Marilyn the Poet … in ‘Fragments’

On the Paris Review website today, Elisa Gonzalez explores Marilyn’s poetry (collected in the 2010 book, Fragments.)

“Marilyn’s poems are, as the book’s title indicates, mostly fragmentary. Rarely (if ever) did a first draft become a second, but themes and motifs recur as though being reworked. They were written in notebooks and on scrap paper alongside lines of dialogue from her films, song titles, lists, outpourings of anxiety, and accounts of both real events and dreams. Sometimes lines that read like poems actually aren’t, as with some of the notes made during her years spent in psychoanalysis and in classes with Lee Strasberg, a controversial proponent of the ‘Method,’ a technique that demands actors dig deep into their emotions and memories in order to fully inhabit their roles. Some of Marilyn’s pages are tidily penned, starting precisely at the red vertical margin, but often the poems and notes range across or even around the page, with words crossed out and sentences connected by arrows. Because the lines often end where the paper does, it’s not always obvious where they break, or whether they should break at all. According to Norman Rosten, a poet who became better known for being a friend of hers, ‘She had the instinct and reflexes of the poet, but she lacked the control.’

Yes, her choice of line often seems naïve, her images are sometimes clichéd, but in places something flares, that strangeness I associate with poetry that feels open rather than finished before it begins. It is the kind of poetry that risks failing to go anywhere at all but, when it succeeds, surprises the reader, and the poet, too … If the lyric poem is a conversation meant to be ‘overheard,’ then who are Marilyn’s intended eavesdroppers? Sometimes she enclosed verses in letters to friends, but she seems to have had no aspiration to be a Poet. And yet she wrote these poems. Published only long after her death by editors who combed the detritus she left behind, they seem to have been part of the rhythm of her private life … Especially given that Marilyn never sought publication, reading her work makes me think less of overhearing a conversation than of watching someone else’s shifting reflection. These dashed-off, insular poems embody an oft-submerged but ever-present feature of lyric poetry: a dialogue within the self, overheard by the self.

All poets become performers as soon as they imagine, much less seek, an audience; all poets, even the most avowedly ‘confessional,’ assume personae in poems. The mediation of language makes it impossible to do otherwise. Marilyn lived in front of an audience, but wrote almost entirely for an audience of one. The persona we see in these intimate fragments dragged out in the open and held up for scrutiny long after her death may be closest to the persona she showed herself, which is not quite the same as her self, but looks like it in certain lights, from certain angles.

That Marilyn wrote to herself and for herself might be one reason for that quicksilver quality in her writing that I call ‘strangeness.’ These are poems that think and feel on the page, depicting a mind searching for answers as it enacts the process of inquiry … In Marilyn’s lines, there exists both the perplexity and the determination. Somehow, at least a couple of times—more than most of us can manage—she hit on the thing that makes a poem alive: a feeling of something distinct changing before our eyes.”