Marilyn the Poet

Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), from the July 1953 issue of Modern Screen. “It’s good they told me what / the moon was when I was a child,” reads a line from a poem by Marilyn Monroe. “It’s better they told me as a child what it was / for I could not understand it now.” The untitled poem, narrating a nighttime taxi ride in Manhattan, flits between the cityscape, a view of the East River, and, across it, the neon Pepsi-Cola sign, though, she tells us, “I am not looking at these things. / I am looking for my lover.” The very real moon comes to symbolize the confusion of adult experience. I quote these lines back to myself when I feel acutely that I understand less, not more, than I used to. The poet Marilyn was the first Marilyn I encountered. Like her when she was young, I lived in a strict Pentecostal environment that forbade much of pop culture, but unlike her, I didn’t gorge myself on movies after escaping the prohibition. Although I had heard of “Marilyn Monroe,” I hadn’t yet happened to see any of her films when I came across Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe in a bookstore. I, like so many, fell for the allure—still, to me, a forbidden one—of her image: Marilyn on a sofa seemingly caught looking up and away from the black notebook in her lap. Her expression suggests she hasn’t yet decided whether the distraction is a source of apprehension or delight. Wearing coral lipstick and a black turtleneck, she is beautiful and bookish. The apparently candid photo is actually from a 1953 series for Life by the photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt. Then twenty-six, Marilyn was famous, and only becoming more so: she’d started dating the baseball star Joe DiMaggio. The revelation that years before she’d posed nude for a calendar (and wasn’t ashamed) had recently scandalized McCarthyite America. Life’s portraits of a sex symbol among books play to an audience’s wish to condescend to the object of their desire, to laugh at the “dumb blond” who thinks she can read. (Desire, after all, is an involuntary subjection often trailed by resentment.) As always, Marilyn insisted on approving the images; the contact sheets show her red pen. And in this photo, whatever anyone else intended, I also see her considered self-creation.  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.” Marilyn left high school when she married her first husband and, aside from a continuing-education course in literature at UCLA, never had further formal education. But she was a committed if haphazard autodidact, going to a now-defunct bookstore in Los Angeles to leaf through and buy whatever books interested her (Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, for instance). Although the playwright Arthur Miller, her third husband, claimed she never finished anything “with the possible exception of Colette’s Chéri and a few short stories,” others contradict this. She professed a love for The Brothers Karamazov and a wish to play its central female character, Grushenka. Her library contained more than four hundred books, including verse collections by D. H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, and Yuan Mei, and an anthology of African American poetry. Insecure about her lack of formal education, Marilyn nonetheless resented being seen as stupid. She complained that some of Miller’s intellectual friends “treated me like a dull little sex object with no brains and talked to me like a high school principal with a backward student.” I am inclined to think she did read rather more than they thought, if only because her writings suggest an attunement to poetry that goes beyond instinct—that can only be learned by listening, so to speak. 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 begi

Marilyn the Poet

Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), from the July 1953 issue of Modern Screen.

“It’s good they told me what / the moon was when I was a child,” reads a line from a poem by Marilyn Monroe. “It’s better they told me as a child what it was / for I could not understand it now.” The untitled poem, narrating a nighttime taxi ride in Manhattan, flits between the cityscape, a view of the East River, and, across it, the neon Pepsi-Cola sign, though, she tells us, “I am not looking at these things. / I am looking for my lover.” The very real moon comes to symbolize the confusion of adult experience. I quote these lines back to myself when I feel acutely that I understand less, not more, than I used to.

The poet Marilyn was the first Marilyn I encountered. Like her when she was young, I lived in a strict Pentecostal environment that forbade much of pop culture, but unlike her, I didn’t gorge myself on movies after escaping the prohibition. Although I had heard of “Marilyn Monroe,” I hadn’t yet happened to see any of her films when I came across Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe in a bookstore. I, like so many, fell for the allure—still, to me, a forbidden one—of her image: Marilyn on a sofa seemingly caught looking up and away from the black notebook in her lap. Her expression suggests she hasn’t yet decided whether the distraction is a source of apprehension or delight. Wearing coral lipstick and a black turtleneck, she is beautiful and bookish. The apparently candid photo is actually from a 1953 series for Life by the photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt. Then twenty-six, Marilyn was famous, and only becoming more so: she’d started dating the baseball star Joe DiMaggio. The revelation that years before she’d posed nude for a calendar (and wasn’t ashamed) had recently scandalized McCarthyite America. Life’s portraits of a sex symbol among books play to an audience’s wish to condescend to the object of their desire, to laugh at the “dumb blond” who thinks she can read. (Desire, after all, is an involuntary subjection often trailed by resentment.) As always, Marilyn insisted on approving the images; the contact sheets show her red pen. And in this photo, whatever anyone else intended, I also see her considered self-creation. 

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.”

Marilyn left high school when she married her first husband and, aside from a continuing-education course in literature at UCLA, never had further formal education. But she was a committed if haphazard autodidact, going to a now-defunct bookstore in Los Angeles to leaf through and buy whatever books interested her (Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, for instance). Although the playwright Arthur Miller, her third husband, claimed she never finished anything “with the possible exception of Colette’s Chéri and a few short stories,” others contradict this. She professed a love for The Brothers Karamazov and a wish to play its central female character, Grushenka. Her library contained more than four hundred books, including verse collections by D. H. Lawrence, Emily Dickinson, and Yuan Mei, and an anthology of African American poetry.

Insecure about her lack of formal education, Marilyn nonetheless resented being seen as stupid. She complained that some of Miller’s intellectual friends “treated me like a dull little sex object with no brains and talked to me like a high school principal with a backward student.” I am inclined to think she did read rather more than they thought, if only because her writings suggest an attunement to poetry that goes beyond instinct—that can only be learned by listening, so to speak. 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.

***

When I moved from New York City to Poland in 2016, I packed most of my books—slightly more than four hundred, in my case, as in Marilyn’s—into storage. Among the relatively few books that crossed the Atlantic with me was Fragments. It wasn’t useful to my research, and it wasn’t especially portable. But every so often I wanted to flip through Marilyn’s thoughts. Every so often, too, I wanted to revisit the two poems that struck me, coup de foudre style. In my first Warsaw apartment, she leaned against a copy of Madame Bovary (also in Marilyn’s library) in French, left by the previous tenant. 

The first of those two poems I loved so much dramatizes the suicidal mind’s attempt to solve the problem of how to die. In her handwriting, it looks like a prose poem: 

Oh damn I wish that I were dead—absolutely nonexistent—gone away from here—from everywhere but how would I—There is always bridges—the Brooklyn Bridge—But I love that bridge (everything is beautiful from there and the air is so clean) walking it seems peaceful even with all those cars going crazy underneath. So it would have be some other bridge an ugly one and with no view—except I like in particular all bridges—there’s something about them and besides I’ve never seen an ugly bridge.

The poem is a frantic rush from the very beginning. Seeking a method for dying, the poet happens upon the thing that will keep her living: the bridge, which becomes an existential problem—or, rather, a problem that will preserve existence. After ruling out the Brooklyn Bridge, with darkly comic pragmatism she decides on “some other” bridge. But her focus on the details of this world has turned her too far back toward living. By the end, we don’t know if the desire to die has been vanquished, but we see that the action has been thwarted by wry practicality and the world’s ordinary loveliness. She’s telling the truth, or a truth: sometimes it is only the fact that “there’s something about” bridges that keeps us from jumping off them. 

It’s natural to connect the poem’s preoccupation with Marilyn’s known depressive episodes (“I tried it once,” she said, meaning suicide, to the journalist William J. Weatherby, “and I was kind of disappointed it didn’t work.”) But another reason for her, at least occasionally, to wish for nonexistence might have been her experience of hypervisibility. “When I was a kid, the world often seemed a pretty grim place,” she told Weatherby. “I loved to escape through games and make-believe. You can do that even better as an actress, but sometimes it seems you escape altogether and people never let you come back.” The complaint about celebrity is more complicated than it first seems: for Marilyn, the trap of fame is not just immurement. Rather, when the path of escape reveals itself as a dead end, she finds the way back garrisoned.

The one good line in Arthur Miller’s dull, self-serving memoir describes Marilyn as “a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” His metaphor echoes, perhaps intentionally, the time when frenzied fans at an airport tore at Marilyn’s clothes and hair until guards intervened. When I first read this, the image that lingered was the “poet on a street corner.” Only on a subsequent reading did I take in the violence that follows the lyric. 

***

Life—
I am of both your directions

Somehow remain hanging downward 
the most 
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind—I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a painting—ah life they
have cheated you 

This is one of Marilyn’s most striking poems, and my favorite. The bold apostrophe followed by the emphatic dash—both reminiscent of Emily Dickinson—immediately endows the poem with a potentially ritual significance, evoking the abstraction of “life” as a possible interlocutor, at least within the slim space of the poem. Direct address to inanimate forces, as Jonathan Culler notes in Theory of the Lyric, hardly exists outside of poetry and connects the person who employs it to the poetic tradition, “as if each address to winds, flowers, mountains, gods, beloveds, were a repetition of earlier poetic calls.” It also risks being ridiculous, given that we know that the called upon cannot, in fact, call back. Will we—can we—allow the poet such a power? Marilyn, intriguingly, does not ask anything of Life: this is not prayer but description. Ostensibly, she just wants to tell Life about herself. 

Life’s two directions, it seems, are up and down, not, as one might expect, forward or backward. Marilyn figures “life” as a polar condition, the person suspended between like a taut rope, tugged toward—we can guess—either happiness or sorrow. (“Hanging downward” clearly gestures to suicide.) The “but” that introduces the cobweb’s strength indicates that a flimsy appearance may be deceptive; it also builds in ironic possibility. Perhaps the whole clause is a joke. Perhaps such strength is the act of resistance rather than a state of solidity. The “I” may be just barely hanging on.  

The tension will stay unresolved. The poem moves toward its conclusion via another “but,” a contradiction that isn’t one at all. It’s a revision of focus. Abandoning questions of strength, we turn toward beauty: the beauty claimed by the self is—surprisingly—the beauty of art, even though the self, still pictured as a cobweb, remains a part of nature. 

The end of the poem is a final, impossible address that resists definitive interpretation: “ah life they / have cheated you.” Who are “they”? Artists who have stolen from, and even exceeded, life? Or, as I tend to think, has the apostrophe morphed? “Life,” never actually able to hear or respond, becomes a pretext for the poet to address herself, the poem revealed as a soliloquy in disguise. “They” comes unmoored. The unnamed antecedents may be her romantic partners, whose love balked at the “monster” she admitted she could be, or “they” may be the crowd pulling at her clothes. Everyone who, through adoration, deprived her of the option to define life’s direction for herself.  

“Actress must have no mouth,” Marilyn noted elsewhere. But that “ah” in “ah life” is completely unnecessary, a pure effusion of voice. It opens the mouth the actress is not supposed to have.

***

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. 

Marilyn often spent long periods in front of the mirror, just looking at herself. This wasn’t only the rapture of narcissism. She studied and honed her movements and faces, learning to feel how she looked in the eyes of others. 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. As psychoanalyst and poet Nuar Alsadir writes in Fourth Person Singular, “by the time our perception of ourselves registers, we have already moved on (however slightly) from that particular self and are looking back from a distance (however miniscule), so that the perceived I has become a not-I.” Lyric address, to whomever it’s purportedly directed —“ah life”—occurs “between separate parts of mind and different states of 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. The great Italian poet Cesare Pavese said that the “source of poetry is always a … charged perplexity in the face of the irrational—unknown territory,” but that the “act of poetry” is “an absolute determination to see clearly.” 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. The aliveness of a poem can resuscitate our own aliveness; the movement, for a little while, acts as counterpoise to the body’s progress toward its final stillness. 

***

“Abyss has no Biographer,” Emily Dickinson wrote. This line came to mind when I was pondering that no matter how superbly imitated or described—no matter how much we tear at her clothes—Marilyn Monroe stays somehow inviolable. Even her nakedest writing never strips away this elusiveness. “I’m not M. M.,” Marilyn wrote in small letters near the edge of a piece of stationery while filming The Prince and the Showgirl. That the negation is crossed-out, not erased, makes manifest a paradox. “Only parts of us will ever touch parts of others—,” she scrawled elsewhere, “—one’s own truth is just that really—one’s own truth … at best perhaps it could make our understanding seek another’s loneliness out.” We know she possessed a profound sense of aloneness, but, as she reminds us, even her aloneness is only partially knowable. 

James Baldwin—who admired Marilyn and, outraged at Miller’s portrayal of the obvious Marilyn surrogate in After the Fall, reportedly walked out in the middle of the play, then suggested to Ava Gardner that they picket it—considered aloneness essential to being an artist. He wrote,“The aloneness of which I speak is … like the aloneness of birth or death. It is like the fearful aloneness which one sees in the eyes of someone who is suffering, whom we cannot help.” If the abyss is one end of life’s directions, then, at least at times, Marilyn seems to have also touched the other end: light. Even her enemies used words related to illumination to describe her, a likeness more profound than platinum hair and white dresses. Perhaps such incandescence could only emerge from something like the abyss.

When Marilyn was twenty-six, the same year she was photographed at home with her books, she filmed Niagara, her nineteenth movie but one of her first starring roles. She plays Rose, a dissatisfied wife on holiday at Niagara Falls with a jealous, unstable husband, whom she is plotting with her lover to kill. The plan goes awry; her husband strangles her instead. The best scene, which lasts barely three minutes, happens early, during an attempt at a party thrown by fellow vacationers. She appears in a fitted fuchsia dress and snares the group’s attention, men and women alike, then requests that the DJ play “Kiss,” by Lionel Newman and Haven Gillespie. As her husband scowls, she sits down beside a honeymooning pair. “You kinda like that song,” the dopey man of the couple remarks. “There isn’t any other song,” Rose replies, her face and voice suggesting that he ought to know that. The camera pulls close; only her brightly lit head and shoulders are in frame. “Thrill me, thrill me … take me, take me in your arms, make my life perfection,” she sings along as if in ecstatic communion, as if alone, except this performance is seduction—of anyone, everyone, the audience beyond the screen, the couple already in her thrall—and retribution—toward her husband, who interrupts by breaking the record with his bare hands. She reacts with a weary, satisfied half-smile. 

I’ve watched this scene dozens of times. It’s mesmerizing in part because of the layers of performance and persona that are visible: by this point, Marilyn was extremely famous, and the cruel, voluptuous sexiness of her character capitalizes on her image outside the frame. Yet she is also acting, transforming a simply written noir seductress into a complicated woman who is also acting, up until her murder, and maybe even then, in the last tender plea to her husband. The “Kiss” scene captures all of that, while hinting that we may be seeing something else, too: the woman alone, singing because there is no other song. 

Elisa Gonzalez is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. 

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