Thursday, February 8, 2018

Balancing on a broken world

 Grave of Pvt Wilbert Willman, died 18 Aug 1918
Library of Congress, Army Signal Corps photo 
Although the American Expeditionary Force was engaged in combat less than seven months (from April of 1918 until November 11th), the last months were the deadliest.   Two-thirds of American military deaths occurred between September of 1918 and the Armistice.* In addition to combat deaths, the world was also reeling from one of the deadliest pandemics in history.  The Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people between 1918 and 1920—an estimated 2.5 - 5% of the world’s population.**

American imagist poet Amy Lowell describes the surreal experience of living an ordinary day in an extraordinary time.

September, 1918

This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Red Cross Volunteers, image from Time magazine
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.
            —Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell
It is no easy task to balance upon a broken world. In early September of 1918, Lowell received a letter from author D.H. Lawrence, who related news of their mutual friend, British soldier and poet Richard Aldington, reporting that Aldington was “still all right – in France, back of the firing lines.” Lawrence then confessed to feeling overwhelmed in a world spiraling out of control:
I can’t do anything in the world today—am just choked. – I don’t know how on earth we shall get through another winter—how we shall ever find a future. Humanity as it stands, and myself as I stand, we just seem mutually impossible to one another. The ground dwindles under one’s feet—what next, heaven knows.†
Lowell also felt unmoored, set adrift by the violent changes accompanying the war.  Explaining to a colleague, she said,   
The war has shaken us out of an eddy into the main stream of the centuries, and has given me the sensation of swirling along on a rapidly moving current, passing woods and water-plants and shores almost too fast to glimpse them, realizing as I pass that many other shingles like me have rushed down this same river, rushed toward something which I cannot now see.††

Lowell resisted the tumult with poetry, convinced that it had the power to comfort, inspire, and change the world. She invested her energies in convincing the American public of the value of contemporary poetry. Learning that American Army training camps were requesting books for their libraries, Lowell arranged to supply poetry books to 34 military bases across the United States, and she also donated funds to supply books to military hospitals.  As scholar Nina Sankovitch notes, “by the summer of 1918, Amy Lowell had placed poetry in the hands of just about any United States soldier asking for it. Modern or classics: they wanted poems and she answered their need.”•
* Carol R. Byerly, “War Losses (USA),” 1914-1918 Online, International Encyclopedia of the First World War,, 8 Oct. 2014, Accessed 7 Feb. 2017.
** Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, Public Affairs, 2017. 
† D.H. Lawrence, “To Amy Lowell, 11 Sept. 1918,” The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: October 1916-June 1921, Cambridge UP, 2007, p. 280. 
†† Amy Lowell to Franz Rickaby, quoted in Carl Rollyson’s Amy Lowell Anew, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, p. 113.
• Nina Sankovitch, “Amy Lowell: Making the World Safe for Poetry,” The History Reader: Dispatches in History from St. Martin’s Press,, 25 May 2017, Accessed 7 Feb. 2018. 


  1. Thanks for reminding us of Lowell.

    I just unearthed two old volumes of Amy Lowell that I had rescued years ago from a school library cull in the 1990's. I had never opened them. When I did this weekend I was astonished at some of the beauty of the language. "Men, Women and Ghosts" (1916) and "Pictures of the Floating World" (1919).

    Am definitely going to have to post some of the poems. "September 1918 is right near the end of "Floating World' between "Camouflaged Troop-Ship- Boston Harbor" and "The Night Before the Parade, April 25th 1919".

    In the preface Lowell explains that the poems are written in a "quasi-Oriental idiom". She comments on the paradox: "The march of peoples is always toward the West, wherefore, the earth being round, in time the West must be East again."
    - Josie

  2. So happy you're going to post more of Lowell's poetry! And thanks for sharing her wonderful quotation on her "quasi-Oriental idiom."