CURIOUS DISCIPLINES: MINA LOY AND AVANT-GARDE ARTISTHOOD
By Sarah Hayden
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
She had shown some talent for sketching, and was eventually allowed
to enrol at an art school in
It was in
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
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.
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
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
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
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
By 1936 Loy was located in the
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.