Love as a Broken Art: An Examination of Mina Loy’s “Songs to Joannes”

This paper was written for ENG 373: Terrible Beauty, Yeats and Modern Poetry, and was intended to be an informed argument about a topic of our choice, situating ourselves in the critical conversation and making a claim of our own.

In traditional love poetry, poets often idealize and idolize the object of the speaker’s love and the love itself. Take this section of William Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 65” for example: “O, none, unless this miracle have might, / That in black ink my love may still shine bright” (Shakespeare, lines 13-14). In the context of the sonnet, the speaker is proclaiming that, despite the horrors of the world and the tyranny of time, this declaration of his love will persevere and shine through the endless darkness. He clearly exaggerates the power of love, as it cannot recapture time and innocence lost in reality, but these embellished sentiments mark oft quoted, beloved love poems and songs. However, Mina Loy, as the ideal modern woman at the turn of the twentieth century—having numerous love affairs, perpetually traveling internationally, and writing controversial poems—subverts these traditional tropes and expectations of love poems throughout her work.

According to Eric Murphy Selinger, the modernists as a whole “in an attempt to demystify love […] concur on its attendant threat of melancholia, a crippling deprivation of meaning or value that leaves us unsure narcissists, not good for each other or ourselves” (Selinger 21). In other words, love can cause great pain and confusion, and the modernists tend to focus primarily on its destructive properties. Many critics view Loy’s “Songs to Joannes”—one of her most prominent and contentious works—as a dark, defeatist portrayal of a failed love affair in this modernist context. Selinger regards Loy’s break with conventional grammar and layout to be a “deliberate exploration of aesthetic failure,” which demonstrates Loy’s refusal to be “rescued by language when she has not been rescued by love” (Selinger 22). Both Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Maeera Shreiber focus on the denial of maternity and its devastating impact on the speaker in their assessments of the poem. DuPlessis states that “The final sense of loss is not between [the two lovers], only or exclusively, but between her and the missing child,” and Schreiber asserts, “I want to place Love Songs in the context of what Alicia Ostriker identifies as ‘the abortion’ poem, a subset of ‘the motherhood poem’” (DuPlessis 63, Shreiber 102). Shreiber also notes some of the poem’s meta-poetic aspects, indicating that it conveys a bleak view of the art of writing poetry in the modern age, as well (Shreiber 93). While this fatalism and pain certainly play a large role in the poem, “Songs to Joannes” does not wholly fit within this bleak modernist category; hints of beauty of potential optimism lurk beneath its surface. Through her refusal to adhere to the conventions of traditional love poetry but not quite writing the vehement modernist anti-love poem either, Loy offers a deconstruction and subsequent fresh reconstruction of love in the modern world—messy, unprecedented, and undoubtedly painful, but capable of new beauty and significance despite that.

This poem initially appeared in the first publication of Others magazine in 1915 and only included the first four sections. It was originally entitled simply “Love Songs” (Loy, Index of Modernist Magazines “Love Songs”). It caused so much outrage due to its desensitized, sexual nature that Amy Lowell—a prominent imagist poet of the time—refused to submit work to the magazine after its publication (Academy of American Poets). Then, two years later, Others published the poem in its entirety, under its later and current title “Songs to Joannes” (Loy, Index of Modernist Magazines “Songs to Joannes”). Loy had a grand vision for the layout of that issue, including the text “printed on one side of each page only,” “a large round in the middle of the blank reverse of each page,” and “one whole entirely blank page with nothing on it between the first & second parts,” but the budget of the struggling publication could not accommodate her requests (Churchill 195).

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Despite never having been printed this way, Loy’s vision for this publication reveals some important aspects of meaning in the poem that could have been accentuated through this printing. For one, Suzanne Churchill notes, “The circle is a multivalent symbol in ‘Songs to Joannes,’ one that represents the potential for widening horizons, but also signifies negation and indicates a closed system” (Churchill 200). The strong tensions between expansion and limitation that would have been embodied by the physical circle on the page evoke the tensions between an idealized vision of love and the reality of limitation and heartbreak. Though Loy does not indicate exactly where she would break the poem into its second part, she does indicate that “all the first were in a red hot agony—the first of the second part in the traditional recuperation in the country—& the rest—settled cerebral” (qtd. in Churchill 198-99). From this description, I infer that the break would have happened following section xvii, which Shreiber describes as depicting “the terror of a back-alley abortion” and would have required both physical and mental “recuperation” due to the trauma the speaker sustains (Shreiber 102). Having nothing on the page between the two parts of the poem would have allowed the reader to spatially experience the abrupt emptiness and helplessness of the speaker following her abortion and heartbreak, but also would have represented the newness of learning to heal and gaining perspective following this experience.

The first section of the poem acts as an introduction to Loy’s persisting inversion of typical romantic tropes and was included in both of the poem’s Others iterations. Many early readers found it bawdy and shocking, particularly coming from a female poet:

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(Loy 53)

Loy employs disjointed chronology of action and images in the first stanza through a series of kaleidoscopic noun clauses: “Spawn of Fantasies,” “Pig Cupid,” “erotic garbage,” and “mucous-membrane,” as well as verbs with unclear subjects: “silting,” “rooting,” and “pulls.” This disparate lumping together of phrases makes imposing any kind of order onto the actions difficult for the reader. The speaker conflates traditional romance: “Once upon a time,” “Cupid,” and “star-topped” with the base and profane: “pig,” “erotic garbage,” “weed,” and “mucous-membrane” (53). As Selinger interprets, “We told love stories, fairy-tale romances in which sex was kept discretely out of sight. Now Pig Cupid’s rosy snout, a displaced and comical phallus, burrows into every subtext, bringing lust to light” (Selinger 26). The second stanza of this section is sexual and unrestrained, utilizing explosive, bright imagery, like “bengal light” and “sky-rocket,” to evoke orgasmic sensations. But Loy’s choice to set “These are suspect places” apart illustrates that the speaker is aware of the explicit nature of her thoughts and feels out of place, longing to restrain herself. In the final stanza, the speaker has trapped herself within the “coloured glass” of the “lantern,” experiencing only a “flicker” of her previous “bengal light” (Loy 53). The progression of this section from debasing romantic tropes to erotic play to ultimate restraint begins to capture the tensions of navigating love in a complicated modern context in which old conventions are being thwarted but new expectations have yet to be established.

The next excerpted section (xiii) offers a more personal look into the interactions of the speaker and her lover and illuminates different functions of intimacy in their relationship:

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[…]

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(Loy 57-8)

The speaker notices “Something taking shape” and repeats the word “new” four times in one stanza, which emphasizes the novelty and growth that she is experiencing in the early stages of this relationship. However, her recognition of part of this new expansion and reinvention as an “illusion” illustrates that this love remains somewhat “suspect” (Loy 57, 53). She later uses the same parallel line structure of two words of description per line, but with “very” repeated and the negative attributes of “jealous,” “suspicious,” “conservative,” and “cruel” following it in order to reveal a darker side of attachment and love. The phrase: “[…] welded together / They shall become god” invokes religious imagery in relation to a sexual act, implied by the “weld[ing] together,” which is an unorthodox, subversive combination, yet portrays the coupling of the lovers as holy and set apart. At the end of block-quoted section, the speaker proclaims, “Oh that’s right,” which has a distinctly sexual connotation, followed by, “Keep away from me […] Don’t let me understand you Don’t realise me” (58). This seemingly sexual plea for emotional distance is ironic and demonstrates the speaker’s—and, more generally, the modern lover’s—conflict between physical and emotional intimacy and how to reconcile the two in modern romance.

This final excerpt (section xv) from the first “part” of the poem captures one of the most genuine moments of human connection between the speaker and her lover:

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(Loy 59)

Near the beginning of this section, the speaker again invokes religious imagery in a distinctly non-religious context by saying that “Fantasy dealt them out as gods,” indicating that the speaker views “Love” and those she is destined to love as transcendent and set apart from the banality of being “only human.” She further complicates this notion of her destined lover as beyond the physical world in the line: “Superhuman apparently.” Here, the large space between the two words embodies her initial resistance to the irrationality of viewing him as more than human, but despite this resistance, she still recognizes something exceptional about this one particular “weak eddy / Of […] drivelling humanity” (59). Against her better judgement, this experience with falling in love makes her more emotional and caring and less rational and cynical. Selinger remarks that “it was precisely the weakness and humanity of Joannes that appealed to the speaker. Marking the shift, Loy makes this the first time that love is a verb in the Love Songs. It is also the last” (Selinger 31). The speaker’s transcendent experience with feeling idealized love for the only time occurs very near the center of the piece, setting it up as the pivotal moment around which the entire poem revolves.

In the aftermath (section xix) of the abortion postulated by Shreiber and discussed above and the end of her relationship, the speaker struggles to impose a meaning that mimics her own loss onto natural images:

[…]

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(Loy 61)

The “light” imagery from the first section returns here, but now aligns with the natural images of “fireflies” and the “green-lit glow-worm,” instead of with the human-made firecrackers and lanterns of before. Though natural images often suggest new life and movement, the “pulses” and energy the speaker describes here are now merely “recaptured” and no longer maintain their fresh and explosive natures. As the supernatural qualities of love fade into the mundane earth, the light becomes “slowly drenched” into “raylessness,” which depicts the dwindling of hope following the heartbreak (61). The first person “I” disappears completely in this section—only “you” remains. The speaker loses her sense of self briefly and attempts to realign her “you” with the strictly naturalistic human realm, removing him from his elevated status as “Superhuman” (61, 59).

The sections at the very end of the poem begin to physically break down and become much shorter and more fragmented. In the following sections (xxxii and xxxiv), the speaker, through her grief, makes her final declaration about love:

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[…]

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(Loy 67-8)

The marked difference in the style of these final sections with their decaying structure indicates the pain and disjointedness of the speaker. She has finally released the “you” of her past and uses the name “Joannes” in address for the first and only time in the poem. This named address indicates a new kind of intimacy between the lovers, one that can only be achieved in her reticent, more human memories. Though the moon is now “cold,” demonstrating that the cosmic powers of the throes of her love have abandoned her, she tries to find refuge in a warm region of the earth, “the Mediterranean” (67). Upon falling prey to the romantic trope that love transcends human understanding and ending up broken, she discovers that love must be grounded in a sense of reality and human banality in order for it to be fully experienced and appreciated. The last line: “Love — — — the preeminent literateur” puts the idealized notion of love in equal standing of both art and artifice as the most distinguished literary scholar—at the same time admirable and impressive, but cold and untouchable, as well (68).

By refusing to conform to either traditional love poetry tropes or modernist fatalism, Mina Loy creates a dynamic portrait of love in the modern age through her poem “Songs to Joannes.” This poem jarred many of its early readers and even incited some of them to anger and protest, and, perhaps, they did not merely find it offensive, obscene, or improper for a woman to have written. Perhaps, they were deeply unsettled by the idea that love in their era was not as clean cut as they wanted it to be. It was messy and challenging and beautiful and undeniably human. And Mina Loy would not let them oversimplify or forget it.

Works Cited

Academy of American Poets. “Mina Loy: Poet.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Web. 04 Oct. 2016.

Churchill, Suzanne W. “Mina Loy: The Poetics of Dislodging.” The Little Magazine Others and the Renovation of Modern American Poetry. Burlington: Ashgate Limited, 2006. 179-222. Print.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “”Seismic Orgasm”: Sexual Intercourse and Narrative Meaning in Mina Loy.” Ed. Keith Tuma and Maeera Shreiber. Mina Loy: Woman and Poet. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1998. 45-74. Print.

Loy, Mina. “Love Songs.” Others 1915: 6. Index of Modernist Magazines. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

—. “Songs to Joannes.” Others Apr. 1917: 3. Index of Modernist Magazines. Web. 29 Sept. 2016.

—. “Songs to Joannes.” The Lost Lunar Baedeker. Ed. Roger L. Conover. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996. 53-68. Print.

Selinger, Eric Murphy. “Love in the Time of Melancholia.” Mina Loy: Woman and Poet. Ed. Keith Tuma and Maeera Shreiber. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1998. 19-43. Print.

Shakespeare, William. “Sonnet 65.” Poetry Foundation. Web. 4 Oct. 2016.

Shreiber, Maeera. “”Love Is a Lyric / of Bodies”: The Negative Aesthetics of Mina Loy’s Love Songs to Joannes.” Mina Loy: Woman and Poet. Ed. Keith Tuma and Maeera Shreiber. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1998. 87-109. Print.

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