Loy, Mina (1882–1966)
Loy, Mina (1882–1966)
English-born poet, artist, and designer, highly regarded and influential among her contemporaries in the New York avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s, who broke ground with her erotic love poetry, satires, plays, paintings, and Modernist manifestoes. Born Mina Gertrude Lowy on December 27, 1882, in London, England; died on September 25, 1966, in Aspen, Colorado; changed her surname to Loy in 1903; daughter of Julian (Bryan) Lowy and Sigmund Lowy (a tailor); attended school in England until 1899; went to study art at Kunstlerrinen Verein, Munich; returned to London (1901–02) to study art with Augustus John; studied art in Paris (1903); became a member of the Salon d'Automne in Paris (1906); married Stephen Haweis, on December 31, 1903 (divorced 1917); married Arthur Cravan, in January 1918; children: (first marriage) Oda (May 31, 1904–May 31, 1905); Joella Haweis (b. July 20, 1907); Giles Haweis (February 1, 1909–1923); (second marriage) Fabi Cravan (b. April 5, 1919).
Moved with husband to Florence (1906), where she produced some of her best poems and paintings; identified herself with Futurism, an experimental movement within the Modernist revolution; adopted Christian Science (1909); met influential artists, writers, and performers at salons in Florence, including Gordon Craig, Eleonora Duse, Artur Rubinstein, John Reed, Carl Van Vechten and others (1906–16); took Van Vechten as her literary agent (1913); exhibited paintings in London (1913); published first poems in Camera Work and Trend (1914); remained in Florence after the August 3 declaration of war; became a nurse in a surgical hospital; new poems appeared in Rogue and Others, avant-garde magazines published in New York; wrote feminist satire of Futurism, with which she became disillusioned; left Florence for New York, where she was invited into the circles formed around both magazines (1915); began selling designs for dresses and lampshades, modelled, and was guest-editor of Others; exhibited a painting at the Society of Independent Artists Exhibition, Grand Central Palace, New York (1917); sailed to Buenos Aires ahead of second husband, who was never seen again (January 1918); son kidnapped (1921); settled in Berlin (1922); returned to Paris (1923), where she became part of the artistic and expatriate communities; son died; poems appeared in The Little Review; first book published (1923); design work appeared in Madison Avenue windows; paintings exhibited in a Connecticut gallery (1925); opened retail shop (1926); beset by tax problems (1930); became agent for Julien Levy Gallery (1931); exhibited paintings in Connecticut and Paris galleries (1933); left Paris (1936) and moved to New York; became a naturalized American citizen (1946); moved to the Bowery (1949) and began to create montage and collage works; poems occasionally appeared in little magazines and anthologies (1936–53); withdrew from public life; moved to Aspen, Colorado; second book published (1958); several poems appeared in Between Worlds (1961–62); lived an increasingly reclusive existence until her death.
Books and awards:
Lunar Baedecker [sic] (1923); Lunar Baedeker and Time Tables: Selected Poems (1958); Copley Foundation Award (1959); The Lost Lunar Baedeker: The Poems of Mina Loy (1982 and 1996). Poems and other work in anthologies: The Contact Collection of Contemporary Writers (1925); The Voice that is Great Within Us (1971); The Women Poets in English (1972); The World Split Open (1974); Revolution of the Word (1974). Contributor to magazines: Dial, Others, Little Review, and Contact.
Only two collections of Mina Loy's poems were published in her lifetime, and both went out of print almost as soon as they were released. The first, Lunar Baedeker (1923), was published by Contact, an important press for expatriates in Paris. Contact committed itself to marketing books by writers who were unlikely to be published otherwise, "for commercial or legislative reasons." Lunar Baedeker made it to America in only very small numbers, held up by New York City customs officers who decided it included pornography. The second, Lunar Baedeker and Time Tables (1958), was issued in an edition of 500 copies. Editions of each book are now extremely rare.
Loy's work (and some work in progress) appeared in a handful of little magazines during the 1910s and 1920s, loudly praised and championed by a few editors and critics (especially Kenneth Rexroth), or was introduced by others as arresting and controversial, if nothing more. Until 1958, when Jonathan Williams brought out the second volume of Loy's work, there was little certainty on how many of her poems she had seen published, or where they had appeared, or whether the texts of those poems were true to Loy's originals. Williams said that his "1958 Mina Loy was an improvement on what had gone before but it suffered from a callow assumption that the texts were correct in the first place." Many of the errors that Williams feared were extant in his work were researched and corrected for The Lost Lunar Baedeker (1982), a centenary edition of Loy's work edited by Roger L. Conover for the Jargon Society.
For a time during the 1920s, a rumor making the rounds in Paris asserted that there was no such person as Mina Loy, that she was an invention. According to Conover's introduction toThe Lost Lunar Baedeker, legend has it that she responded by showing up at one of the city's best-known salons with the following explanation: "I am indeed a live being. But it is necessary to stay very unknown…. To maintain my incognito the hazard I chose was—poet." Support for the rumor was fragile and fragmentary, but what is significant is that Loy herself contributed evidence to the story, intentionally or otherwise. She was fond of using pseudonyms that both concealed her identity and drew attention to themselves as such (e.g., "Ducie," a name given to her by friends to reflect her difficulty in remembering when to use du and Sie in German), and she occasionally dated her own paintings incorrectly, confusing those who sought to establish a tidy chronology for her career.
Loy also held an extremely variable opinion of celebrity, at times apparently revelling in her position at the center of social and intellectual circles wherever she was, at others dropping almost entirely from sight, for months or even years at a time, keeping her work as well as her person out of the public eye. The story of the rumor, if accurate, is illuminating on several counts: it demonstrates how effective her own subterfuges were; it attests to the centrality of her position in other people's lives; and it establishes one important function poetry had for Loy, as a "hazard," i.e., an obstacle between the larger world and her private self.
Our wills are formed by curious disciplines.
—Mina Loy, from "Apology of Genius"
Much of what is known of Loy's biography confirms and amplifies what this perhaps apocryphal story reveals. She manifested considerable artistic talent and great physical beauty early in her life, and found that cultural expectations about her appearance often limited her sense of freedom to pursue her artistic interests. (Loy's beauty and the expectations generated by her appearance were always part of the effect she had on people. Even otherwise careful criticism of her writing sometimes stops to marvel at how lovely she was. It is likely that this accident of birth contributed to sadness as well as happiness in her life.)
She left home—where she felt supported by her father and thwarted by her mother—while still in her teens, "in a subconscious muddle of foreign languages," and went to Munich to study art. She had little formal education otherwise. Teachers in Germany, London, and Paris praised and encouraged Loy. Her work began appearing in student exhibitions almost immediately, and she was invited to join the Salon d'Automne—a Parisian circle with considerable influence on 20th-century art—while still in her early 20s. Even then, she clearly felt ambivalent about her growing fame. Shortly after achieving this milestone, she went to Florence with her husband Stephen Haweis: "When I was twenty-three I was elected a member of the Autumn Salon and then I stole away from civilization—to live on the Costa San Georgio."
Loy's marriage to Haweis began to unravel almost at once, a casualty of frequent separations, parenthood, illness, and the marital infidelity of both partners. But as her marriage failed, her careers in painting and poetry gathered strength and influence. Her work in each arena was characterized by an experimental spirit; while in Florence, Loy threw herself into Futurism, a radical movement in art that brought the speed, the machinery, and the intensity of modern life onto the canvas. Like Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, Futurism violated many of the conventions of representational art.
Loy's poetry also broke with tradition; the early poems established the radical nature of her vision. Even in the midst of all the Modernist revolutions taking place around her, Loy stood out. The poems required a new kind of reader, one who was not frightened off by the elliptical, often intentionally distorted quality of her work. "Lunar Baedeker" travels down "Delirious Avenues," past "the eye-white sky-light / white-light district," encountering carousels, cyclones, Necropolis, "Onyx-eyed Odalisques" and a NOCTURNAL CYCLOPS along the way.
The poetry uses elements borrowed from collage, a technique Loy always favored in her art; it also experiments with punctuation and the white space on the page, and is rich in alliteration. The poetry reflects on both abstract ideas and specific experiences and images. Lines are generally short, as are most of the poems themselves, but Loy often links together short poems or segments to create larger units. There is little if any metrical regularity in a typical Loy poem and traditional stanza forms are nonexistent. Rhyme, if it happens at all, seems accidental.
In both painting and poetry, Loy's aim was to break old boundaries between media and expand the possibilities within a particular genre. Conover's introduction to The Lost Lunar Baedeker summarizes her far-reaching influence:
She introduced Stieglitz and his circle to the work of Apollinaire, imported Futurist techniques to American theater, applied methods borrowed from the revolution in the visual arts to the new poetics, and exerted an influence on the leaders of New York Dada.
Roughly half a generation older than the Lost Generation of American poets and influenced by trends in painting as well as literature, Loy was a figure of considerable romance and influence for younger Modernist poets.
Professional success and fame notwithstanding, Loy became increasingly unhappy in the years leading up to the First World War. She began talking about divorce from Haweis in 1913, and her decision to stay in Italy after the declaration of war the following year may have reflected a need to find something other than her own misery on which to concentrate, as well as a desire to serve. In 1914, she began an affair with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, but "his interest in [her] only weathered two months of war fever." The Futurists' subsequent identification with fascism ended Loy's interest in the movement, and she devoted some of her intellectual energies to writing satires of Futurist ideas, especially to what she saw as misogynist elements of the cause.
In 1915, Loy became something of a cause célèbre: two of her "Love Songs" were printed in the first issue of Others, a little magazine published in New York that was intended to challenge the supremacy of Harriet Monroe 's more conservative and mainstream Poetry, published in Chicago. Song #1 begins with the memorable image of Pig Cupid, "His rosy snout / Rooting erotic garbage." In Our Singing Strength, Alfred Kreymborg explains the effect of Loy's poems on the magazine's readership and the press more generally; citing her "madly elliptical style" and "the nudity of emotion and thought," he recalls the uproar:
[T]he utter nonchalance in revealing the secrets of sex was denounced as nothing less than lewd…. 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.
A subsequent issue of Others printed the whole of Loy's poem cycle, more than 30 poems. Decades after the magazine had folded, people were still fighting about Loy, Others, and the
role each played in the Modernist era. Loy's influence far outstripped anything she or the editors of the magazine could have envisioned.
Loy's divorce from Haweis was final in 1917, shortly after her first meeting with Arthur Cravan, soon to become her second husband. Cravan, who identified himself as a poet-boxer, was a fugitive from conscription, a jack-of-alltrades, an Englishman originally christened Fabian Lloyd who was at home virtually anywhere in Europe. Conover calls him "the progenitor of all boxers who fight with their mouths": he typically sprang to his feet after the referee announced his name, to list all of the high points of his life on the road. He and Loy met in April 1917, one day before he created a scandal by undressing during his own lecture on "The Independent Artists in France and America."
Loy and Cravan married in Mexico City in January 1918 and then took off on a very low-budget wedding trip; they nearly starved to death. They decided to return to Europe separately, but Cravan disappeared shortly after Loy set off for Argentina on the first leg of her journey. As late as March 1920, Loy was still convinced Cravan was alive, and took a trip to New York to try to pick up his trail. The legends about his fate were various: he'd been murdered; he'd drowned; he was living a secret life. None of the stories were ever proven, one way or another. Although Loy did not give up writing and painting after this traumatic loss, she relinquished virtually all elements of a public life. The last 50 years of her life were spent in private work, with only limited contact with the world outside her immediate family.
Loy returned to Paris in 1923, still mourning for Cravan and newly grieved by the recent death of her son Giles, who had been kidnapped by his father in 1921. Although she once again found herself at the center of literary and artistic life in Paris, the pleasures of such an existence had palled for Loy. She continued to write: the first section of Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose came out in The Little Review in 1923, as did Lunar Baedecker [sic], her first book. Loy continued to be treated as radical and influential by poets and other readers throughout the 1920s; her work, publicly praised by both T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, appeared in Others, Rogue, Trend, The Little Review, and the issue of The Dial in which The Waste Land first appeared. Nevertheless, Loy's influence among her contemporaries did not translate into posterity with a larger, more popular readership. One of the most important factors in this phenomenon was Loy's own lack of interest in achieving fame, an element of her character that grew more pronounced over time.
This feature of her temperament fostered another of Loy's fundamental traits, a desire to devote herself to meticulous revision of any work she undertook. In 1926, in a common gesture of the period, Yvor Winters linked Loy's name with that of William Carlos Williams, treating the two as parts of a new foundation in American poetry for which "Emily Dickinson will have been [the] only forerunner." He predicted that Williams stood a greater chance than did Loy of becoming "chief prophet" of their own and later generations; Winters was proved right, if for no other reason than that the two poets produced at vastly different rates. Williams wrote rapidly and with dazzling technique. Loy lingered over her own work much longer, sometimes taking years to complete single poems. And her poetry was often intentionally difficult as Williams' was not—full of alliteration and unfamiliar diction, rich in capital letters, cryptic fragments, and mysterious spaces.
Loy was also quite decided in her tastes and sometimes refused to contribute poems or lend her influence to new little magazines. Some editors, offended by what they saw as high-handedness, refused to back or publish her; waning interest in experimental writing and the financial failure of many little magazines also stunted the development of any larger popular interest in her work.
Loy continued to devote some attention to the politics as well as the aesthetic concerns of the Modernist era. Her political commitments, like her artistic endeavors, always bore an experimental, idiosyncratic edge. In the '20s, Loy created a political party she called Psycho-Democracy, a one-woman movement despite the fact that the party manifesto uses plural pronouns to establish Loy's tenets:
Our purpose is the instatement of Actual Values to destroy the power—inimical to man—of those things he does not understand…. We fight with Brains for the substitution of Preference for Prejudice and the obviation of social crises by the Excavation of individual and group psychology.
But most of her time and energy went into her new enterprise, backed by two of her friends, a lampshade design business conceived as a source of steady income to support her writing. Her shop (and other design projects for fashion stores in New York) did support Loy for a time, but it eventually failed. Depressed, financially troubled, and convinced that others were stealing her ideas, Loy dissolved the business.
Loy found something of a new lease on life when Julien Levy, now married to her daughter Joella Haweis , hired her to act as a representative for his new gallery in New York. Between 1931 and 1936, Loy watched the Paris art scene, making recommendations about artists and properties and acting as Levy's agent in a variety of capacities. Some of her paintings were exhibited in the Julien Levy Gallery and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1933, but most of her time went to developing her skills as a businesswoman. She left Paris in 1936 and returned to New York, where she lived for the next 17 years (part of the time with her daughter Fabi Cravan ). These years in New York were intensely private ones, animated by "a metaphorical search to find Christ in the Bowery," writes Conover. She became very comfortable in the Bowery, moving there in 1949, and devoted herself to learning about the lives of the indigent. She wrote a series of poems about the people she met in her quest and constructed art works of garbage salvaged from streets and alleys. As ever, her work received admiring, even reverent attention.
Loy left New York in 1953 to visit her daughters, both now living in Aspen, Colorado. At some point, the visit turned into a permanent move. Her habits and interests became ever more eccentric, and she did little in the way of writing or other creation. She seemed unwilling to entertain others' interests in her work, past or present. She confronted Jonathan Williams (editor of the second book of her poems, published in 1958) about his project by saying: "But, why do you waste your time on these thoughts of mine? I was never a poet." William Carlos Williams was excited by the news of this forthcoming book and wrote an enthusiastic review, despite the fact that they had been out of touch for almost 30 years:
Mina Loy was endowed from birth with a first-rate intelligence and a sensibility which has plagued her all her life facing a shoddy world. When she puts a word down on paper it is clean; that forces her fellows to shy away from it because they are not clean and will be contaminated by her cleanliness. Therefore she has not been a successful writer and couldn't care less. But it has hurt her chances of being known.
Aside from claiming that she hadn't realized Williams was still alive, Loy had nothing else to say about his reaction to the book. Books and exhibitions of her work went on without her; she did not even appear when the Bodley Gallery mounted a show of her "Constructions." Mina Loy died in 1966, still going her own way, leaving no complete autobiographical memoirs to consult in reconstructing her remarkable, often hidden, life.
Conover, Roger L., ed. The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Highlands, NC: The Jargon Society, 1982.
Winters, Yvor. Uncollected Essays and Reviews. NY: Swallow Press, 1973.
Burke, Carolyn. Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 4. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.
Kouidis, Virginia. Mina Loy: American Modernist Poet. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.
Kreymborg, Alfred. American Poetry: Our Singing Strength. NY: Tudor, 1934.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 22, 1982.
The New York Times Book Review. November 16, 1980, May 16, 1982.
Joella Bayer Collection; Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book Room—Yale University; The Dial Collection; Julien Levy Collection, William N. Copley Collection; Bodley Gallery; private collections.
Mary M. Lacey , Assistant Visiting Professor of English and Humanities, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana