Eileen Myles, Grove Press, 2018
In an interview between Eileen Myles and their ex Jill Soloway in front of a live audience, the duo opened by saying: ‘We have things in our relationship that we haven’t quite worked out yet, and we thought we would just process our relationship on stage.’ Myles’ work is very much concerned with examining the very private and very personal in public. On stage, the pair both claimed to feel strangely at home; their reason for using this forum as a discussion space was that ‘we have lots of things to talk about that we’re too embarrassed to talk about alone’. Myles is the kind of poet that can easily make you feel like you know them. When I missed a reading of theirs and a friend got them to sign a book for me, they wrote on the title page ‘Julieta — totally miss you’ and crossed out their own name. On the other hand, they were recently described in the Paris Review as ‘the closest thing we have to a celebrity poet’, a status again being freshly cemented by their new book Evolution, the first all-new poetry collection Myles has published since 2012.
Myles is a veteran New York poet who has been publishing books for more than four decades. They delved into poetry in the seventies through spoken word performance and public poetry workshops and have gradually snowballed into the status of cultural icon. Myles has been and still is associated with the ‘third generation’ of the New York School, a label coined by artist Robert Motherwell to designate a loose grouping of poets and experimental painters who lived and worked within similar artistic circles in New York from around the 1950s. Myles is often cited as the final stop of this cultural lineage canonised by poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Barbara Guest. The term is neither formal nor definitive; it was not collectively chosen by all of its original members, and neither by the second and third ‘generations’ that have followed. Myles was living and writing in New York at the same time as many of the School’s most famous poets, and even served as an assistant to Schuyler. Their own rise to prominence, however, has taken place long since the heyday of the movement.
The poetry that has come out of the New York School – especially in its earlier and most well-known stages, from figures such as O’Hara and Ashbery – has often been characterised as conversational in tone and diction. Many of the recurring adjectives used by readers and critics are equally applicable to speech: ‘charismatic’, ‘charming’, ‘funny’. These earlier poets are often credited with initiating a mode of contemporary poetry that proudly mixes ‘high’ and ‘low’ language. Myles, however, has historically been placed on the ‘low’ end of this spectrum by critics and reviewers. Personality, conversational language, and humour, in Myles’ case, come to subsume all other elements of their literary identity. When readers and critics cast Myles’ work as a product of their ‘punk attitude’, they quietly (perhaps sometimes unwittingly) undermine Myles’ work and thinking.
It is not unusual to find at least one claim as to Myles’ character among the praise featured on dust jackets of their books. On the back cover of I Must Be Living Twice, Myles’ collected poems, Lena Dunham claims: ‘It is a rare thing when someone so cool is also so warm.’ Olivia Laing, on the back of Evolution, calls Myles a ‘swaggering troubadour’. Both, of course, are talking about Myles’ writing, but using their personality as evidence. A key point of praise for Myles’ poetry is the fact that their poems sound like speech, or authentically reproduce their own voice. Once you hear Myles read, this does seem to make sense, but also creates the impression that Myles transcribes their own thoughts and conversations, as if there were a straight road between their poetry and their life.
In an interview with Morgan Parker, Myles identified a latent sexism and homophobia in their categorisation as a ‘badass’ or ‘cool’ poet, and stressed that these casual descriptors push them towards the margins of the literary. Across their life as a writer and cult figure in the New York poetry world, Myles has teetered at the intersection between insider and outsider. The things that make them ‘cool’ and well-liked are the same things that have held back their mainstream success. Myles is an unusual figure in that they have entered a literary tradition dominated largely by men, carved out their own place within it, and then succeeded in broadening its scope. They have said of their role in this history: ‘I made the model of what I needed there to be. I put lesbian content in the New York School poem because I wanted the poem to be there to receive me.’
Myles thinks very deliberately and is open about the wider projects of their poetry and its contributions to the contemporary scene. In an interview with Vanity Fair Myles said of Evolution: ‘I want to, in a way, re-introduce poetry to people as visual art. That’s what this book is doing.’ A central characteristic of the New York School is the mutual influence of poets and painters, with several of its associated poets – including Myles – having also written at length about art. Myles poetry engages with the visual through varied and innovative lenses. In ‘15 Minutes’ Myles conjures a sense of writing as a form of drawing, likening the shape of words on an otherwise blank page to a form of visual art practiced by the writer:
Coffee like a black
pen on my birthday
a sound that is making lines
a hand that will fill
The sense of novelty and possibility in this image of ‘a black / pen on my birthday’ reflects Myles’s poetic mode that is as prospective as it is descriptive. The idea of a sound ‘making lines’ also dislodges the fixity of the moment of creation in both poetry and drawing, evoking a visual impression formed before the ‘hand’ comes in to shape them.
Myles also explores this sense of immediacy in the photos they regularly post on Instagram. They describe it as ‘a real new playground’; the cover of Evolution itself, they have said, is an Instagram photo of an Instagram photo of an Instagram photo. Having been around at a time when it was commonplace for themselves and their New York contemporaries to make and self-distribute small batches of individually printed and produced pamphlets, Myles is deeply interested in what the internet means for art.
Myles’s Instagram feed is comprised of a string of places and objects that you can scroll through continuously or selectively, much like their books. The photos, for the most part, verge on looking un-composed: the angles are not straight, the image is blurred, the subject of the photo is a shadow or a smudge in the corner. Often there are two or more versions of the same photo, taken what looks like seconds apart or from slightly different angles. The dynamic, unaffected energy of the pictures lends itself easily to comparison with Myles’ poems. Myles’ photos deal in textures, shapes, and colours, and in a similarly bare tone to their poetry they pin down diffuse objects, landscapes and cityscapes as subjects for portraiture. Their photos have gone on to be applauded within the art world, with a selection of them being recently exhibited at the Bridget Donahue gallery in New York.
Myles’ Instagram photos show us some of the same things their poetry does (Myles’s pit bull Honey, a bedroom window, the sky in NYC at a particular time of evening). A reader of Myles can then, for instance, see the ‘orange / dog walking / through a town of dead / leaves’ that Myles describes in ‘The City’. Yet, the images evidently don’t exhaust the interest of Myles’ poetry. Although Myles is interested in both writing and photography as recording mechanisms, their poems are far from purely ‘photographic’. They interrogate both processes in their poetry, tracking how each one can mark time. In ‘A Hundred Per Cent’, Myles narrates small-scale events in a visceral present tense, evoking the conflicting timelines at play in the process of capturing light with a camera:
hits my palm
while I’m reading
& the crack
It’s a classic technique for Myles: zooming in on a very short instant to point outwards to time as a much broader feeling. As with a photograph, the poem is more than an index of what it is representing. In ‘My Poems’, Myles writes: ‘My poems are so much / like the city they / couldn’t publish them / on the train’. Here Myles explores how their poems, in content and physical existence, might exist as objects. The poems, Myles seems to suggest, are alive, in the sense that they circulate within and respond to their environment. They form part of a physical landscape and, further, create one of their own, which gestures out towards readers who might see themselves within it.
Maggie Nelson’s chapter on Myles in her book on the New York School is subtitled ‘The Metabolic Work of Eileen Myles’. Myles themselves speaks of poetry, and the act of writing poetry, as a kind of ‘body language’ that passes through and comes out of the body that makes it. There is a sense of a shifting internal landscape running through Myles’ poems. The cascading structure of their hyper-short lines creates a sense of alternate receding and surging, as with a waterline, into moments of swell and overflow. The final lines of ‘Poem at Dusk’ are one example of this: ‘The drum / in town / is a train / everything’s / leaving’. If Myles’s poems teeter on the edge of uncollected thought, they are always drawn back into clarity. The series of loosely-strung nouns in these first three lines makes limited sense as a statement, although the structure and rhythm of it carry a certain authority. But in a second the fog dissipates and leaves us with the mono-word lines ‘everything’s / leaving’, which resound as both open-ended and final. Sometimes when reading Myles the impression is one of overhearing snippets of conversation in between silence or ambient noise. Often, beauty arises from this feeling of not being in on the joke, as in ‘Dear Adam’: ‘he says lol / then skull / then rocket’. The tone and the rhythm, however, are always carefully crafted. Here Myles folds the language of the internet into their own voice, ending on a double-beat that closes out the poem’s built momentum.
The first punchline of Evolution arrives at the end of ‘Walter Myles’, early on in the book. The poem ends in a two-part declaration with parabolic weight:
That a king learned to speak
somehow is not such
a wonderful thing.
That a woman learned
The poem circles through a lot before landing at this point. Its cast of characters includes a dog, for whom the poem is named, Aristophanes, and Judith Butler. The speaker recounts a dream in which ‘the opportunity to sing with the Beatles / was coming up’, and in the wake of it reflects on gender and pop culture. By the end it seems as if all the other concerns of this poem have melted down and re-solidified into this ending which deals, unusually for Myles, in grand archetypes.
There are literal punchlines, too, interspersed throughout Evolution. Towards the end of the book comes the two-word poem ‘Aloha’, which reads: ‘great title!’ ‘The Baby’, which Myles has cited as a personal favourite from the collection, reads differently depending on how you approach it, but under a certain light has the structure and sound of a dad joke:
says to the old
have a cup
man says now
The tone here is reminiscent of Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley (particularly the flat dialogue in his most famous poem, ‘I Know A Man’) in its slow, quiet humour. The narrow, enjambed lines of the poem pull it away from the rhythm of speech and lend a certain weight to what is ostensibly funny dialogue – to the extent that on first reading I assumed it to be about mortality. This tension between lightness and weight is typical of Myles, who distributes stresses across their poems so that often the momentum drops off at the same time as it reaches its poignant or assertive height.
The book’s title poem is in part a study of listlessness. Myles tracks the physical and emotional sensations of loneliness and boredom (‘When I go / out I think / why am I / here’; ‘My arm rests / on a pillow & / that feels / pretty good’) before an element of novelty arrives to disrupt the flat landscape: ‘something / new starts / up in / my building / a different / sound’. In Myles, evolution often means this kind of change: a shift in time or space that opens up the possibility for something new. Myles is an artist reckoning with success, who continues to respond to the world around them and is still expanding the way they look at things. They are still not content with bringing it back down to earth.
JULIETA CALDAS studies English and French at St Hilda’s. Her favourite books are the French translations of Gossip Girl.
Artwork by Alex Haveron Jones