November 20, 2013

Fragments of Marilyn

Plenty has been written about Marilyn Monroe, and yet, she still remains something of a mystery. She had a spectacular and sad life. She was treated like a dumb blonde and she played into that image at times. She also wanted to be considered a serious actress. She wrote poetry and journals that never appeared during her lifetime and that, perhaps, she never wanted to appear. She married a high profile baseball legend, Joe Dimaggio, that only turned the wattage on the spotlight even brighter. Then she married an intellectual playwright, Arthur Miller, who must have been attractive for very different reasons.

 A few years ago, I bought a collection of her own writing—diaries, poems, and letters—  titled Fragments.

It is fragments. Never meant to be a book. It shows many of the scars of her sexual abuse, psychotherapy, betrayals, her fears of madness in her genes, and someone who wanted to really master her art.

Marilyn also wrote (or had ghostwritten by Ben Hecht) an autobiography called My Story when her career was peaking, but it was not published until over a decade after her death. In the book she describes herself as "the kind of girl they found dead in the hall bedroom with an empty bottle of sleeping pills in her hand."

There are a number of photos online of Marilyn reading. A few seem candid. Some seem staged, as if trying to promote that other Marilyn.

A famous one is by Eve Arnold showing her reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed her reading and looking casual curled on her sofa in front of her real personal library. Another photograph shows her reading the poetry of Heinrich Heine.

The book of her fragments shows that she was serious about writing and that poetry was a way she tried to understand herself and her very strange place in the world.

Her marriage to MIller, like all her marriages and relationships with men, went bad and he was a real betrayal for her. But when her love for him was new, she wrote a poem imagining him as a young boy.

my love sleeps besides me—
in the faint light—I see his manly jaw
give way—and the mouth of his
boyhood returns
with a softness softer
its sensitiveness trembling
in stillness
his eyes must have look out
wonderously from the cave of the little
boy—when the things he did not understand—
he forgot

but will he look like this when he is dead
oh unbearable fact inevitable
yet sooner would I rather his love die
than/or him?

I don't put the poem forward to say she was an important poet. She wrote, as many of us do, because we feel we must write, even if the audience for our poems is small or non-existent. The poem would not seem out of place at a workshop or open reading or coming from one of my students.

My own boyhood crush on Marilyn the movie star turned in a very different direction when she died the summer of 1962 at age 36. I heard terrible stories about her - the difficult and spoiled diva, drugs and affairs with the Kennedys.  When I was a teenager, I read her autobiography and read about her life and each new sad revelation made me feel sorry for her.

I know that she probably didn't want pity, but I definitely went through a phase when I fantasized being the man that might have really understood her - and saved her.

"Goodbye Norma Jean, you lived your life like a candle in the wind," sings Elton John and I'm sure that my fantasy and his were not so far apart. "I would have liked to have known you, but I was just a kid.  Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did."

Elton John's lyric sums up pretty well the short arc of her career that didn't really end very far from where it started in the eyes of the press and public.

Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid
Even when you died
Oh, the press still hounded you
All the papers had to say
Was that Marilyn was found in the nude

Reading her personal writing again this past weekend reminds me of why we write and what writing can do, and not do, to help us deal with our lives and those lives that are tied to us.


November 12, 2013

The Gorgeous Nothings of Emily Dickinson

image via

I just came across The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems (New Directions, October 2013) which is the first full-color publication Dickinson’s complete envelope writings. The book is in facsimile edition.

This presents her experimental late work exactly as she wrote it on scraps of envelopes. I had never heard that part of Emily's process. There are 52 poems reproduced life-size in full color, front and back, with an accompanying transcription to aid in the reading.

Conceived by the artist Jen Bervin and made possible by the extensive research of the Dickinson scholar Marta L. Werner, the book gives readers another way to view Emily Dickinson's work.

The Poetry Foundation has done several things to celebrate the publication including an interesting audio slideshow of these poems with voiceover commentary from the book’s editors and a visual artist from the gallery show - Forever— is composed of Nows— : Artworks Inspired by Emily Dickinson (Oct. 15 – Nov. 30) which highlights Emily Dickinson’s influence across artistic mediums. 

The November 2013 issue of Poetry magazine includes an excerpt from The Gorgeous Nothings, including editor Bervin’s introduction to the book. 
On Nov. 14 at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, editors Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, will present text and images from their new book. 

There is also an exhibit at the Drawing Center in New York.

November 10, 2013

Visualizing Eliot's Prufrock

Not everyone is fan of moving art from from mode or medium to another. Take any Shakespeare or beloved novel made into a film and you will find plenty of criticism.

So, I am sure that there will be critics of a comic book version of a great poems Comic artist Julian Peters (who has already adapted Poe, Keats, and Rimbaud) now is completing a graphic version of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” He revealed the first nine pages on his site recently.

“Prufrock” begins with an epigraph from Dante's Inferno and the comic translates Eliot's quotes from Greek and other languages.

From Dante's poor tortured soul trapped in the eight circle, we move through Prufrock's own little emotional circle.

via the great Open Culture website, here are some related links
All images © Julian Peters –

November 3, 2013

Prompt: Robert Sward and "God is in the Cracks"

The Helix Nebula - also known as The Eye of God

In his poem, "God is in the Cracks," we have a dialog between poet Robert Sward and his father.

If you read that poem for this month's prompt, a number of paths might come to mind for your own writing:  1) a poem about fathers and sons  2) the acceptance (or lack of) what we have chosen to do with our lives by our family  3) the life of the mind versus a life more firmly grounded in "work."  The elder Mr. Sward even suggests, correctly, a poem about arch supports.

I would be okay with those three being the prompt for your November submission, but, for me, the heart of the poem is in the harder-to-explain idea of the title.
"Just a tiny crack separates this world
from the next, and you step over it
      every day,
God is in the cracks."

Robert Sward
Robert Sward's father, a podiatrist, came to the United States from Russia. Life experiences made him convert from Judaism to Rosicrucianism, a philosophical secret society. Living in the Jewish North Side of Chicago, his father practiced his religion in their basement, which figures in his collection, Rosicrucian in the Basement , where this poem originally appeared.

The religious or spiritual or philosophical theme is hard to avoid. Being raised Catholic, I had trouble as a child grasping this idea that I had two fathers - the one making eggs in the kitchen and another God the father who always appeared in illustrations as more grandfatherly than my own grandfather.

Avoiding those cracks so that you don't cross over to that other world every day reminded me of the recurring line in John Irving's novel, The Hotel New Hampshire: "Keep passing the open windows." Don't jump out and end it all, no matter how hard the day and life appear to be right now.

The title also made me think of the idea of God being "in the gaps." In the always argumentative meeting of science and religion, the religious side often inserts God into the "gaps" that appear in scientific explanations of the universe. Scientists trace back to a big bang where everything including time begins. But what triggered that big bang and what came before it? No answer. So, God fills that gap. It's an argument that angers scientists (Where's the evidence for God?) and pleases the believers because it has to be taken on faith, which stops all reasonable debating.

So, prompt #4 is my favorite and clearly the most difficult. It is to write about this crack or gap and God and how we step over it every day.  Maybe it also involves fathers and mothers, careers and family, the life of the mind and the everyday life. Maybe it's the support we want from our family that doesn't appear quite so literally as those in our shoes.

This work of being a poet is not as easy as it looks.

Submission deadline: Saturday, November 30, 2013