It Rhymes

Michael Wood

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!

Or:

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.

Or:

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.

March wrote:

Some love is fire: some love is rust:
But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.

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