Saturday, March 28, 2009


Poetic careers can follow an odd trajectory—Wallace Stevens, for instance, began publication in middle age, after he’d established himself in the insurance business; Rimbaud stopped writing poetry while still in his teens. Another part of this is that poetic reputations have an ebb & flow as well: Vachel Lindsay was quite popular in his time; now he’s a name that’s unfamiliar to most; Emily Dickinson was unknown in her time, but is now acknowledged as a truly great poet.

These sorts of fluctuations & trajectories are certainly relevant when we discuss the poet for today’s Weekly Poem, Mina Loy. At one time, Loy was the toast of Paris, London & New York; her poems were highly praised by TS Eliot, Yvor Winters, & Ezra Pound, who asked in a 1921 letter to Marianne Moore, “is there anyone in America except you, Bill [William Carlos Williams] and Mina Loy who can write anything of interest in verse?” However, by the 1980s, critic Hugh Kenner would say, “Her [Loy’s] utter absence from all canonical lists is one of modern literary history’s most perplexing data.” What happened to Mina Loy?

First, it must be admitted that Loy’s poetry is “difficult”; Loy’s poetical language & her poetical mind are constantly moving in unfamiliar realms—her language & diction can be idiosyncratic & even opaque, & her subject matter is often not conventionally poetical. Even when her subject is more recognizable, such as in the great sequence Love Songs to Johannes, she still manages to imagine the material in an unexpected way. In many ways, Loy’s writing is reminiscent of the work done by two of her close friends, Djuna Barnes & Gertrude Stein—like Barnes, she treated “forbidden” subjects, while writing in a completely individual & innovative style; like Stein, her language can seem to inhabit an unfamiliar grammar & spring from its own dictionary.

To my mind, all of these are strengths. Since there has been some revival of Loy, at least in academic & poetic circles in the last 25 years or so, it seems I’m not alone in this assessment. One poet to whom Loy has been compared frequently as her work has been positively re-evaluated is Emily Dickinson. Although there are any number of differences on a surface level, on a deeper level, Dickinson also wrote from a truly unfamiliar & individual perspective. In many ways, Dickinson’s firmly established canonical position has smoothed out these edges—we’ve learned how to read her, & to some extent, she becomes “familiar.” Yet consider the following lines by Dickinson:

‘Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch.
That nearer, every Day,
Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel
Until the agony

Toyed coolly with the final inch
of your delirious Hem—

These lines (& the remainder of her poem 414) staunchly resist paraphrase & summary; a poetic singularity that draws us inexorably in.

So it is with Loy’s work. Hope you enjoy the following poem (from around 1915), a description of a sort of Chaplinesque “Little Tramp.” Don’t be afraid to give it more than one read—& hope you may be inspired to read more of Loy. A generous selection of her poetry is available in The Lost Lunar Baedecker (Farrar Strauss & Giroux).


Shut it up

Sing silence
To destiny
Give half-a-crown
To a magician
Half a glance
To window-eclipse
And count the glumes
Of your day's bargaining
In the lining
Of your pocket
While compromising
Between the perpendicular and horizontal
Some other tramp
Leans against
The night-nursery of trams

Puffs of black night
Quiver the neck
Of the Clown of Fortune
Dribble out of his trouser-ends
In dust-to-dust
Till cock-kingdom-come-crow
You can hear the heart-beating
of the masculine and feminine
Universal principles
And the martyrdom of morning
Caged with the love of houseflies
The avidity of youth
And incommensuration.

Bursting on repetition
"My friend the Sun
You have probably met before"
Or breakfasting on rain
You hurry
To interpolate
The over-growth
Of vegetation
With a walking-stick

Or smear a friend
With a greasy residuum
From boiling your soul down
You can walk to Empyrean to-gether
Under the same
Oil-silk umbrella

"I must have you
Count stars for me
Out of their numeral excess
Please keep the brightest
For the last

Mina Loy


  1. I think the poem is tremendous. I shall certainly be looking for more of her work. Thanks for the post.

  2. Hi Dave: You're most welcome-- yes, I think you'll be quite taken with her work; gratified that you liked this.

  3. I love the poem.

    Here's a question - what poetry ISN'T difficult? It's an art form intrinsically challenging, at least I think so (maybe because I couldn't write a poem if you put a gun to my head!)

    It's encouraging to learn that Wallace Stevens began writing poetry in middle age. Yay for middle age!!

    Like all the arts, poetry is a flow, like a current of energy that sometimes artists can access, and sometimes not. Mysterious, and wonderful are the muses.

    Thanks for this.

  4. Hi Reya:

    Well, I believe that at least for people who read poetry a fair amount, some poetry falls into a category of what we're more familiar with, & other poems may strike us as much less "familiar." That's not to say that the poems we believe to be familiar aren't themselves rich & strange-- I think that's part of my point about Dickinson.

    So glad you liked the poem, & thanks-- always appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  5. Thanks for posting this, John. I was not familiar with her -- she certainly takes a pliers to language and tweaks the hell out of it!

  6. Hi T:

    Thank you-- love the pliers bit.

  7. Great stuff John as a self-confessed ignoramus I admit I've never heard of Loy and have read little or no Dickenson.Apart from enjoying the poem i was struck by how contemporary it felt, so much so that I had to check your text again to make sure it was indeed 1915.I wonder how many hundreds or thousands of great poets exist/existed out there whom I will never hear of?

  8. Hey TFE:

    A whole lot of folks have never heard of Loy, which is a shame. Although I do post some pretty well known folks, I like to post a fair number of the less known ones-- I know next week's poem will be by another poet who isn't well enough known, Kenneth Patchen.

  9. This is great. I looked up more Mina Loy after I finished your post. If you rearranged Lunar Baedecker just by running the very short lines into longer ones you'd fool a lot of readers into thinking it was an unknown Wallace Stevens. -
    A silver Lucifer serves cocaine in cornucopia /To some somnambulists of adolescent thighs/draped in satirical draperies/Peris in livery prepare Lethe for posthumous parvenues/Delirious Avenues lit with the chandelier souls/of infusoria from Pharoah's tombstones/lead to mercurial doomsdays/Odious oasis in furrowed phosphorous---
    - and so on, or something of the sort. Is it just me? or does there seem to be an eerie similarity, especially in word choice and images? Compare, say, The Emperor of Ice Cream. Thanks for the introduction. I'm pleased to have found - courtesy of Dave King - your site.

  10. Hi Mairi:

    Thanks for commenting & for following here. Your point about Loy & Stevens is interesting; there are some definite connections from an aesthetic point of view. Will think on that one. I'm especially glad you took this as a point to look up more Mina Loy.

    Thanks again.

  11. This was totally new to me; I've never even heard of her. I shall definitely keeping a look out for her work - it's most compelling.

    Thanks for putting her out there for us all to partake of her hidden talent.


  12. I had to look up "glumes". Would never have known what that was.


  13. Thanks Kat:

    Loy is sadly unknown-- less so than 20+ years ago when she wasn't even much known in the academic community-- I recall another poet at UVA asking me if I meant "Myrna Loy," because he didn't know the actress wrote poetry.

    Have a dictionary handy when reading Loy: a good idea.

  14. Shows my level of ignorance. I had never heard or read or Mina until this post. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  15. I count on you for posts like this. It has been way too long since I even thought of Mina Loy. I'm glad for the reminder. I think I wrote this on a comment in another person's blog tonight. The entire world seems to be watchign teh final episode of ER. I'd rather be here reading about Mina Loy and people who uke.

  16. Thanks to Rising from the Ashes & Jen:

    Very gratified that you liked this one-- Jen: I'd much rather read Mina Loy too!


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