Essay

These Charming Men

How Morrissey’s music turned one teenager into a poetry lover.

by Kimberly Reyes

While most of my friends chose to head-bang to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Guns N’ Roses on the hour-long train ride to high school, my yellow Sports Walkman usually played something a little slower and more somber. From the Geto Boys to The Sisters of Mercy, I appreciated an urban noir and dark, surrealist aesthetic, but not every band could complement the beauty of their music with lyrical prowess. Enter Stephen Patrick Morrissey, who proved to be a kindred spirit from my very first encounter with his verse.

As an observant and sensitive black girl struggling to find a place in a very white, middle-class neighborhood in Queens, I devoured his forlorn anthems, particularly his work with the Smiths. Though Morrissey’s lyrics were perhaps a bit morose for a developing mind (“And if a double-decker bus / Crashes into us / To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die”), they were searing and resonated for me in a way that the chart toppers at the time—Ace of Base, TLC, and Snoop Dogg—didn’t. Here was a pasty-faced, awkward Irish singer who couldn’t have been more culturally or physically unlike me. And yet his lyrics mirrored my sense of disorientation and indignation.

I attended grade school in a New York City where Michael Griffith was chased to his death in Howard Beach, Queens, and Yusef Hawkins was shot to death in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, for simply looking like me. I can distinctly recall the boys I worshipped in grade school arguing in classroom discussions that both deceased teens got what they deserved for being in neighborhoods in which they didn’t belong. I was keenly aware of the fact that I too did not belong. Morrissey’s lyrics—such as “When you walk without ease / on these / Streets where you were raised / I had a really bad dream / it lasted twenty years, seven months and 27 days”—cut to the bone.

But Morrissey did more than simply expand my own narrow view of what pain and isolation looked like (despite the fact that he himself, perhaps internalizing intolerance, had been known to flirt with fascist and xenophobic themes in songs such as “Bengali in Platforms”). He introduced me to another Irishman in Britain who struggled as an outsider, a man whom Morrissey credits with saving his adolescence and who helped shaped my own literary development: Oscar Wilde.

“As the world’s first populist figure (first pop figure) Oscar Wilde exploded with original wisdom, advocating freedom for heart and soul, and for all—regardless of how the soul swirled,” Morrissey writes in the British edition of his autobiography (due out in the United States this week). Morrissey is an unabashed reader of poetry (his memoir quotes lines from Robert Herrick, Patrick Kavanagh, and A.E. Housman, in addition to Wilde), and he’s been talking about Wilde’s influence for decades. “Every line that Wilde ever wrote affected me so enormously,” Morrissey told Rolling Stone back in 1984. He cited Wilde and James Dean as “the only two companions I had as a distraught teenager…. It was almost as if I knew these people quite intimately, and they provided quite a refuge from everyday slovenly life.” Morrissey wasn’t shy about paying tribute to Wilde, appropriating his words (a line from The Importance of Being Earnest appears in the song “Rubber Ring”) and his mannerisms (Morrissey often carried or wore gladioli, reportedly Wilde’s favorite flower). But while Morrissey was obsessed with Wilde’s aesthetic and his stylized and sometimes sardonic plays and prose, I gravitated toward his beautiful short stories and poetry, in particular the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

After being sentenced to two years in prison in 1895 for sodomy and serving his time at Reading Gaol, Wilde dropped his wry detachment and wrote what many scholars consider to be his greatest poem, if not his greatest work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Through this work he also converted a music-loving teenager into a poetry fan.

I bought my first Oscar Wilde poetry anthology at a secondhand bookstore in London (which I happened upon because it was next door to a record store carrying the latest Morrissey album). I was in London on spring break during my junior year of high school. I remember reading The Ballad of Reading Gaol on the plane ride back across the Atlantic—mainly because I had seven hours to kill in a smoke-filled cabin. At first I was overwhelmed by its length (more than 600 lines) and its structure (divided into acts), but The Ballad of Reading Gaol’s universal themes of horror, brutality, and isolation soon drew me in.

At six o’clock we cleaned our cells,
      At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
      The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
      Had entered in to kill.
He did not pass in purple pomp,
      Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
      Are all the gallows’ need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
      To do the secret deed.
We were as men who through a fen
      Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
      Or to give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
      And what was dead was Hope.

Two things struck me while reading: first, Wilde’s language was as smart and accessible as ever; and second, the harsh prison experience transformed the Wilde I was familiar with into a new man, one more adept at expressing compassion and empathy. As Wilde wrote in De Profundis, a letter to his alleged lover Lord Alfred Douglas from prison:

[I must] absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint…. The plank bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s fingertips grow dull with pain … the dreadful dress that makes sorrow grotesque to look at, the silence, the solitude, the shame—each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience.

Suddenly the London sophisticate, who was known to preach the gospel of the superficial, was forced to, as he wrote in his letter, “become a deeper man” and acquire the “privilege of those who have suffered” while suddenly understanding that “sorrow, being the supreme emotion of which man is capable, is at once the type and test of all great Art.”

Wilde’s poem, dedicated to fellow Reading Gaol prisoner Charles Thomas Wooldridge, who was sentenced to death for the premeditated murder of his wife, is a long, gothic protest of sorts, indicting the British penal system, if not the world, for its inhumanity:

Some love too little, some too long,
      Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
      And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
      Yet each man does not die.
He does not die a death of shame
      On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
      Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
      Into an empty space.

This verse was particularly effective in critiquing the selectively enforced rules of the British justice system. It also evoked images of the sort of American justice that Billie Holiday sang about in “Strange Fruit.” In The Ballad of Reading Gaol Wilde has “developed a profound imaginative sympathy for the victims of society’s official cruelty,” William E. Buckler wrote in Victorian Poetry, “and had given to it a voice that would be heard for a long time to come far beyond the coteries of the happy aesthetic few.”

But what struck me most about this poem was Wilde’s ability to, in the midst of serving an unjust sentence, empathize with his wardens and find humanity in his oppressors:

But why he said so strange a thing
      No Warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher’s doom
      Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
      And make his face a mask.
Or else he might be moved, and try
      To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
      Pent up in Murderer’s Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
      Could help a brother’s soul?

This was transformative for me. As a thorny teenager I had plenty of justifiable rage, but I also knew that my situation was complicated. Some of the same boys who said awful things about black people would also religiously reserve a spot for me on their recess tag teams or call my house nightly to chat. So when I heard Morrissey sing in “Cemetery Gates,” “Keats and Yeats are on your side but you lose because Wilde is on mine,” I was starting to feel the same way. By candidly giving voice to complicated contradictions, Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol took me out of my bounded Queens neighborhood and, eventually, into the greater world lexicon of conflicted, socially conscious poets such as Nikky Finney and Reginald Shepherd.

Finney and Shepherd are completely different types of composers—she is known for her narrative-driven, often political poetry, and his work is dominated by abstract lyricism and occasional mythology—but both write with a sometimes subtle, often not so subtle, subtext of interloper alienation. This is largely because of their race (both are African American), but it is also, as with Wilde and Morrissey, because of their sexuality.

Finney writes from this vantage point in “The Aureole” as she recalls witnessing and internalizing the mistreatment of a woman, whom she calls Brenda Jones, in her Southern hometown, which she has described as small and homophobic: “I will be what Brenda Jones was stoned for in 1969. / I saw it as a girl but didn’t know I was taking in myself.”

Finney goes on to say:

She fends off their spit & words with silent two-handed
twists & turns of her socket wrench. A hurl of sticks &
stones and only me to whisper for her, from sidewalk far,…

As Wilde was able to do in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Finney speaks as an almost invisible insider, someone who can bring the perspective and privilege of the oppressor into a poem while capturing the heart and humanity of the oppressed. She recently commented on this panoramic perspective in an interview: “I think that is the thing that has made me a poet, really—my curiosity about people, my empathy with people. Yes, I look at them in not easy ways, but I also hope I don’t forget that they are people too, with foibles and fragilities and missteps.”

Very few people would compare Wilde, Finney, and Shepherd, but to me they all employ the same pained and beautiful language. I’m convinced that having Wilde train me in poetic empathy and nuance made me more sensitive to this particular type of emotional estrangement, the type that comes with being an outsider from within—which most black kids who grew up in a white neighborhood, or gay people who grow up in a heteronormative world, understand.

Shepherd gives voice to this unique type of immersion and artistic code switching in his poems. In “A Brief Manual for Swimmers,” he writes:

… We choose our tints
from colors offered us, and could I choose
another pigment I would drown
in it, diving beneath your skin

“A Muse” says: “He winds through the party like wind, one of the just / who live alone in black and white, bewildered.” Shepherd’s muses and the objects of his desires (and ire) were often “blue-eyed” men, as illustrated in the poem “Skin Trade”:

…He’s my America
twisted in dirty sheets, my inspiration
for a sleepless night. No getting around that
white skin

He subversively speaks of idol worship and the internalization of colonial attitudes with a vulnerability, complexity, and courage that I hadn’t previously been exposed to through any art form.

Shepherd, who grew up in public housing in the Bronx and was educated at prestigious, mainly white institutions, said, “I have been oppressed by many things in my life, but not by literature, which for me has always represented potential and not closure.” I know the potential that Shepherd spoke of, and I can remember feeling it for the first time 35,000 feet in the air, when little else made sense.

Originally Published: December 3, 2013

COMMENTS (4)

On December 7, 2013 at 7:16pm Tim McGrath wrote:
Too many people look into poetry as if they were looking
into a mirror, hoping to find a reflection of
themselves. But they'd have to be looking into a fun-
house mirror to find any similarity between Oscar Wilde
and Nikky Finney.

It's a travesty to compare "The Aureole," or anything
else by Nikky Finney, with "The Ballad of Reading Gaol."
While the former has one or two good lines, the latter
is nothing but good lines, including a number of great
ones.

"Each man kills the thing he loves" is one of the
glories of English verse, like "the Doom's electric
moccasin" and "Throw hither all your quaint enameled
eyes."

Fortunately, there are thousands of such lines in any
good anthology.

After reading a poem like "The Aureole," you are
compelled to ask yourself, Where is the poetry? Where
are the lines that will haunt you forever? Where are
the words that will make you weep, not only because they
are beautiful but because you know you'll never write
anything as good.

Finny's "rose-veiled eyes of memory" is a nice phrase,
but it's probably the best line in the poem. It hardly
compares to this:

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

"Reading Gaol" is otherworldly; it is one of those poems
that seem to have been sent from outer space.

Ultimately, though, what carries the poem--what gives it
dignity, pathos, and immortality--is the dirge-like
music. A note of sadness suffuses every stanza. It is
equivalent to the second movement of the Seventh
Symphony.

On December 8, 2013 at 12:12am Chad Price wrote:
Tonight, somehow, someway, along the information superhighway, in
a fugue-like state with no predetermined destination, my eyes came
to rest here, at The Poetry Foundation. Uncertain of what or whom I
might find, I certainly found a kindred spirit betwixt and between the
lines, of Ms. Kimberly Reyes. Her wonderful essay on Moz and the
Bunburyist himself, O. Wilde, quickly had my dormant inner-flame for
poetry flickering to the beat of the metric rythmic feet I, too, loved as
a teen. Furthermore, her descriptions of her personal experiences
with alienation and ultimate identification with Morrissey as a gateway
poet and Wilde as the fuse, strikingly similar to my life. As I read, I
was transfixed, admiring this lovely writer more and more with each
line. At the point Ms. Reyes craftily wove the works of Nikky Finney
and Reginald Shepherd into her essay, my own mind was Oscillating
Wildly with thoughts of pen, paper and effervescing imagery. I also
read and thoroughly enjoyed, Ms. Reyes' interview with Nikky Finney,
who teaches at the same USC, that employs me. I am grateful to found
to found this site, and especially for the heartfelt writing of Kimberly
Reyes. With her talent and empathy, I am certain much, much more
success is in her future. I am curious to know Ms. Reyes' thoughts on
Morrissey's very recently published, Autobiography. Something tells
me she might have found her way through it's 500 plus pages by now.
If by chance, she has yet to acquire a copy, I'd love to send one her
way - from one charming fan to another... Thank you for sharing this
exceptional young writer's work. Sincerely, Chad Price

On December 9, 2013 at 7:36am Baltimore Poet wrote:
I enjoyed this article. I am glad to find a Mozhead who loves poetry, as Moz does. I would have liked more on Morrissey, compared to Wilde, but I guess as Morrissey himself said, You can have Keats & Yeats, but Wilde Wilde Wilde is mine. I'll take Keats, including the letters.

How literature bridges backgrounds, the author's opening point, is part of art's gift to us all. In high school, I was totally affected by Public Enemy's IT TAKES A NATION OF MILLIONS TO HOLD US BACK. Yet, it had nothing directly to do with my situation. (It had everything to do with society though). Personally, I was more akin to .... ellipsis....

On December 9, 2013 at 7:50am Baltimore Poet wrote:
I have many favorite Morrissey lyrics, but in the spirit of irony:

I declare that life is simply taking
and not giving
England is mine;
it owes me a living. . . .
But ask me why and I'll spit in your eye,
oh ask me why and I'll spit in your eye.

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 Kimberly   Reyes

Biography

Kimberly Reyes has written for the Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, Time.com, The New York Post, The Village Voice, Alternative Press, ESPN the Magazine, Jane, Honey, NY1 News and The Best American Poetry blog. She is the 2013 Poetry Foundation Columbia University Journalism Fellow and graduated from Columbia with a Master of Arts in May.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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