Mina Loy is being featured at wood s lot, and among the links is a long essay by Marjorie Perloff about her autobiographical poem “Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose” (first published 1923-25). It’s an informative and interesting piece; what I want to highlight here is a remarkable quote from an essay this English-born poet who was seen as American even when she’d only spent a year in the country wrote about the American language:

It was inevitable that the renaissance of poetry should proceed out of America, where latterly a thousand languages have been born, and each one, for purposes of communication at least, English — English enriched and variegated with the grammatical structure and voice-inflection of many races . . . Out of the welter of this unclassifiable speech, while professors of Harvard and Oxford labored to preserve “God’s English,” the muse of modern literature arose, and her tongue had been loosened in the melting pot.

—Mina Loy, “Modern Poetry,” Charm 3, April 1925

I’m not a big fan of her poetry, which is too unmusical for my ear, but I like the quote a lot. (If you’re curious about her poetry, you can read her 1923 book Lunar Baedecker [sic] here.)

Incidentally, her name was originally the Austro-Hungarian-Jewish Löwy, which I presume was pronounced LOW-ee in Victorian London; she changed it when she moved to Paris at the age of 20 in 1903. Other onomastic oddities: her first husband’s family name, Hawies, is pronounced HAW-iss and is apparently from a Norman female personal name, Haueis (from Germanic Haduwidis: hadu ‘strife, contention’ + widi ‘wide’—I take this information from the entry on Hawes in Patrick Hanks’s Dictionary of American Family Names); her second husband (and the great love of her life) Arthur Cravan, who disappeared off the coast of Mexico in 1918, was born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd (the Lloyd/Loy similarity was important to the poet), and (in the words of Wikipedia) “changed his name to Cravan in 1912 in honour of his fiancée Renée Bouchet, who was born in the small village of Cravans in the department of Charente-Maritime in western France. Why he chose the name Arthur remains unclear.” I have no idea if this invented name was pronounced KRAV-ən or krə-VAN (or some other way) by him and those who knew him; I’m also not sure how to pronounce the poet’s given name. I always said MY-nə, which seemed the obvious Victorian English pronunciation, but Carolyn Burke’s remark (in the introduction to her biography of Loy) that “in some moods she announced contrarily that it was pronounced ‘miner,’ British style” implies that it was normally pronounced MEE-nə. (Burke also says “Rexroth, who knew both women, told me that the actress [Myrna Loy], née Williams, named herself after the poet, but efforts to have this story confirmed went unrewarded.”)


  1. michael farris says

    “where latterly a thousand languages have been born, and each one, for purposes of communication at least, English — English enriched and variegated with the grammatical structure and voice-inflection of many races . . . ”
    I’m afraid I don’t understand this, what is she trying to say?

  2. Presumably that the influx of immigrants from all over created many (“a thousand,” in her hyperbole) variants—Yiddish-American, German-American, Polish-American, Russian-American, and so on—which coexisted in a rich linguistic stew that provided the conditions for a truly modern poetry, free from the shackles of traditional structure.

  3. I always assumed that Myrna got her stage name because it sounded Oriental. She started out in the chorus line at Grauman’s and was type-cast for a time as an Eastern vamp beginning with Ben Hur. Is it really likely that a young starlet from Montana in Hollywood would be familiar with an avant-garde poet?

  4. MMcM: Are you calling Kenneth Rexroth a liar?

  5. aldiboronti says

    “MMcM: Are you calling Kenneth Rexroth a liar?”
    That’s a little harsh. Is Burke implying Rexroth is a liar by making ‘further efforts’ to confirm the story? Of course not. Memories can be unreliable, people may have been misinformed, etc. Even if evidence turns up that Myrna Loy was not named for the poet, that doesn’t make Rexroth a liar, simply mistaken.

  6. I think Allan was saying that jokingly.

  7. rootlesscosmo says

    A friend who’s working on a biography of Myrna Loy (and has already published bios of Mae West and Rudolph Valentino) confirms that she chose the name, at the suggestion of “a poet friend” (not further identified), based on Mina Loy, and then found herself stuck in stereotyped Asian-Eurasian parts for a while.

  8. I was whooshed! (The term used on another message board when a joke whisks over one’s head).
    Sorry, Allan.

  9. I admit that the poet friend does make the connection rather more plausible. And that detail is part of the standard story (e.g., NYT obit) which I certainly could have found with just a little checking.

  10. Here is Myrna Loy’s account from her autobiography:

    I traveled with a sort of artistic avant-garde at that time—writers and would-be writers, painters, sculptors—young people in the arts who would have lived in Greenwich Village if we’d been in New York. Some of them decided that the name Williams was too ordinary for a performer. I resisted. I considered it a perfectly good name. They mentioned Earle Williams, Kathlyn Williams, and several actors of that name, and started tossing around variations, awful combinations, really absurd. Someone even suggested “Myrna Lisa,” playing on the Mona Lisa, which I found embarrassing. Then Peter Rurick, a wild Russian writer of free verse, suddenly came up with “Myrna Loy.” And I said, “What’s that?” It sounded all right, but I still wasn’t convinced about changing my name.

    As Burke says in the margin note to which LH referred originally, “Myrna Loy’s account of her name change is nonetheless compatible with Rexroth’s.” And it does quite explicitly contradict my earlier rash assumption about her environment. It’s remarkable, but hardly conclusive, that an otherwise quite detailed story has no mention of Mina. But, for one thing, the actress was eighty when this was written.
    A quick check at the library and online didn’t turn up anything on Peter Rurick, if that is indeed the right spelling, other than the odd, but unsupported, assertion, here, that it was from a Gertrude Stein poem. (Now, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein certainly knew one another. Mina Loy is mentioned in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and even wrote a poem about Gertrude Stein.) Peter Ruric was the pen name of the screenwriter for The Black Cat (where Karloff plays a Bauhaus Aleister Crowley), and a number of places do suggest that is who was responsible. But he wasn’t Russian, and would she have forgotten a Hollywood connection?
    With luck, when rootlesscosmo’s friend’s new biography comes out, it will supply the missing details.

  11. I’ve reopened the thread to add a link to Boris Dralyuk’s review article on The Complete Slayers, the complete works (one novel and 14 stories) of Paul Cain, a/k/a “Peter Rurick, a wild Russian writer of free verse,” who was neither Cain, Rurick, nor Russian but “an Iowan named George Carroll Sims, born in 1902” who went to Hollywood, wrote hard-boiled detective fiction and screenplays, and eventually drank himself to death. It’s quite a story, and I thank Boris for sending it to me!

  12. Just fixed the link in my last comment, and I’m drawing attention to this fascinating thread for those who weren’t around when it was fresh.

  13. Francesca Wade’s NYRB review (February 9, 2023 issue) of a new biography of Mina Loy begins:

    Between 1949 and 1953 Mina Loy was a well-known character around the Bowery, a ghostly figure in white face powder and a wine-red dressing gown, prowling the streets and poking into trash cans for detritus to squirrel away in her single room in a communal household on Stanton Street. Her poetry was out of print and most of her friends were dead or distant. To her homeless neighbors, whom she often paid to run her errands, she was known as the Duchess. Her student housemates, who loved to listen to her stories, knew that she had once lived in Paris and achieved renown as a poet and artist, that she had been married to a man she called “a beautiful poet and the amateur boxing champion of France” until he disappeared (was he murdered, or did he run away?), that the few visitors invited up to her quarters had familiar names: Djuna Barnes, James Laughlin, Marcel Duchamp. Was this woman who lived among rags and egg crates and spent her days staring at the pigeons outside the window utterly mad, or was she a genius?

    Born Mina Gertrude Löwy in 1882 in London, she had lived across Europe and America and mingled with international artistic and literary avant-gardes. She had four children (two of whom died young) with three different men. She had gained notoriety by writing poetry full of frank articulations of female desire, which poured scorn on the hypocrisies and hierarchies that governed relations between men and women. Loy’s first—and for a long time only—published collection, Lunar Baedecker, was released in 1923 by Robert McAlmon’s Paris-based Contact Publishing Company, which had issued important works by Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams. It went out of print almost immediately, due in part to US customs regulations ordering the confiscation of shipments that might violate obscenity laws, a risk commensurate with Loy’s international reputation as a free-verse radical. Between 1931 and 1946 she published no new poems; in the manuscripts that survive from this period, many of which engage with the figure of the wanderer in exile, a word that recurs over and over is “incognito.”

    Since her death in 1966, Loy’s work has been periodically “rediscovered” while remaining elusive: editions of her writing are rife with textual inconsistencies, and researchers pursuing her biography have found an archive replete with gaps and contradictions. Her love of disguises dated from a formative experience at the age of eighteen, when she cross-dressed at the Munich Carnival; in the years that followed she changed her name multiple times, along with her aesthetic allegiances (Futurist, Vitalist, Dadaist), which shifted as regularly as her places of residence (Paris, Florence, New York, Mexico).

    In addition to writing poetry, she painted, made lampshades, designed clothes, drafted blueprints and sketches for outlandish inventions, and created her own religious-political schema for a postwar society built on “government by creative imagination.” When, in the 1920s, the American writer Natalie Barney reported rumors in Paris that “Mina Loy” was a fictional persona, Loy responded, “I assure you that I am indeed a live being. But it is necessary to stay very unknown…. To maintain my incognito, the hazard I chose was—poet.”

  14. reputation as a free-verse radical

    Or, one might say, a maker of free-radical verse.

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