Mina Loy, Logopoeia, and the Alphabet that Builds Itself

4 April 2022
Bowen Wang, Trinity College Dublin

Ezra Pound, in a review titled ‘Marianne Moore and Mina Loy’ published in Others: A Magazine of the New Verse (1917), speaks highly of these two modernist women poets and associates them with the last type of his poetry typology:

(1.) melopoeia, to wit, poetry which moves by its music, whether it be a music in the words or an aptitude for, or suggestion of, accompanying music; (2.) imagism, or poetry wherein the feelings of painting and sculpture are predominant (certain men move in phantasmagorial; the images of their gods, whole countrysides, stretches of hill land and forest, travel with them); (3.) and there is, thirdly, logopoeia or poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of the intelligence among words and ideas and modification of ideas and characters.[1]

Many critics have confirmed this argument by regarding Loy as an exemplar of Poundian logopoeia, famous for her internal wordplay and linguistic inclusiveness of the scientific, philosophical, and literary.[2] However, Loy’s intricacies of forms and verbal structures, in fact, have also absorbed the visual image of phanopoeia and the sound effect of melopoeia. Her work exhibits the painterly composition of pictorial elements, polysyllabic stanzas and deliberate alliterations, simultaneously presenting ‘torrential languages’ and the ‘word made flesh | and feeding upon itself | with erudite fangs’ like her idols James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.[3] Hence, Loy’s purely formal concern about the use of language is actually akin to a composite, hybridised expression. In this sense, her style of words-in-freedom can be better understood as the compound term of ‘sound-images, what she called the “belle matière” of art, [which] is rooted in the word-conscious style of the Decadents, Pre-Raphaelites, and Symbolists before’.[4]

Loy’s revolution of language, without a doubt, benefits from her particular occupation as painter-poet and the autonomy and sufficiency of aesthetic modernism, which encourages an artist to use the formalistic means and forces of the artwork itself as self-reflexive processes of rethinking racial, sensual, and political issues. In Charles Altieri’s Eliotian metaphor, Loy’s ‘self-consciously impersonal poetics’ – here full of linguistic intelligence and psychological power – serve as multisensual ‘catalysts for combining [audio-visual/verbal] elements of feelings’.[5] In one of her alphabetic inventions, The Alphabet that Builds Itself, similar to Pound’s work with Chinese ideograms, Loy splits up the strokes of English letters to reconstruct and recombine them into new shapes, even in reverse order.[6] In a letter introducing her educational game of alphabet-building to a manufacturer, Loy titles her design as Build Your Own Alphabet which contains ‘pieces of let[t]er to be put together [made] of attractive inexpensive plastics, or brightly lacquered cardboard’ to stimulate one’s ‘observation of form, construction and similarities’.[7]

loy

Over and above the fixity of their physical forms and semiotic meanings, her colour-lined alphabets as the minimum unit of written language become objects, thoughts, and identities that can be taken apart and put together in different arrangements and from multidirectional perspectives. In one of her revolutionary poems dedicated to “Gertrude Stein”, Loy shows her respect to these Steinian experiments that are conducted in

the laboratory

of vocabulary

she crushed

the tonnage

of consciousness

congealed to phrases

to extract

a radium of the word.[8]

Like the alphabet that needs to be taken apart, turned upside down, or put together, her plastically constructed segmental letters and its theory of poetic language should also be conceived as ‘kinetic, geometric, recombinant, and open to mutation’.[9] This unique poetic vision touches the palpable, tactile aspect of the artistic physicality of language and artform we have taken for granted for a long period. It needs to be refashioned through an alternative lens of the eye and the creative process in-between various identities as alter egos of ‘I-ness’.

Loy gives priority to textual and actual vision and its act of seeing or perceiving to witness and renew the problematic representation of art, gender, individual or societal community, across any pre-existing boundaries. Her alphabetic design, at this point, aims at teaching us not only to see and observe newly and afresh, but also how the eyes shall read and interpret visual and verbal elements. Based on the ‘radium of the word’, Linda Kinnahan argues that the new technology of vision informs a ‘metaphorical process of seeing’ and experiencing in a modern rhythm to construct, deconstruct, and recreate.[10] It addresses the pressing need to build up the connection between the subjective mind and the interpretative visuality of eyes functioning as revelation and re-presentation. Hence, the poetic vision becomes Loy’s artistic aura or a desire for destructing and re-creating, explicitly associating the gaze with visionary expressiveness rather than a single, absolute point of view fixed by the verbal/visual linearity.


Image credit: Mina Loy, The Alphabet that Builds Itself (1941), colour illustration, Mina Loy Papers, box 7, fol. 184, YCAL MSS 6, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale.


Sources

[1] Ezra Pound, ‘Marianne Moore and Mina Loy’, in Selected Prose 1909-1965, ed. by William Cookson (London: Faber & Faber, 1978), p. 394. Pound later in 1934 rephrased this classification into phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia in his ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 2010), p. 37.

[2] Charles Altieri, The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry: Modernism and After (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 79; Marjorie Perloff, Poetry on & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2000), p. 203; Alex Goody, Modernist Articulations: A Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 3.

[3] Mina Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems of Mina Loy, ed. by Roger L. Conover (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997), pp. 88-89.

[4] Marisa Januzzi, ‘Dada through the Looking Glass, or: Mina Loy’s Objective’, in Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender and Identity, ed. by Naomi Sawelson-Gorse (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), p. 411.

[5] Altieri, The Art of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, pp. 80-82.

[6] See more in Ernest Fenollosa’s essay ‘The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry: An Ars Poetica’ appendixed by Pound’s writing ‘With Some Notes by a Very Ignorant Man’, in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, ed. by Haun Saussy et al. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 41-74.

[7] Mina Loy, Letter (1941), black and white, Mina Loy Papers, box 7, fol. 184, YCAL MSS 6, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale.

[8] Loy, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, p. 94.

[9] Margaret Konkol, “Prototyping Mina Loy’s Alphabet,” Feminist Modernist Digital Humanities, special issue of Feminist Modernist Studies, 1.3 (2018), p. 294.

[10] Linda Kinnahan, Mina Loy, Twentieth-Century Photography, and Contemporary Women Poets (New York: Routledge, 2017), pp. 63-64.

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