By Sarah Hayden

University of New Mexico Press. 358 pages. £66.50/$82.50. ISBN 978-0-8263-5932-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Mina Loy? Hardly a name that will arouse a reaction among many readers of poetry, other than perhaps in a few university departments. You could never refer to her as a “popular poet”, and her work rarely appears in anthologies, unless they’re specifically aimed at highlighting what was seen as “experimental” or “avant-garde” writing in the twentieth century. She’s represented in the first volume of the large Poems for the Millenium: The University of California Book of Modern and Post-Modern Poetry (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995), where she’s placed alongside Picasso, Pessoa, Pound, Cendrars, Duchamp, and Reverdy. She also has a place in Revolution of the Word, edited by Jerome Rothenberg (Seabury Press, New York, 1974), and is in the company of Bob Brown, Marsden Hartley, Harry Crosby, and a few others whose names might not mean much to anyone outside academic circles. 

Loy was born in London “of mixed Jewish and English parentage” in 1882. Her mother, non-Jewish, seems to have been the dominant person in the family, and anxious to disguise the fact that Mina’s father was Jewish. According to Loy’s biographer, Carolyn Burke, her mother’s behaviour both towards her husband and Mina, meant that her childhood was something of an emotional battleground. As a result, Mina “learned to comfort herself by taking refuge in her imagination”.

She had shown some talent for sketching, and was eventually allowed to enrol at an art school in London, though she described it as less than good. But it enabled her to meet a variety of young people and begin to broaden her experiences. A year in Munich followed, which further brought her into contact with artists and other creative types, and then a move to Paris. I’m ranging quickly through these early years, because Sarah Hayden’s book nowhere claims to be a biography. It’s my own impulse which inclines me to provide at least some basic biographical information in this review on the grounds that, as I indicated earlier, few people will have come across Mina Loy unless they have a specific interest in the literary and artistic avant-gardes of the early years of the last century.

It was in Paris that she met the painter and photographer, Stephen Haweis, who became her first husband. Loy exhibited her art work in Paris, but they moved to Florence, where she started to encounter the activities of the Futurists in general, and their leader, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, in particular. It’s at this point that her poetry started to come to the fore.

It’s worth mentioning that, at the very beginning of her book, Hayden says that Loy frequently displayed an “adhesion to and splittings from multiple factions of the avant-garde”. As we’ll see, she seems to have been initially enthused by the aims of avant-garde groups, but then had problems co-ordinating those aims with her own notions of herself as an individual, and as a woman in essentially male-dominated movements. She was not alone in having to face up to the clash between the collective and the individual. The histories of literary and artistic groupings are more often than not accounts of deviations and diversions, with writers and painters moving away to follow their own inclinations.

The Futurists wanted a “socially engaged art”, and part of their programme was a sustained denunciation of the art of the past. Marinetti was something of a showman – a “Bombastic Superman”, in Loy’s words - and made appearances in theatres to promote Futurism. Loy was attracted to him, but seems to have viewed his posturings with a certain amount of irony, if not suspicion. And she would not surrender easily to his advances, But she did find some of the Futurist ideas of interest, to the point where she compiled a series of Aphorisms on Futurism : “The Future is limitless – the past a trail of insidious reactions”.

Hayden sums up Loy’s involvements with the Futurists in the following way: “Loy’s Futurist encounter activated her poetic voice, ignited her interest in avant-garde innovation, and posed a vibrantly antagonistic system against which so productively to rail”. By 1916 she was ready to leave Futurism behind and embarked for New York.

Loy’s next venture was into the world of the Dadaists. “Dada’s expert topic is Dada”. says Hayden, and “It constantly talks about and describes itself”. It really wasn’t much concerned with matters like political ideas and social problems, though it could be argued that the Berlin Dadaists tended to be more committed to them than their counterparts in Zurich, Paris, and New York. And the Dadaists even denied that they were an artistic movement.

New York was a hotbed of activity on many fronts. Loy soon became a habitué of the Walter Arensberg salon, where she met Duchamp, Picabia, Man Ray, the strange Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, William Carlos Williams, and many others involved in aspects of the arts in the city. She also encountered Arthur Cravan, who she married in Mexico, and whose mysterious disappearance a little later has never been satisfactorily explained. Loy’s poetry was published in Others and The Dial, and in the short-lived The Blind Men.

Hayden provides some close textual interpretations of individual Loy poems that are instructive, but for the purpose of this review I’m deliberately holding to her general opinions. She says that she is not claiming that Loy “was writing Dada texts but that she was engaged with Dada notions of what the artist ought to be about. Dada opened to Loy a mode of making that could be playful, provocative, and even political all at once”. But she also adds that, “perhaps the Dada spirit was always in her anyway, a case of infection sui generis , and New York merely provided the optimum conditions for ‘culturing’ and transmission”. I tend to this latter view myself, and think that it’s often the case that attempting to place poets in categories or groups is never truly successful, and that their individual characteristics sometimes coincide with claimed aspects of a movement, and sometimes not. This is surely especially true of Dada, which is so open to interpretation that everything and anything that appears to be unconventional could be made to seem relevant to it.

From Futurism to Dadaism to Surrealism. Loy’s progress through these various movements or groupings might well be seen as the activities of someone determined to keep up with whichever one of them appeared to be attracting attention. Was this just opportunism, or did Loy genuinely identify with at least some tendencies within each of them? Both reasons could have been enough to have inclined her to be where the action was. Single motives are not often the only ones operative at any given time.

André Breton’s definition of Surrealism is quoted by Hayden: “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought”. But she goes on to point out that “its immediate popularity and apparently polymorphous allusiveness very quickly rendered it a notoriously ubiquitous term”. And various individuals sought to “elucidate the movement and its motivations”. But Breton was determined to “divest the Surrealist brand of any vestiges of Dada frivolity”. He couldn’t really control what happened outside Paris, however, and in the United States, for example, Surrealism was soon absorbed into the mainstream, with articles in popular magazines and newspapers, and the fashion and film industries jumping on the bandwagon.

I don’t have the impression that Loy ever identified in any overall way with the Surrealists, and it’s probable that, as with her involvements with Futurists and Dadaists, she was with them but not really one of them. Her work was idiosyncratic enough to be incorporated into a loose alliance with all three groups. What Hayden refers to as Loy’s “desirability as a cultured Surrealist woman about town on the Paris scene,” perhaps sums up her situation.

Loy did have a relationship with a German artist, Richard Oelze, who for a time, at least, was linked to the Surrealists. And she wrote a novel, Insel, in which he is said to be portrayed, though as Hayden stresses, it is not a novel in the realist tradition. Loy eliminates anything in Oelze’s real life experiences which contrasts to the picture of a “Byronic artist archetype”. In a way, this is not unusual in novels dealing with characters living in what is usually referred to as a bohemian manner.  Insel (the character based on Oelze) is seen as “mad, profligate, dissolute, starving and uneducated” and barely productive in artistic terms. In fact, Richard Oelze had appeared alongside other Surrealists in some significant exhibitions in Paris, London, Brussels and New York. Hayden says that, in writing her novel, Loy wanted to “demythologise the Surrealist artist” and to “banalise the Surrealist milieu of 1930s Paris”. She was unable to find a publisher for it at the time, and it only appeared in print some years after she had died.

By 1936 Loy was located in the United States, and she largely faded into the background of artistic life. I can’t imagine that the radical literature and art of the period, with proletarian novels and socially conscious plays and paintings, held much appeal for her. There doesn’t seem to have been a place for her in the 1940s and 1950s, though some people, such as Kenneth Rexroth and Jonathan Williams, tried to alert poets and readers with an interest in the avant-garde and experimental traditions in poetry to Loy’s writing. A younger man, Gilbert Neiman, printed some of Loy’s later poems in 1961 and 1962 in a couple of issues of a magazine called Between Worlds. They were where I first encountered her poems, though I knew her name from accounts of Paris in the 1920s. A handful of other poems appeared in little magazines, but on the whole Loy was ignored by the literary establishment. A few old friends, such as the photographer Berenice Abbott and Djuna Barnes, herself almost a forgotten figure, tried to keep in touch, but it wasn’t always easy, their visits to Loy sometimes unsettling her.

After years of living in obscurity in various rooming houses in decaying areas of New York, where she appears to have enjoyed being in close proximity to the drunks and deadbeats of the Bowery, Loy was eventually persuaded to move to Aspen, Colorado, to be near to her daughters. She died in 1966. 

I’m conscious of having done Sarah Hayden a disservice in that I’ve only occasionally referred to her close readings of the texts of Loy’s poems and the novel, Insel. She has clearly studied the work thoroughly and offers some insightful comments on it. She also places Loy in context and provides sufficient basic biographical information to establish a continuity that the reader can follow.

It’s possible that the value of Hayden’s book may be advanced if it’s read with the full texts of Loy’s poems, as published in The Last Lunar Baedeker (Carcanet, Manchester, 1985), and The Lost Lunar Baedeker (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 1996), to hand. Both books were edited by Roger L. Conover, and have ample notes and other information. Insel (Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, 1991) was edited by Elizabeth Arnold. There is also Carolyn Burke’s Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996) to provide a full biographical survey. With these books, and Sarah Hayden’s intelligent analysing, anyone finding Mina Loy’s poetry to their taste should be able to arrive at an in-depth appreciation of her life and work.