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BOYLE, KAY (1902-1992) Instrumental in the development of avant-garde poetry and belonging to various communities of American expatriate artists living in Europe between the world wars, Kay Boyle was one of the longest-lived and most prolific writers of the lost generation (other members of this group included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude STEIN). Boyle's work reflects the concept of high MODERNISM that a poem should "exist as an object of art on its own terms" (Spanier 133). Yet Boyle believed too that "[t]he writer must recognize and . . . accept his commitment to his times" (quoted in Madden 218).
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Boyle moved to New York at age 20. There she was befriended by such leading poets as William Carlos WILLIAMS and Lola Ridge, with whom she edited the little magazine Broom. In 1923 she left for Europe, where she remained for 18 years. During this time Boyle signed Ernest Jolas's "Revolution of the Word," a manifesto proclaiming the artist's right to "disintegrate" and thus remake language, and published her first poetry collection, A Glad Day (1938). Later, as an English professor at San Francisco
State University, Boyle was known as an activist, writing overtly political poetry and joining in student protests. She published nearly 50 volumes in her lifetime, including 14 novels, 10 short-story collections, and six collections of poetry. She twice won the O. Henry Award for short stories, received two Guggenheim Fellowships (1934 and 1961) and a National Endowment for the Arts Senior Fellowship for literature (1980), and was awarded five honorary doctorates. In 1979 she was named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Densely metaphorical and experimental in style, Boyle's poems from the 1920s and 1930s demonstrate her understanding of the avant-garde as a "shock of fresh experience" (quoted in Madden 218). Boyle mixed genres freely, interrupting lyrical passages with prose paragraphs or quotations from contemporary media. Influenced by SURREALISM and the IMAGIST SCHOOL, she was a master of the startling image fragment, as in "A Christmas Carol for Ernest Carevali" (1928), where the wind becomes a horse "with nostrils like wild black pan-sies opened on the fog." For subject matter, Boyle drew from her expatriate life or focused on social ills in Europe and at home, constantly exploring cultural and psychological boundaries between individuals.
From the 1960s onward, Boyle's poetry followed the tradition of American intellectual radicalism. Many of her poems, such as "For James Baldwin" (1969), whom she praises as a "witch doctor for the dispossessed," manifest her continued identification with the rebel and outsider. In all her writing, whether documenting the 1937 Scotsboro trials or lauding war protesters in 1969, Boyle lived out the belief that poetry demands both "an acute awareness of words . . . and of life" (Madden 216).
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