In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses ‘Songs to Joannes’, a little-known work of avant-garde modernist poetry
Modernist poetry, at least as it’s usually taught on university survey courses and as it’s fixed in the popular imagination, is something of a closed shop: not just because of its perceived elitism (although, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, this can be overstated), but because modernist poets writing in English (whether in the US or in Britain) tend to be configured as a small group of Chosen Ones. We have T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and perhaps some of the UK-based imagists (H. D., Richard Aldington); over in the US, there are William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Marianne Moore. The modernist ‘canon’ is more of a cannonette.
But in the last couple of decades in particular, modernist scholars have started to reappraise this idea of the canon of early twentieth-century Anglophone poetry, and have begun to pay attention to those poets who – like Eliot, Pound, and others – embraced experimental or avant-garde techniques in their work but who, in the twentieth century, didn’t enjoy anywhere near the same amount of critical or popular appreciation as Eliot and his peers.
Poets like Hope Mirrlees and Nancy Cunard invite us to go back and reappraise Eliot’s work (especially as Mirrlees hit upon roughly the same idea for a modernist long poem three years before Eliot completed The Waste Land), while the British-born American poet Mina Loy shows us that Futurism did produce at least one good English poem.
You’ll note that the three poets I’ve just named are all women: many modernists left out of the Eliot-Pound tradition were perhaps partly overlooked because of their gender. But their gender is central to the kind of poetry they produced. This is arguably no clearer than in the case of Mina Loy, whose idiosyncratic approach to traditional punctuation (i.e., just don’t use it) and spacing (use plenty of it) seems to embody what Hélène Cixous has called écriture feminine: a kind of writing which replaces the linear, ‘masculine’ form of traditional prose or poetry with a more cyclical, questioning, open-ended style.
Loy was born Mina Lowy to a Hungarian Jewish father and an English mother in London in 1882 (she changed her name to ‘Loy’ when she began submitting poetry). She studied art in London, Munich, and Paris and married a painter, Stephen Haweis, in 1903; they separated in 1906 after the death of their one-year-old daughter. A fling with a French doctor resulted in a daughter, Joella; Loy and Haweis subsequently got back together and had a son, Giles, before settling in Florence in 1907.
While living in Florence, Loy encountered the Futurists (and had a brief affair with the leader of the movement, F. T. Marinetti as well as the journalist Giovanni Papini). Inspired by Futurism, Loy began writing, and her ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ was published in 1914, introducing her to an American audience. In 1916, she left her children in Florence and moved to New York; she fell in love with a boxer-poet (there’s an unusual combination of careers if ever there was one) whom she married in 1918 following a divorce from Haweis.
Loy later moved to Paris; in the 1940s she returned to New York and became a naturalised US citizen. She died in 1966.
This colourful and, for the time especially, highly unconventional private life finds its way into Loy’s work, which is often highly personal and autobiographical. Not for Loy the modernist mask of ‘impersonality’ advanced by T. S. Eliot: for Loy, her life gave her the raw materials for her art. Yet like all great artists, she knew she had to transmute her personal experience – especially her tempestuous flings with Marinetti and Papini – into something else. And she used two guiding ‘isms’ in her life, Futurism and Feminism, to achieve this.
Futurism glorified change, speed, the mechanisation of mankind, revolt, aggression, and the crowds found in cities. As the movement’s founder, Filippo Marinetti, famous declared, ‘A racing car … is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace’. But Loy had little time for the male posturing and latent misogyny found among many Futurists.
In 1914, the same year her ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ appeared, she drafted – but never published – her ‘Feminist Manifesto’, which argued that women had only three options open to them at the time: ‘Parasitism’ (i.e. marriage, where the woman became financially reliant on her husband), ‘Prostitution’ (where the woman sold her body to men for a short time), or ‘Negation’ (essentially, spinsterhood, removing herself from the ‘market’ altogether).
A year later, she published the first sections of what would become her masterpiece, ‘Songs to Joannes’. These early sections, titled ‘Love Songs’, appeared in the US poetry magazine Others in July 1915, just one month after T. S. Eliot’s own ironic appropriation of the ‘love song’, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, had appeared in Poetry magazine. Like Eliot, Loy offered a modernist revision of the very idea of romantic poetry. But Loy took the revision further than Eliot. Whereas Prufrock begins his dramatic monologue by likening the evening sunset to a patient etherised upon an operating table, Loy appropriates the clinical and biological reality of ‘love’ and makes it a central part of her ‘Love Songs’.
Here we find a truly Darwinian understanding of love, sex, and desire, where evolution, as section XXIX of the longer poem has it, ‘fall[s] foul of / Sexual equality’. Our minds may say that equality between the sexes is absolutely possible, but the raw biological facts, for Loy, give us pause, since women are less ‘free’ than men (certainly before reliable contraception became more widespread fifty years later) when it comes to sex and relationships.
This uncomfortable reality runs through the later, expanded version of Loy’s sequence of love songs, titled ‘Songs to Joannes’ and published in Others in 1917 (the same year that Eliot’s Prufrock debuted in book form). The editor of Others, Alfred Kreymborg, gave over the entire April issue to Loy’s sequence. Inspired by her relationship with Papini first and foremost – his forename, Giovanni, becomes the semi-fictionalised ‘Joannes’ – Loy began exploring her own experience of love, sex, relationships, and desire.
Fear of losing her sense of self – of becoming a woman merely defined by her relation to a man, as she had written in her feminist manifesto – dominates ‘Songs to Joannes’. At one point, she admonishes (begs?) Joannes: ‘Keep away from me […] Don’t realise me / Or we might tumble together / Depersonalized / Identical’. Identical, but without an individual identity: depersonalised, not just in the sense of ‘become impersonal’ but of having actually lost one’s sense of personhood. There’s also a subtle play on ‘realise’: both to identify or recognise and to ‘make real’, as though Loy suspects, or fears, that she actively needs a man to give her bodily reality, to make her realise her own womanhood, even though this would be at the cost of her individuality, her intellectual self-autonomy.
I have taught Loy’s ‘Songs to Joannes’ on my undergraduate modern poetry module, and whilst students always start off baffled and even frustrated by Loy’s difficult and elliptical mode of writing, as soon as they realise (that word again) that she is reflecting a very real and common state of emotional conflict – we can only achieve true physical satisfaction with someone else, yet if you’re a woman, especially a hundred years ago, this satisfaction comes at the cost of your own individuality – they usually understand why she is expressing her conflicted emotions in such a way. Our emotions, our sensations, our desires and instincts, come upon us suddenly, even unexpectedly, in ways we often find hard to articulate.
You can read the early ‘love songs’ here. Note how we are immediately thrust into the simultaneously coexistent worlds of sex and romance: the reality versus the ideal. Cupid is not a beautiful angelic boy flying through the heavens and shooting his dart at unsuspecting men and women: he’s a pig, foraging around in the ‘erotic garbage’. Pigs, as the old line has it, cannot fly: this Cupid has no wings, and is in the dirt. From this we go to ‘Once upon a time’, the traditional opening words of fairy tales which give us a glimpse of how love should be: the hero and the heroine find each other and live happily ever after.
And yet something gives us pause. For pigs root around in the ‘garbage’ in search of truffles: rare, precious items that are found among the dirt. Is the progression from ‘erotic garbage’ to ‘Once upon a time’ a cynical shift (we are meant to hear a wry, sardonic, mocking laugh after those fairy-tale words) or a natural progression (after the messy failures of sex and relationships, true love can eventually be found)?
The poem refuses to direct us one way or the other, instead simultaneously celebrating and lamenting love for both its creative and destructive powers, its enabling qualities as well as its inherent dangers. This is what makes ‘Songs to Joannes’ one of the most important ‘love poems’ of the twentieth century: it gives us the truth about love, which is rarely true and never simple.
‘Songs to Joannes’ is available with many other Loy poems in Lost Lunar Baedeker (Poetry Pleiade).
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.