Pauline Kael used to write witheringly about musicals said to appeal to people who didn’t like musicals, and we might feel the same about poems for people who don’t like poems. ‘Here is a poem,’ the blurb for The Wild Party says, ‘that can make even readers who have no time for poetry stop dead in their tracks.’ It’s true that T.S. Eliot said, in ‘East Coker’, that ‘the poetry does not matter,’ but he can’t have been pushing for stuff like this:
His mouth and his throat were foul cotton.
God, he felt rotten!
His mouth twitched:
He was dangerously still,
By an enormous power of will.
Her eyes filled with a martyred look:
She registered grief, and her voice shook.
The threat was banal,
But her tone lent it
A quality that showed she meant it.
The Wild Party is mostly unlike this; definitely different, but very hard to describe. Poetry, perhaps, for people who are willing to think again about what poetry is; who wish Eliot had written more of Sweeney Agonistes and less of the Four Quartets; who can imagine Lorenz Hart and Marianne Moore in the same lineup; who like poems that could be set to music by George Gershwin or Kurt Weill, brittle and easy, wearing their sadness lightly, unafraid of the obvious. ‘We may never ever meet again/On the bumpy road to love’; ‘Oh it’s a long long while/From May to December ... ’
Louis Untermeyer, in an enthusiastic letter written in 1926, when The Wild Party was just a naughty manuscript frightening publishers with its sex and violence, to say nothing of its bad rhymes, declared: ‘I haven’t the faintest idea whether it is good poetry or bad poetry. In fact, I’m not sure that it is poetry at all.’ Art Spiegelman, illustrator and rediscoverer of the piece – not exactly a lost classic, as it is billed, since it was published in 1928, and again, in a slightly self-censored version, in 1968 – says he asked William Burroughs what he thought. ‘It’s the book that made me want to be a writer,’ Burroughs said. But was it poetry? ‘Of course it’s poetry. It rhymes.’
It is ‘closer to “Frankie and Johnny” than to Tristan and Iseult,’ Spiegelman says, ‘but March had been a protégé of Robert Frost’s at Amherst, and knew his way around villanelles as well as around speakeasies.’ Frost’s name is a good clue, since The Wild Party’s best known lines echo, in a bleak, jazz-inflected register, one of Frost’s most famous poems:
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with them that favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say mat for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Some love is fire: some love is rust:
But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.
Frost breaks the song into jagged fragments, playing the easy rhymes against the hard rhythms; March goes for the steady beat, the rhythms and rhymes of self-evidence. But the interesting thing in the connection, in the parody, is that it shows how both writers are skirting doggerel, trying to get doggerel’s energies to work for them.
In a memoir written for the 1968 edition, March wrote fondly of Frost at Amherst:
I would see him shambling along past the big elms of the Common, moving with the uncertain gait of a man who was slightly tipsy, or perhaps walking in his sleep: his grey eyes dazed, his grey suit looking as though he had slept in it all summer, a grey muffler wound about his throat, a battered grey felt hat perched carelessly askew on his grey head.
Seeing me, he would stop:
‘Hello, March,’ he would say, in that voice of his that sounded like two pieces of granite being rubbed together: ‘You got any new poems for me to look at?’
But March also tells us that his poem began with a rhymed couplet which ran in his head, and for several months was unaccompanied by anything else.
Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
This is not too close to Frost, and it gets worse before it gets better. March continued, when he got started on the poem in earnest:
Lips like coals aglow.
Her face was a tinted mask of snow.
He began, quite rightly, to worry about this. ‘Not so good, I thought.’ Then he remembered Frost, who ‘took a dim view of “poetical” phraseology, and pretentious purple passages made him wince’. March then found some lines which don’t recall Frost at all, but follow Frost’s principle:
What hips –
What shoulders –
What a back she had!
Her legs were built to drive men mad.
And she did.
She would skid.
But sooner or later they bored her:
Sixteen a year was her order.
‘I stared at the lines, fascinated,’ March says. ‘They had taken form almost without volition, and something very odd had happened with the rhythms. I had begun with a four-foot line, but it had changed abruptly into a pair of one-foot lines, then into a couplet with a three-foot beat. How had that happened! I had never seen or heard anything like it before. But I liked it. I liked it very much. It seemed just right.’ March had found a voice that was almost all his own.
He speaks of the ‘military drumbeat’ in these lines, and Spiegelman speaks of syncopation. A lot of the work is milder and straighter than these metaphors suggest, good Broadway narrative verse without the music:
She had wrecked more homes
With lust’s delight
Than most women could have
But March has a special effect, and it does have to do with the shortening of the lines. It is a way of getting the rhymes themselves, quite apart from what they are saying, to sound cynical and sudden, as if language was waiting to trip us up or give us away. And words provoked by rhyme start to mean more than they seem to say. ‘Sixteen a year was her order.’ Is this her range or her number, as in the order of things, or the new order? Or just her order, as from a takeaway?
Furnished like a third act passion set.
They owed two months on the rental.
March can also get a similar effect without rhyme, or with only the lightest rhyme, and some inventive variations of punctuation:
My god! You don’t understand.
They were far too busy living first-hand
The following description of the end of the party is full of details, but the short lines level them all into throwaways, as if only short stabs at speech were possible, as if syntax was beyond all human hope. The very colons are full of despair, the whole sequence a travesty in advance of the romantic lists of songs like ‘These Foolish Things’.
The table was a wreck.
Bleared glasses stood
Half-empty, bottoms stuck to wood.
Bits of bread:
A pink stocking: a corkscrew:
A powder puff: a French-heeled shoe:
A dirty cup.
An agate saucepan, bottom up.
The plot of The Wild Party is simple and elegant. Queenie and her lover Burrs (‘She lived at present with a man named Burrs/whose act came on just after hers’) have a quarrel, decide to throw a party. She makes him jealous by going to bed with another man; Burrs reaches for a gun, but is shot dead himself. The cops rush in (‘The doors sprang open/and the cops rushed in’ are the last words of the poem), not because they are already on the track of the crime but because a neighbour has complained about the noise. The party (and the poem) is paced by a series of vignettes of changing light and shadow:
The studio was lit by candle-flame;
Dim: mysterious: shrouded.
Unbidden shadow-guests swarmed
About the room ...
The candles sputtered: the flames were gay;
And the shadows leapt back out of the way ...
The candles flared: the shadows sprang tall,
Leapt goblin-like from wall to wall ...
The candle flames stood stiff and tall:
And the shadows lay overlapped on the wall.
A candle guttered; its flame died:
The shadows rushed in from every side ...
The studio flickered with uneasy light.
Two sunken candles made a fight
Against grim, overwhelming night.
The party is adorned with all kinds of supposed Twenties low-life: Madelaine True the lesbian; Jackie the bisexual; Eddie the boxer; Dolores the whore; the gay D’Armano Brothers. ‘And the usual two/Loud Jew/Theatrical managers.’ Dolores is said to be, in spite of her Spanish appearance, ‘somewhat Negro/And a great deal Jew’. The casual racism is unpleasant even if it is, sadly, what we might expect; but it is not more unpleasant than the poem’s use of its whole deck of stereotypes. We are manifestly slumming here; villanelle folk being cool in the speakeasy. This is what seems most hopelessly dated about the work, and perhaps is what Spiegelman means when he says it’s ‘a perfect picture of its time’: a time when nice white folks felt safe enough to play at risk, and when vice was easily defined and therefore (if you were a liberal) easily romanticised. March’s thoughts, in his memoir, about the sensibility of young poets, make clear how much romanticising was going on beneath those hard-boiled idioms:
Young poets are extremely sensitive, and unfortunately for them, they cannot turn this sensitivity on and off like a bathroom faucet. It is always with them. A falling leaf becomes a matter of universal grief, and the small, disagreeable encounters of daily human life are equally magnified: they become literally the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune; and the only reason why the poet does not soon fall, mortally stricken, is because the sheer excitement of living is more powerful than the hurt of his wounds.
March was managing editor of the New Yorker in its very early days, then fell out with Harold Ross, and left. Spiegelman is currently a contributing editor of the New Yorker, and while we could obviously make too much of this anecdotal connection, it is worth remembering that the New Yorker’s trademark, often brilliantly parodied by the magazine itself, was always sophistication: an idea of the city as an idea of style. It was/is read by New Yorkers; but probably read even more by people who wish they were New Yorkers. But then New York itself begins to look like a kind of shorthand as we read and look at The Wild Party. Spiegelman’s copious illustrations are like dark Expressionist woodcuts, lurid, detailed, nightmarish. He seems to relish a grandiose, apocalyptic underside to what March was mildly romanticising. If March suggests Gershwin and Weill, Spiegelman suggests Weill and Brecht, or Isherwood and Auden in some sort of sombre drag. ‘Unreal city’, Eliot said, quoting Baudelaire. Then: ‘Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London/Unreal’. But these were old cities, all gone or going. What we are looking at in The Wild Party is the modern city: Berlin, Paris, New York; drink and sex and danger; life lived fast, and burning itself out, as all those candles, in the text and in the drawings, so ominously declare. Spiegelman speaks of March’s ‘bewildered innocence curdled into worldly cynicism’, but for us the attraction would have to be an innocence we can’t quite imagine, viewed from inside a cynicism which sometimes seems to be all we have.
I think it’s likely that the poetry of The Wild Party, the bright, heartless rhythms and the mocking rhymes, will last longer than this pale mythology of Modernism, however starkly Spiegelman illustrates it for us now. And it might be possible to think more kindly of poems for people who don’t like poems. They could be popular poems, poems for people who do like poems, but don’t much like what we have made of poetry in the last eighty years.
She never inquired
Of the men she desired
About their social status, or wealth:
She was only concerned about their health.
There was little she hadn’t been through.
And she liked her lovers violent, and vicious:
Queenie was sexually ambitious.
Now you know.
A fascinating woman, as they go.