartmann: Critical Modernist. Despite the increasing attention to Hartmann given in various anthologies, not until this collection, beautifully put together by Floyd Cheung in a Little Island Press edition, do Hartmann’s achievements in the lyric come into full view.

 

The anthology includes four collections that Hartmann himself put together—Naked Ghosts (1903), Drifting Flowers of the Sea and Other Poems (1904), My Rubaiyat (1916), and Japanese Rhythms (1933), with the addition of roughly forty pages or so of miscellaneous poems, a helpful introduction by Cheung, and one of Hartmann’s essays. This last addition, a compelling and informative 1904 essay titled “The Japanese Conception of Poetry,” tips an editorial hand as to the collection’s main conception of Hartmann’s poetic import, though Cheung’s introduction does much to demonstrate Hartmann’s wide-ranging poetic sensibilities, encompassing the symbolist aesthetics of Europe, the democratic and transcendental poetics of Whitman, to the Japanese (and, notably, Modernist) veneration of the precise image.

 

It is this last element, pictorial suggestiveness, which probably marks Hartmann’s most distinct contribution to the poetic moment. In his introduction to My Rubaiyat¸ Hartmann describes his highly-attuned sense of poetics as one driven by an “overlooked” quality of “pictorial harmony.” As Hartmann himself has it, “My long and persistent association with art makes me not only see but think things in pictures. Pictures abound throughout My Rubaiyat for all who have the mental pictorial vision to see them.”

Indeed, such a pictorial imagination abounds throughout the collection. Even earlier poems like “A Strain in Red” bear the marks of both the pictorial and the symbolist styles which enamored him:

An eager tongue between parted lips, a garnet

glow within argent hips, the blood of roses.

Yet what is most notable in Hartmann’s poetry is the way he weaves the senses, as in the sights and sounds of “Cyanogen Seas Are Surging”:

Cyanogen seas are surging over fierce

cinnabarine strands, where white amazons

are marching in the radiance of the sands.

With synesthetic lines like “while silently through / the meadows the sighs of her fragrance swept,” Hartmann’s poetry bears the marks of Japanese forms and styles, yet they often include a heady mix of multi-sensory lines right out of Symbolism. Having been a perfume peddler in his younger days and conducting what he called a “scent concert” which promised a trip to Japan in sixteen minutes, Hartmann’s poetry unsurprisingly takes advantage of the sense of smell, as in his highly syncretic “Parfum Des Fleurs”:

Oh, frail and fragrant visions,

Sweet nomads of the air,

That rise like the mist on the meadows

And cling to my darksome hair,

 

Are ye the souls of roses,

Of memory’s vagrom lays,

Sent to caress my senses—

Faint murmurs of bygone days?

 

While much of Hartmann’s poetry insightfully establishes its own idiom, a unique multi-sensory vision for poetry, much of it seems to suffer from Hartmann’s belief, as he insisted in 1919, “not in art for art’s sake or art for humanity’s sake, but art by the few and for the few.” In short, the quality of Hartmann’s poetic vision and practice is uneven. But perhaps this ought to be expected in a collected works, especially given the characteristic excesses of his milieu. Indeed, as with many of his contemporaries, Hartmann’s poetic oeuvre can seem as solid as any other before disappearing into opacity, demonstrating flashes like that of his poem in praise of New York City’s “Flat Iron” building:

 

All else we see fade fast and disappear,

Only your prow-like form looms gaunt, austere,

As in a sea of fog, now veiled, now clear.

 

 

About the author

Andrew Walker currently teaches and writes from his post at Florida State University, where he recently completed a doctoral dissertation on twentieth-century verse drama, including work by W. B. Yeats, Sadakichi Hartmann, and T. S. Eliot, among others. He writes on a host of subjects related to poetry, poetics, and performance. He (re)tweets, occasionally, @Andrew_S_W.

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