Kevin’s Much-Loved Poems–“Spring Day [Bath],” “Woman Bathing,” and “How to Measure Yourself”
This is one in a series of columns that examines a much-loved poem, and poems that speak to, or resonates with, that poem. Featured is “Spring Day [Bath],” crafted by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) in 1914 or 15.
The Poetry Foundation states: “An oft-quoted remark by poet Amy Lowell applies to both her determined personality and her sense of humor: ‘God made me a business woman,’ Lowell is reported to have quipped, ‘and I made myself a poet.’ During a career that spanned just over a dozen years, she wrote and published over 650 poems, yet scholars cite Lowell’s tireless efforts to awaken American readers to contemporary trends in poetry as her more influential contribution to literary history. ‘Poet, propagandist, lecturer, translator, biographer, critic . . . her verve is almost as remarkable as her verse,’ opined poet Louis Untermeyer in his 1923 work American Poetry since 1900. A collection of Lowell’s work, published posthumously as What’s O’Clock?, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926.”
Amy Lowell, from the Brahman New England Lowell family (her brother Lawrence Lowell was President of Harvard from 1909-1933) aligned herself with the movement of imagist poetry. In her introduction to a 1915 volume, Lowell attempted to set down some criteria for writers of imagist poetry. They should strive, she wrote, “1. To use the language of common speech. . . . 2. To create new rhythms. . . . 3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. . . . 4. To present an image. . . . 5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite. 6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.”
These criteria give us a lens through which to understand “Spring Day [Bath].” The phrase “tulips and narcissus in the air,” appears at the end of the first sentence and the last. This phrase especially, as will be shown later, seemed to enflame her critics, who honed on the reference to Narcissus. Her critics said she had no right to narcissism.
Here’s a short video on Amy Lowell’s poems: Short Biography and Selected Poems
Spring Day [Bath]
by Amy Lowell
The day is fresh-washed and fair, and there is a smell of tulips and narcissus in the air.
The sunshine pours in at the bath-room window and bores through the water in the bath-tub in lathes and planes of greenish-white. It cleaves the water into flaws like a jewel, and cracks it to bright light.
Little spots of sunshine lie on the surface of the water and dance, dance, and their reflections wobble deliciously over the ceiling; a stir of my finger sets them whirring, reeling. I move a foot and the planes of light in the water jar. I lie back and laugh, and let the green-white water, the sun-flawed beryl water, flow over me. The day is almost too bright to bear, the green water covers me from the too bright day. I will lie here awhile and play with the water and the sun spots.
The sky is blue and high. A crow flaps by the window, and there is a whiff of tulips and narcissus in the air.
* * *
I chose this prose poem because its language and precision appealed to me long before I learned how poorly it had been received when Amy first read it. Amy was a large woman, and, in an era of conservatism, a lesbian. Ezra Pound said of her “’300 pounds and a charmer’—poor Amy, poor Amy.” When she finished reading this poem to the American Poetry Society in March of 1915, Jean Gould said, “there was an immediate uproar, with people leaping to their feet and roaring denunciations. The event made the news the next day, and for years after any references to ‘Amy’s bathtub’ sprung up in newspaper features about her in a most uncomplimentary fashion.” Biographers later complained that anyone who researches and writes about Amy Lowell must sift through an inordinate amount of demeaning and irrelevant commentary about her person in order to find information about her work.
To me, the poem seems remarkably free, sparse, and modern—remarkably free verse, ahead of its time.
* * *
I found two poems that resonate with Amy’s “Spring Day [Bath].” The first is Raymond Carver’s “Woman Bathing,” which introduces a second person, in this case a lover, to appreciate the bather. I’m not sure what the line “Time is a mountain lion” means but I like it, and the lion coexisting with ground squirrels.
by Raymond Carver
Natches River. Just below the falls.
Twenty miles from any town. A day
of dense sunlight
heavy with odors of love.
How long have we?
Already your body, sharpness of Picasso,
is drying in this highland air.
I towel down your back, your hips,
with my undershirt.
Time is a mountain lion.
We laugh at nothing,
and as I touch your breasts
even the ground-
* * *
The third poem is one of my own called “How to Measure Yourself.” which, although it does take place in a bathtub, isn’t necessarily about bathing.
How to Measure Yourself
by Kevin Arnold
You can only displace so much water.
Fill the tub until water spills into the overflow,
then twist your legs until the knees are covered.
Conditioning won’t help. If you are a good parent
or bad artist it won’t matter.
If you have a penis, use your hands to hold it down,
or breasts, ditto, as you submerge the chest.
Peek, at the last minute, for any knee-islands,
bring full breath into the lungs,
and, concentrating on the knees, gently drop
your head back until it’s completely submerged.
That is your high-water mark,
you can do no more.
Here’s a video: Kevin reading “How To Measure Yourself”