Aging, Modernism, and Unexpected Final Words

Listening to Loy: Ageing, Modernism & Unexpected Final Words

 

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Mina Loy, Aspen, 1957. Photo by Jonathan Williams.

by Jade French, PhD candidate at Queen Mary, University of London.

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.[1] 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.

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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.

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Brancusi’s studio, Paris: Constantin Brancusi, Tristan Tzara, unidentified woman, Mina Loy, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson.

 

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.

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“Bums Praying”, assemblage by Mina Loy, with Marcel Duchamp

 

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.

Listen to the recording here.

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.

 

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about the work of Mina Loy, take a look at Lottie Whalen‘s piece on her work for WAB: Mina Loy’s decorative, domestic modernism.

[1] 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

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MINA LOY’S DECORATIVE, DOMESTIC MODERNISM

by Lottie Whalen

‘On or about December 1910, human character changed’ Virginia Woolf famously suggested, as she considered the radical changes in art, everyday life, and human consciousness and perspective that appeared at the start of the twentieth century.

Likely 1910 stood out to Woolf as this was the year of Roger Fry’s exhibition ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, which showcased work by Cezanne, van Gough, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso to a largely unimpressed London audience. However, many other dates stand out as significant moments in the cultural shift that we now broadly define as modernism – that radical, experimental turn taken by artists determined to break with the past and ‘make it new’. Three years after Fry’s exhibition, in 1913, the first Armory show – or International Exhibition of Modern Art – caused shockwaves in New York and marked a true watershed moment in the history of modern culture. The show brought works of Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Dada to America for the first time, including ‘shocking’ pieces such as Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Art critics, the media and the general public were all utterly baffled, bemused, and captivated by the spectacle. For literature, 1922 proved to be the crucial moment that high modernism truly came into its own: that year saw the publication of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, and the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

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Portrait of Mina Loy, by Man Ray

We might also add 1915, the year when Others: a Magazine of the New Verse was first published in America. A modest edition at just 18 pages long, the first Others may have gone largely unnoticed if not for an experimental and daring sequence of verses by a certain Mina Loy: ‘Love Songs’.

Loy had already begun to make a name for herself, after her innovative poetry had appeared in a various notable avant-garde little magazines. Yet this poem provoked a scandal that propelled both her and the new forms of ‘free verse’ poetry into the public consciousness; suddenly everyone was talking about – and puzzling over – modernist poetry. Loy’s ‘Love Songs’ was variously praised and parodied in the press, and it even prompted the noted poet Amy Lowell to withdraw her involvement with Others in disgust. Unsurprisingly, Others’ editor Alfred Kreymborg was delighted with this publicity. The opening of the poem may have lost some of its shock value over the century since it first appeared, but its mix of earthy eroticism and sublime lyricism remains striking:

Spawn of fantasies

Silting the appraisable

Pig Cupid    his rosy snout

Rooting erotic garbage

“Once upon a time”

Pulls a weed    white star-topped

Among wild oats sown in mucous membrane

I would   an eye in a Bengal light

Eternity in a sky-rocket

Constellations in an ocean

Whose rivers run no fresher

Than a trickle of saliva

These are suspect places

Two years later, in 1917, the New York Evening Sun newspaper declared Loy to be the archetypal ‘modern woman’: intellectual, sexually liberated, well dressed and cosmopolitan. She had arrived in New York via several stop offs at various European cities. Born in London in 1882, she left to study art in Munich, and then Paris. After moving to Florence, she became involved with the Futurism movement and had affairs with their leaders F. T. Marinetti and Giovanni Papini. When she moved to New York in 1916, she was already known to avant-garde circles thanks, in part, to the ‘Love Songs’ scandal; as such, she quickly found herself mixing with the likes of Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams in the art collector Walter Arensberg’s Greenwich Village salon.

She would leave the city to marry the enigmatic Dada poet Arthur Cravan in South America (in 1918) and, after his mysterious disappearance the same year, spend the 1920s in Paris, a regular face among the avant-garde crowd. As the outbreak of World War Two became inevitable, she returned to New York, where she wrote poems and made assemblage artworks inspired by the homeless bums who congregated around the Bowery.

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ca. 1926, Paris, France — Peggy Guggenheim (standing), well-known American society girl who recently joined the ranks of young American business women in Paris, opened a lamp shop with famous British artist Mina Loy (seated) in the heart of the French capital. — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Over the course of her travels through the capitals of modernity, Loy mixed with everyone who was anyone: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray, and Joseph Cornell – to name just a few. Yet Loy was much more than a beautiful and witty guest at modernist parties and salons: as well as her talent for poetry, she was a skilled painter and a member of Paris’ prestigious Salon d’Automn, she made clothes and hats, wrote a novel, acted as a gallery agent, and designed lampshades, objet d’arts, and household objects. In 1920s Paris, she ran a short-lived but successful lampshade design business, with the financial backing of Peggy Guggenheim.

This leads me, finally, to my own research, which takes as its starting point the response to Loy’s ‘Love Songs’. In his autobiography, Kreymborg reflects on the scandal that the poem provoked, and suggests:

‘Had a man written these poems, the town might have viewed them with comparative comfort. But a woman wrote them, a woman who dressed like a lady and painted charming lampshades’.

He felt that the question that had perplexed the disgusted public was simple: ‘if [Loy] could dress like a lady, why couldn’t she write like one?’. Kreymborg’s comments reveal much more than simply the public’s reaction to a poem by Mina Loy. By highlighting the seeming incompatibility between the writer of sexualised, masculine free verse and the well-presented lady decorator, Kreymborg highlights the dichotomies that increasingly began to define the arts in the twentieth century. Applied arts and interior design were understood to be quaint, staid feminine activities, linked to bourgeois housewives and those concerned with taste and fashion – far removed, then, from the serious business of masculine high-art. It was not, Kreymborg suggests, the words on the page that offended people; after all, the same poem attributed to a male poet would have been accepted with ‘comparative comfort’. As modernism began increasingly to define itself, in critic Christopher Reed’s words, as ‘an heroic odyssey on the high seas of consciousness’, critics, artists and writers rushed to distance the defining work of the period from domesticity and the decorative. The serious business of modernism was men’s work and it did not happen at home.

Kreymborg’s patronising adjective, ‘charming’, also clearly points to the inferior status of the applied arts. Loy’s lampshades are seen as pretty trifles, the result of a quaint feminine hobby that one would expect a lady to engage in. This critical attitude has persisted: in a 1997 review of a biography of Loy and a new edition of her poems, Mark Ford claims that her ‘dilettantish approach to the various arts that appealed to her’ – that is, poetry, painting, collage, novels, and a ‘commercially successful’ design business – make ‘assessing her work a hazardous business’.

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Assemblage by Mina Loy titled “Househunting” c.1950

Although Loy was by no means unique in her experimentation with different media, here the combination of gender and commerce prevent her from being considered a serious artist. Ford appears to fall back on the traditional stereotype that connects feminine craft to the trivial, the superficial and the merely decorative. Eighty years on from the ‘Love Songs’ scandal, Loy is still the beautiful, well-dressed creator of pretty lampshades who, consequently, cannot be assimilated in to the modernist canon.

However, this view overlooks the significant ways that these two creative practices (writing experimental poetry and making lampshades) interact with and inform one another. In Loy’s vision, light was synonymous with modernity: her early manifesto ‘Aphorisms on Futurism’ declares that ‘the Future is only dark from outside / Leap into it – and it EXPLODES with Light’. Her lampshades functioned like magic lanterns or cinema screens; they harnessed the power of electricity in order to transform domestic spaces in to the strange, enchanted scenes created in ‘Love Songs’, or the ‘stellectric’ illuminated cityscapes described in later poems. More than simply a way of making money, Loy’s lampshades expressed her creative vision in a different medium. In this way, we begin to see how Loy’s various activities (writing, painting, designing) form part of a wider aesthetic project that cuts across high art and middlebrow culture in an effort to bring art in to everyday life.

Through the process of reassessing Loy’s body of work, my research aims to reveal the peripheral spaces of female creativity – and the alternative strains of modernism – that existed outside of the dominant, masculine realm of high art.

Alongside Loy, I consider women such as Anni Albers and Sonia Delauney, pioneers of textile art, whose work influences aesthetics and art practises to this day; and the surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, whose subversive work disrupts typical ideas of domesticity and homeliness, and foregrounds powerful forms of female creativity, collaboration and magic. Perhaps just as significant are the countless ordinary women who brought modernism and modern art in to everyday life through the clothes they wore and the way they decorated their homes. Although it continues to be an overlooked and underappreciated area, interior design and decorative arts provided women with an opportunity to shape the spaces of modernity and, in the process, forge new artistic identities. Understanding Loy’s transgressive artistic identity allows us to understand decoration and domesticity as vital yet hidden facets of modernity, and to move towards a greater appreciation of the female contribution to twentieth century art and culture.