Listening to Loy: Ageing, Modernism & Unexpected Final Words
Ageing is a complicated and subjective experience. To make sense of the variety of experiences that are popping up in the Western world, old age has been split into two cohorts by gerontologists as people seek to make distinctions between quality of life. Those in the Third Age (‘young-old’) have self-autonomy and the potential for a pleasurable post-retirement. They also have pretty deeps pockets and will inevitably be targeted by marketing agencies looking to tap into the ‘grey pound’. In contrast, the Fourth Age (‘old-old’) is the type of old age largely ignored by society, where the deterioration of faculties and biological changes mean the ‘old-old’ are inherently imbued with a sense of otherness.
These are the people Age UK noted as most at risk from social care austerity. When we listen to the voices of older people, does it have to be framed through either fitness or frailty?
My larger PhD project uses these contemporary gerontological frameworks to approach poetry, art and prose written in the twentieth century by older, female modernists. I’m currently looking at work by H.D. (1886-1961), Mina Loy (1882-1966), and Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) to examine the tensions these authors faced as public figures ageing against the backdrop of the latter half of the twentieth century. Looking at the lived experience of the authors, as well as their own representations of ageing, I want to highlight the avant-garde nature and embodied creative process of these later works.
Because what happens when we begin to apply an understanding of lived experience to the voices of the past?
To (try to!) approach this question, this blog will take a brief look at Mina Loy and her final recording, made a year before her death. A complex intergenerational relationship emerges between the interviewer/interviewee. Despite sharing similar cultural touchstones, wires cross as moments are misheard and misinterpreted. There are expectations unmet and well-worn stories untold. The myth of Mina Loy is perhaps complicated when we finally hear her. So first – an introduction.
Mina’s Mythologies: A Brief Biography
When I first started reading modernist poetry as an undergraduate, I didn’t often think about the extended lives of my favourite authors. I was happy enough to stay in the Parisian Left Bank or New York jazz scenes, seeing dancing and bobs and poems as all bound up in the same heady cigarette smoke mist of the 1920s. This continued when I picked up a copy of Mina Loy’s The Lost Lunar Baedeker, edited by Roger Conover, Loy’s literary executor. I was instantly grabbed by a vision of feminine nonconformity:
For a brief period, early in the twentieth century, Mina Loy was the Belle of the American Poetry Ball. But by the end of the century, most had forgotten she was there at all.
On the evening of May 25, 1917, Mina Loy and Marcel Duchamp made their way to Greenwich Village’s “ultra bohemian, prehistoric, post-alcoholic” Webster Hall, where the twenty-third and final “Pagan Romp” of the season was just getting under way.
Again, Conover’s introduction spoke of glamour, jazz, fancy-dress, all night parties with Loy at the centre, knowing all the giants from James Joyce to Peggy Guggenheim, Ezra Pound to William Carlos Williams to Marcel Duchamp. And that’s just for starters. Having this legacy placed front and centre of The Lost Lunar Baedeker, prefacing any of her poems, it becomes hard to picture Loy as anything other than this modernist myth. A beautiful woman first, a poet second. This is not to say Conover doesn’t acknowledge Loy’s later work, the last half of the book features a picture of Loy as an ageing woman and her later poems. But how we begin to construct our understanding of our favourite writers and poets is, in many ways, sentimentally bound up in our first introductions to them.
And, chronology rules. We meet the youthful Loy before the older Loy:
The mythmaking our favourite authors or poets undergo is a fascinating process. More often than not, our glamourised ideals of our favourite authors are crystallised by their relative youth. Mina Loy is often looked to as the quintessential ‘modern woman’. In her lifetime, she designed her own clothes, had affairs with Futurists, owned her own business, published poetry advocating ‘free love’ and had dalliances with a variety of twentieth century ‘isms’: Surrealism, Futurism, Dadaism, Symbolism, Feminism and Cubism all connect to certain sites of her oeuvre. She was also a quintessential modernist mover; she lived in Florence, Paris, New York, Berlin, Mexico City, London, Vienna, and Rio de Janiero. These lists are endless and often repeated.
Her later years have been characterised as eccentric; her assemblages were described at the time as “sentimental”, in contrast to the fast-paced, masculinised movement of Abstract Expressionism. In 1958, Loy had her final exhibition where these “sentimental” collages were exhibited. Depicting the ‘bums’ of the Bowery, where she lived during the time of making them, these arresting artworks show the grim post war, post-recession reality of New York. Loy settled in Aspen, Colorado to be near her daughters and receive late-life care in the 1950s. And that’s where her final interview was recorded in 1965.
The Last Interview
There’s a curious recording by Loy that you can listen to through Penn Sound. Recorded a year before her death, the ageing poet recalls her memories and reads out what has now become some of her most iconic poetry.
Paul Blackburn and Robert Vas Dias, two Black Mountain College alumni, interview her. The Black Mountain School was known for its non-conformist approach to education through extreme experimentation and collaboration across disciplines. So, this congregation of Blackburn, Vas Dias and Loy was a meeting of minds between experimental early and late twentieth century art makers, with expectations from the younger poets that they would hear the stories of the past so valued about Loy – who she knew, where she lived, how she fitted in. What actually transpires is over an hour of chat, shaggy dog tales, reminisces about the past, and attempts to pronounce the long, varied, experimental words that Loy loved to pepper her work with: ‘cornucopia’, ‘loquent consciousness’, ‘Parturition’. Loy also reads a few poems. Once Loy gets into the swing of the readings, the tremble in her voice is a sign of age rather than nervousness. She punctuates her readings to exclaim: “Wasn’t I clever”, “Wasn’t I wicked”. She laughs at her own jokes.
In the recording, she admits: “I’d only written these things for the sake of the sounds”. But what happens to sounds over the years? What we read in our head is not how poems sound when read aloud. The proximity to an author’s work, read by themselves, is a special moment – particularly when that poet has aged.
Another Loy biographer, Carolyn Burke, describes hearing the poet’s voice:
“When I first heard it, it gave me goose-bumps. It was an absolutely chilling and remarkable experience to hear her voice because it was the closest I ever came to her physical presence except in dreams” – Quoted in Jacket Magazine
This act of listening takes us to emotional and embodied levels that the written word often doesn’t allow for. The chilling quality of a voice crackling across the years – a voice read and re-read many times – is a unique type of haunting. The visceral quality of the recording is enhanced by the fact it was recorded in 1965. The crackling and distortion of reel-to-reel recording historicises the moment further.
Loy, at the age of 83, begins the interview saying ‘I never had any teeth all my life… Did I tell you that story?”. The interviewers concede she hasn’t, and Loy tells a tale of how, as a teen, a dentist gave her a filling by drilling down into the nerve of the tooth. Clamped by metal stays, she can’t move or run away (prompting the interviewer to say: “Sounds like a nightmare”, which in her evocative retelling, it does). After this experience, Loy vowed never to have a filling again opting to have her teeth pulled out instead. This rather long-winded tale results in finding out Loy had false teeth most of her life, but they didn’t bother her until old age. The false teeth, coupled with her slightly slurred speech, result in a set of poetic readings that situate the Loy of Conover’s avant-garde soirees in an altogether more everyday setting.
There’s part of me that feels like the interviewers treat Loy as an old lady. They politely laugh at her jokes, try and get her back on track, audibly sigh when she veers off again. The act of listening is undone as the interviewers prompt a seemingly frail poet in increasingly frustrated tones. I can’t help but feel annoyed at this veiled irritation and their over-loud and slowed down speaking. Because here Loy’s preoccupations are her own – and they’re not the preoccupations of modernist biographers. Instead, they are memories on a loop. A life relived through conversation that cannot be steered.
Listening, you get the impression the Blackburn and Vas Dias want Loy to recall the giants of modernism and wild parties that often frame her writing – they prompt her to read her poem about James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. My favourite moment is Loy not taking the bait and instead wondering over and over why Joyce had married his wife, Nora. She reminisces about the Florentine countryside and class systems and where her second husband, the famous Arthur Craven who disappeared off the coast of Mexico sailing a makeshift boat, ended up. The interviewers don’t ask to hear any of Loy’s later poems but if they did they’d find them to be full of Cold War existentialism, dealing with the shocks that the modern world had to offer: she wrote about the Atom Bomb, Bowery homelessness, film, literature and consumerism alongside her more well-known ruminations on gender and the body.
She’s in many ways a contemporary of the interviewers but at times they treat her like a relic from the past.
Of course, Loy was not completely forgotten. There were reprints of her poetry and an exhibition of her work in the 1950s and this interview in the 1960s. But, as she aged into the latter half of the twentieth century, her voice became less listened to.
That opening sentence in Conover’s introduction once more rings out:
For a brief period early in the twentieth century, Mina Loy was the Belle of the American Poetry Ball. But by the end of the century, most had forgotten she was there at all.
By the end of her life, her work and inventions may have sold, but not enough to sustain her. Her poems may have been read, but not enough to cement her in the canon. Just as society often fails to include older, female voices (unless you’re a feminist who has happened to age yourself, like Gloria Steinem) we might also be guilty of listening too often to the youthful voices of our favourite authors. So, in the spirit of listening to an old recording, grab those late works and flick through – they might just have something to say.
 Chris Gilleard and Paul F. D. Higgs, ‘The fourth age and the concept of a ‘social imaginary’: A theoretical excursus’, Journal of Aging Studies, xxvii, 4 (2013), 369