From Infamy to Exile: the Poetic Evolution of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven from “Cast-Iron Lover” to “Heir”

In 1919, when the exclamatory love poem “Mineself——Minesoul——and——Mine——Cast-Iron Lover” first appeared in the Little Review it caused uproar.[1] The issue that followed saw a torrent of outrage as readers vented their displeasure, challenging the editor’s decision to include it, decrying the author’s claim to be writing poetry, and sparking a heated debate about “the art of madness” that raged in the back pages for several months.[2] The poem’s author was Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and this was not her first controversy. Indeed, by this time the expatriate German proto-performance artist had made a reputation for herself as a living legend in New York’s Greenwich Village. She was as well known by the local police as by avant-garde artists she lived and worked alongside. And yet, despite being a household name in modernist circles–living in the same building as Marcel Duchamp, pursuing the affections of William Carlos Williams, and parading the streets and salons in eccentric homemade costumes made of kitchen items and the detritus of modernity–the Baroness’s work, and particularly her poetry, has only relatively recently been brought to scholarly attention.[3]

There are several reasons for this erasure. The Baroness lived a fractured and transient life, often working on the brink of destitution, unable to fund her own publication or garner interest from publishers, despite the help of her lifelong friend and champion, Djuna Barnes. Until recently, much of her writing was confined to the papers Barnes protected and archived following the Baroness’s death.[4] Despite the preservation of her archive, those studying the Baroness must contend with “fragmented and usually hyperbolic” sources about her activities and movements.[5] The past decade has nevertheless seen an increased interest in the Baroness, her performance, and her poetry, and there have been several promising initiatives to bring her work back out into the open through the publication of her collected poetry by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo and the digitization efforts of Tanya Clement.[6] Work by these scholars and others, such as Amelia Jones, Paul Hjartarson, and Douglas Spettigue, have shown the value of the Baroness’s poetry and its place in modernist aesthetics.[7]

In this article, I explore the Baroness’s evolution as a poet, examining her transition from the erratic, exclamatory prose-poetic style of her early poetry toward the spare and highly edited poetics of her later years. I will compare her early poem “Cast-Iron Lover” (1919) with an example of her later style, the early-1920s poem “Heir,” and reflect upon the dramatic change of circumstances that elicited such stylistic changes to consider how the complexities of this understudied poet’s writing might illuminate our broader understanding of modernist poetics.

Despite the rage it elicited from some, the Baroness’s early poetry was not universally disparaged. Indeed, Maxwell Bodenheim wrote a spirited defence of “Cast-Iron Lover,” proclaiming the virtues of a poetry unleashed from the “obliquely repressed savageness” and “drained staidness” of other poets: “It is refreshing to see someone claw aside the veils and rush forth howling, vomiting, and leaping nakedly.”[8] Her collaborator, Marcel Duchamp, encouraged her toward the Little Review, and her work delighted its editor, Jane Heap, who proclaimed her “the only one living anywhere who dresses Dada, loves Dada, lives Dada.”[9] So what was it about this poetry that was so polarizing? 

Positioned in the prime real estate, at the front of the journal‘s running order, “Cast-Iron Lover” is an eight page exploration of the maddening intricacies of unrequited love, dramatized in a dense, stream-of-consciousness style replete with capitalization, exclamation marks, Germanic portmanteau, and emphatic caesurae. The poem is an assault upon the senses, both in its fragmentation and repetition, and in its demanding visual presence on the page; this, coupled with its length and its unapologetic freedom in expressing female sexuality, posed (and still poses) an exceptional challenge to any reader with a conservative understanding of what poetry could or should be. 

He is hidden like the hidden toad hidden animal—caveanimal—chiseled animal— animal of shadow!— —goldrimmed pupils narrowing in light—blinking—thinking dark dreams! Hidden—lightshy—skinpale—does not perish in flame—I remember old witchword; 

Jewels hidden in its head—hidden—hidden—hidden animal! Splendid—proud—majestic—immobile— — —when it feeds it moveth swift like thought!

Eyes closing in passion—opening—not knowing passion—bowels dancing—eyes stony jewels in its head!

The toad—proud—majestic—immobile—never treacherous—should it not be loved? 

I love the majestic toad—feel ashamed before its mastery of emotion—scarcety of motion! I gaze into its stony eyes—goldrimmed glimmering—centerdark—with mystery of dark honest dreams—thinking heavily—unwinkingly! 

MINE SOUL—TOAD HE IS yet he does not DARE TO BE TOAD! HIDDEN IN HIMSELF—HIDDEN FROM HIMSELF—HIDDEN ANIMAL! Toadsoul hidden by glare of roadside; thinking himself a BEE ! ! ![10]

Claude McKay and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Here, the Baroness draws upon the primitive and mythic figure of the toad, drawing an earthy, organic image of the lover, teeming with internal tensions: attraction and repulsion, pride and shame, awe and fear. As Amelia Jones notes, the Baroness’s determination to display an organic, embodied sexuality amid the mechanistic sexual imagery that characterized New York Dada’s technological imagination often set her in stark contrast to her peers.[11] Drawing on her artistic upbringing in Germany, and the artistic circles she shared during her first marriage to the Jugenstill artist, August Endell, the Baroness disarmingly infuses the organic influences of Munich Jugendstil with brusque Dadaist explosions of emotion. Set against the machinic aesthetic of others in The Little Review, the Baroness’s erotic organic fluidity was highly provocative. As Irene Gammel characterizes it, the Baroness was “a catalyst […] charging New York’s foremost experimenters with the imprint of Munich’s avant garde, their injection of art into life, their focus on eros as a driving force, and their gender-bending male feminism.”[12] Subverting fairy-tale tropes of toads and witches, this section of “Cast-Iron Lover” digs into the virtues and inner life of the beloved, characterizing him as a creature whose beauty has been obscured by shame which prevents him from embracing his true, organic self. The speaker sees past these insecurities, identifying flashes of brilliance, energy, and honesty “hidden” from the world and from the beloved himself. This desperate appeal to love the toad for himself reflects the Baroness’s own radical self-acceptance, which saw her cast off the opinions of others to project her own self-conception of beauty on the streets of New York City. Where others saw trash, madness, or vulgarity, the Baroness found art.

Typifying the Baroness’s early style, “Cast-Iron Lover” managed to monopolize the attention of its readers in an issue whose more obvious selling point was the controversial first American publication of Joyce’s Ulysses. In a series of appearances, The Baroness’s writing featured alongside serialised sections of Ulysses, reinforcing the magazine’s challenge to prudery and conservatism in the literary sphere. There was little about the poem that didn’t challenge convention. While the Baroness is better known now for her embodiment of Dada principles, there is plenty that can be learned from studying these early publications, both about the Baroness herself, and about the tastes of those among whom she was working. 

Although the Little Review poems all share this verbose, exclamatory style, the Baroness’s poetry underwent a stark evolution in the final years of her life. Following the war, she was among the expatriates who sought a return to Europe, although her path to Paris, the hub of European Modernism, was bumpier for her than for her French contemporaries. Where Duchamp and Francis Picabia stepped from New York to Paris with relative ease, the Baroness relied on her friends to buy her a ticket back to Germany in 1923, where she found herself cut out of her family’s estate and struggled for several years in Berlin to gain a visa before finally re-joining her colleagues in France. The war-drained turmoil of Weimar Germany stood in stark contrast to New York’s technological vibrancy:

I have returned to my original birthcountry, that has become a heap of rotten traditionmess without sense and power. Because it is turned senile, sterile, stagnant and grows nothing new–it has become humdrum with exhaustion and has no new spring, recuperation, power.[13]

Alone, facing destitution, and enduring the hardships of Weimar Germany, the Baroness worked desperately on her writing, corresponding with Djuna Barnes in the hope of securing an income through publication.[14] “I am forced to despondency by my temperament put into climax of times like these, in Germany, in maelstrom of destruction,” she wrote, describing herself as “fight[ing] against [the] current” of the times.[15] Fascinatingly, during this period, in which she described herself as being on the brink of insanity, she abandoned the extravagant style that had gained her an unfavourable reputation for madness and turned her hand to more stark, incisive, and minimalist poetry.

“Heir,” written in 1924-1925, demonstrates this shift from sprawling multi-page effusions to compact, analytical poems, which impose order and sense on a “nonsensical existance [sic]”:

Love

Is

Nonsensehatred

Love

Begets —

Kills —

  For

Goal:

Allsense

 

Love = Rhythm —

Rhythm = Logic —

Logic = Beauty —

Beauty = Sense —

Sense = Love

 

Senselove = Lovesense = Soul = Spirit

 

Spirit woos spirit.

Sense ponders sense.

Love loves love.[16]

Where “Cast-Iron Lover” revels in expansive lines which overflow the space on the page, “Heir” uses graduated indentation and mathematical shorthand to draw attention to the accretive rationale of its argument. The Baroness maintains her distinctive use of portmanteau, here to reinforce the joining together of concepts as equivalences: “sense” and “love” join to become “senselove” and “lovesense,” linking emotion and physicality as the poem turns these concepts over and over, as though holding them up to the light. Among the Baroness’s papers from this period, we find short poems like this in multiple drafts, presenting the workings of a poet who is as concerned with language and form as she is with the philosophical ideas she is trying to articulate. What results is a poetry that appears deceptively simple at first glance, but which becomes increasingly slippery when scrutinized. 

“Love = Rhythm — / Rhythm = Logic — / Logic = Beauty — / Beauty = Sense — / Sense = Love” – these are not easy equivalences, and the em-dashes at the end of each line here act rhetorically, inviting the reader to take a moment of reflection, to experience how “sense ponders sense” before continuing. What does it mean to pass between love and rhythm and logic and beauty and sense? How do these abstract concepts shift under our attention as we process their interconnectivity? These questions form part of a serious reconsideration of the Baroness, not only as a performance artist or a poet, but as a woman in dire straits exerting herself to evoke order from disorder, sense from nonsense, and to make meaning in a world she felt had forgotten her. By imposing through repetition and discontinuity a disjointed rhythm, the Baroness’s poem demands a particular and segmented mode of reading, which functions on the level both of the line and the word.

Both “Cast-Iron Lover” and “Heir” showcase the influence of the Baroness’s Germanic background on her textual experimentation in English; compound words like “nonsensehatred” and “allsense,” familiar to the German language, form a deep connection between concepts which appear alien to the anglophone reader, encouraging a deeper interrogation of word formation and etymology. Her drafts show how she continually experimented and played with the multivalence of English expression, revelling in puns and double-entendre. Where her poems often appear spontaneous and energetic, a different picture emerges from these archives, which show the Baroness listing and meticulously selecting words.[17] This strategy also reflects the Baroness’s deep anxiety about sense-making as she struggled to bring order to her thoughts and experienced severe mental distress. She protested to Barnes, “I am now often not certain of word meanings,” and her poems dramatize this attempt to wrestle certainty out of uncertainty and order out of disorder.[18] The result is a vibrant dance with language, poems which pass words freely between their noun and adjectival forms (“Sense ponders sense / Love loves love”), their English and their Germanic resonances (“senselove = lovesense”), reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s mantric style.

Later poems like this maintain the essence of what enticed Maxwell Bodenheim to defend her – the same energy and febrile vulnerability, the same visceral willingness to look complex emotions in the face and “To / Live / Soul / Bleedingly” – while incorporating strikingly modern techniques of line fracture and mathematical shorthand (also employed by her New York Dada colleagues Duchamp and Marius de Zayas). The poems of this period regularly return to the themes of love, sexuality, spirituality, and the body, but do so in a way that exerts greater control and awareness of modern poetry’s stylistic opportunities.

By reflecting upon the often-overlooked evolution of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetic style, we can see that her experience as a poet, reviled by some and encouraged by others, offers a fascinating reflection of modernist hierarchies and of the ways in which a poet’s style and reception are shaped by a complex network of factors: editorial choices, financial pressures, geographical fortune, and transatlantic, inter-movement influence. We can see, too, that while most studies of her work focus on her legacy as the beating heart of New York Dada performance, the Baroness was a conscious, playful, and intriguing stylistic writer, whose writing stands as a powerful testament to her resilience and determination as an artist. As she put it in her autobiography: “nothing is past and buried—ever! All is links in a chain. […] I forget nothing—and my expression is the written word.”[19]


Rachel Fountain Eames is a literature and science scholar who recently received her doctorate from The University of Birmingham. Her research focuses on the intersection of twentieth-century science, modernist literature, and the visual arts. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Literature and Science, Victoriographies, and The Modernist Review, and first monograph, Physics and the Modernist Avant-Garde is forthcoming with Bloomsbury in 2022.


References

  1. The Little Review 6, No. 5 (September 1919), 3-11.
  2. The Little Review 6, No. 6 (October 1919), 56.
  3. The publication of her collected poetry by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo in Body Sweats (Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 2011) has opened up a wealth of opportunities for research into the Baroness’s poetic style.
  4. These are now housed at the University of Maryland. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries. http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1501, accessed August 22, 2021.
  5. Amelia Jones, Irrational Modernism: A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada (Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 2004), 30; Paul Hjartarson, ‘Living Dada’, ESC 30, No. 2 (June 2004), 159.
  6. See Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Body Sweats (Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 2011); Tanya Clement, ed., “In Transition: Selected Poems By the Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven,” Digital Collections, https://digital.lib.umd.edu/transition/index.html, accessed August 22, 2021.
  7. Irene, Gammel, Baroness Elsa (Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 2002); Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Baroness Elsa, eds. D. O. Spettigue and Paul I. Hjartarson (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1992); Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick, ‘Reconsidering the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Kay Boyle:Feminist Aesthetics and Modernism’, Feminist Formations 28, No. 2 (Summer 2016), 51-72.
  8. Maxwell Bodenheim, 64.
  9. Jane Heap, ‘Dada—’, The Little Review (Spring 1922), 46.
  10. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, ‘Cast-Iron Lover’, 8-9.
  11. Amelia Jones, 116-168.
  12. Irene Gammel, Baroness Elsa (MIT Press, 2002), p. 175.
  13. Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, Baroness Elsa, eds. D.O. Spettigue and Paul I. Hjartarson (Oberon Press, 1992), 67.
  14. For an account of this experience, see Barnes obituary in transition.
  15. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, ‘Selections from the Letters of Elsa Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven’, transition, No. 11 (February 1928), 25, 29.
  16. Ibid., 29.
  17.  Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, ‘Adolescence (1926-27)’, Series 3, Box 1, Folder 2, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries. http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/1501.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, Baroness Elsa, 125.

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