With the recent publication of Joan Murray’s Drafts, Fragments, and Poems: The Complete Poetry, an important minor poet gets her due. Although that descriptor might seem pejorative, even minor poets can have outsize influence. As the late John Ashbery, one of Murray’s earliest and most ardent champions, writes in Other Traditions,
As I look back on the writers I have learned from, it seems that the majority, for reasons I am not quite sure of, are what the world calls minor ones. Is it inherent sympathy for the underdog, which one so often feels oneself to be when one embarks on the risky business of writing? Is it desire for one-upmanship, the urge to parade one’s esoteric discoveries before others? Or is there something inherently stimulating in the poetry called ‘minor,’ something it can do for us when major poetry can merely wring its hands?
To appreciate Murray’s significance, one must first understand the unusual circumstances of her short life and the even more unusual circumstances of her work’s convoluted afterlife. She was born in 1917, during an air raid in England, and spent a peripatetic early childhood in London, Paris, and Ontario before settling in the United States, first in Detroit and then in New York. Her father was an illustrator and a portraitist, and her mother was a diseuse, a female entertainer who performs monologues. The couple separated when Murray was quite young. Bouts of severe rheumatic fever at the ages of 11 and 13 left Murray with a chronic heart condition—a permanently damaged valve, prone to infections—that led to her premature death on January 4, 1942, one month shy of her 25th birthday.
Murray was determined to pack as much life as she could into her limited years. Temperamentally unsuited to conventional school, her formal secondary education ended after ninth grade, at which point she threw herself into her own self-directed studies. A.E. Housman and W.B. Yeats were early favorites and both influenced Murray’s exhilarating rhymes and imagery, as well as her work’s prophetic scope. She studied dance and theater at the School of Dramatic Arts in New York and poetry at the New School, under the mentorship of W.H. Auden. She was also an avid hiker despite her illness.
In his preface to the Complete Poems, originally published in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project newsletter in October of 2003, Ashbery notes that “[Murray’s] finest poetry was all written in the scant year and a half between meeting Auden and her tragic early death.” It would be another five years until Auden selected her posthumously for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1947, although that volume “seems not to have attracted much attention,” reports Ashbery, because critics were “puzzled.”
Reviewing Murray’s work for Poetry in 1947, William Meredith declared that her book “introduces a powerful and distinctive voice,” but he also admitted to being perplexed by Murray’s “abrupt transitions from image to image,” transitions “too quick and often too irrational for this reader.” Meanwhile, New York Times critic Milton Crane reportedly described the poems as giving “the impression of being unborn.” More recently, Mark Ford wrote in Poetry that, although he admires Murray, her work is “adept, perhaps too relentlessly for some, at making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”
Farnoosh Fathi, the editor of this new collection, argues in her introduction that “like Emily Dickinson and Laura Riding, Murray belongs to a radical arc of American metaphysical women poets, most of whom remain unsung and who evince, as Murray wrote in a letter to her mother, ‘What truth, what mystical awareness can be lived.’”
Fathi sketches a concise history of how Murray’s work managed to survive—sometimes just barely—after the poet’s death. When Auden requested that Murray’s mother, Peggy, send him Joan’s manuscript for the Yale prize, she agreed on the condition “that her friend Grant Code—a poet, Harvard lecturer, and dance and theater critic—edit the collection,” which he did.
Years after the Yale edition sank quietly out of sight, Peggy sold her daughter’s papers, along with her own, to Smith College in 1968. But the trunk full of manuscripts supposedly never arrived. Legend had it that the trunk fell off the back of the truck en route. Thanks to Mark Ford’s inquiries, however, Smith College located the box, “complete with a dent in its side.” In the 2010s, Murray’s poetry was finally made available to scholars. Ashbery acclaimed her work, as did the poet Shanna Compton, who in 2006 posted a PDF of the original Yale edition online.
In September of 2014, Fathi became the first scholar to seriously study Murray’s newly acquired papers. She discovered a trove that comprised “a tremendous addition to [Murray’s] already astonishing output,” including lost manuscript pages, letters (such as her correspondence with Auden), stories, short plays, and an unfinished memoir. Fathi also found a record of Code’s rather heavy, albeit well-intentioned, editorial hand. He made numerous substantial changes to Murray’s original diction, grammar, punctuation, and syntax. He sometimes shaped single stanza poems into quatrains, added titles to poems Murray had left untitled, and merged drafts to achieve final ones. Fathi notes that “it is a well-known saga of women’s literary history that editors have ‘improved’ or ‘corrected’ their original writings according to their own agendas and perceptions of public taste.” She adds that Code did his best to avoid doing anything such as was “done with the poems of Emily Dickinson.” (Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, published a handful of Dickinson’s poems in the newspaper during her lifetime but added declarative titles—making “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” into “The Sleeping,” for instance—conventionalized punctuation, and standardized rhyme.)
Still, Fathi concedes, “it’s hard not to admire Code’s tireless efforts to present what he thought would be the best versions of Murray’s work.” For her part, Fathi doesn’t alter a single line that Murray wrote, and though her ordering of the poems often aligns with Code’s, she lets each draft stand as is to give contemporary readers the most accurate representation of Murray’s poetry now in print.
So, too, do Fathi’s labors result in a text that testifies to “the luxuriance of [Murray’s] uncontainability.” Murray seems like someone who set out to become her own favorite poet, prioritizing her pleasure in the sonic qualities of language. In “Instinct and sleep you are two passages that converge,” for example, she writes, “I’m adulted in your poised pant and pawing / And lightly gulls and birds are cawing / I am bent to the coastline running.” It’s a poem that revels in alliteration, musicality, and rhyme.
In a characteristically passionate 1937 letter to a friend, the novelist Helen Anderson, Murray explains, “Hysteria is to me preferable to the pedantic oscillations of a void. I would rather be mad and bad, erratic and incomprehensible, than vulnerably acquiescent to the drab.” Powerful, incantatory, and teeming with ideas, her poems unfold in a state of sensory overload, by turns agitating and soothing. In “You think you complain of the ugliness of people,” for instance, Murray writes,
Meet your own bedSmell what you saidYour words unmitigated deadSink like a noon sun in the crass tomb beneath the steeple.
The poem is thrilling to read, although the accusation at its core never quite becomes clear. The impression is that of a poet playing private language games, as voluptuous as they are sometimes enigmatic. The poem ends with
Claws like tumbled fingers hereStand for handsElastic bandsMinds and trendsThighs sprout here enough to breed the honour of yourMorganatic leer.
This poem and many others read like imprecations or magic spells that seem as though they ought to conjure something if recited with enough force. Here and throughout, her peculiar, intoxicating rhymes carry so much of the pleasure that if one is not reading Murray’s work out loud, then one is not really reading it.
Auden, her mentor, once wrote that “A mannered style, that of Góngora or Henry James, for example, is like eccentric clothing: very few writers can carry it off, but one is enchanted by the rare exception that can.” Murray’s style is mannered in the extreme, yet she carries it off with élan.
Part of how she does this is through arresting adjective-noun combinations that are often more surprising than they are apt. Consider, for example, just some of her juxtapositions: “a dim prenatal distinction,” “emphatic day concave night,” “the paupered air,” “candescent thoughts,” “the narcotic snow,” “the deleted swan.” These moments cause readers to pause and ask, “How can that be?”
Like E.E. Cummings, Murray also coins whimsical compound words, as in “What can I do Methuselah your time is mine,” which includes the lines “Here here with my cherrycoloured scarfs / I wrap my mistressthoughts with wider arms” or “A night spent in watching,” which includes “She speaks and her words are the mumblings / Of the infinite to the jumblings / Of the dead / She is a deepbossomed shecat watching / With green eyes.”
Many of the poems also exhibit tension between the syntax of carefully reasoned arguments and baffling illogic. In “On Dit!” she writes,
I know the very truth of action is at surfaceA string pulled in the outward throw of things.By heaven take the cake I’ll take one too!Lecherous thoughts and puritanical rub grey,But never mind, even if grey’s the basis for declineWe’ll take the cake and swim the Hellespont of time
What does this mean? Where did the cake come from, and won’t it get wet in time’s Hellespont? Does any of that even matter? In Murray’s work, thought is a sensory experience.
In “Work in Progress,” one of her few titled poems, Murray adopts a characteristically imperative attitude: “Look to your hands life of rare genuflection, / The wind has a strange destruction / Upon leaves of trees, / and look to your feet, / Where walking is done the winter cares little about the neat / Step.” Although her tone is forceful, it’s hard to grasp exactly what she wants “you” to do or why. But that elusiveness, that indistinctness, is also crucial to the delight. She continues, “look to all that is yours, / So that we who will to possess may not call you ours,” almost as though she is talking both to herself and to a hypothetical audience trying to reason out the meaning. Her poetry deliberately resists full comprehension and refuses to be exhausted by interpretations; thus one feels drawn back to it. It’s not that Murray’s poems don’t make sense but rather that they’re saturated with more sense than can be gleaned in one or even several readings.
No less than Ashbery corroborates this sentiment. In his preface, he writes that one feels as though “something important is hidden” in Murray’s work and that “repeated readings may not reveal it, but the mere act of reading Murray’s poetry always seems to be pushing one closer to the brink of a momentous discovery.”
That almost-but-not-quite-in-on-a-secret suspense seems typical of many minor poets, including Weldon Kees, for instance, or Thomas Lovell Beddoes. By contrast to “major” poets who are comparably hermetic but assume vast authority in their pronouncements—Ezra Pound, say, or Yeats—certain minor poets can make readers aware of a different approach to the craft, one in which there are fewer rhetorical boxes to check, and more esoteric subjects, forms, and expressions can be pursued. Moreover, the classifications major and minor describe the reception of poets as much as any intrinsic qualities of the poetry in question. Major and minor speak to the consensus opinion of any given poet, and that consensus has the potential to fluctuate from generation to generation. Dickinson, for instance, was considered a minor poet until she wasn’t.
In the introduction to his anthology Nineteenth-Century British Minor Poets (1966), Auden addresses the question of who is a major or minor poet: “One is sometimes tempted to think it nothing but a matter of academic fashion: a poet is major if, in the curriculum of the average college department, there is a course devoted solely to the study of his work, and a minor if there is not.”
Acknowledging how slippery and vexing this major-minor distinction can be, he adds,
One cannot say that a major poet writes better poems than a minor; on the contrary, the chances are that, in the course of his lifetime, the major poet will write more bad poems than the minor. Nor equally, obviously, is it a matter of the pleasure the poet gives an individual reader: I cannot enjoy one poem by Shelley and am delighted by every line of William Barnes, but I know perfectly well that Shelley is a major poet, and Barnes a minor one.
Clearly, major and minor are such moving targets that one wonders whether it’s problematic to aim for them at all. Yet there is some insight to be gained in considering what we mean by these categories—who applies them, to whom, and why—and whether it’s fruitful to resist their connotations of superior versus inferior. As Murray’s work illustrates, sometimes a certain kind of minor-ness is just what one is in the mood for. In other words, Murray gives readers an occasion to consider how, in the 21st century, perhaps there can be only minor poets, as contemporary poetry draws its vitality from an unprecedented number of diverse traditions, and canonical hierarchies are in question.
It’s hard to know to what extent Murray wrote with foreknowledge of her own fast-approaching death, but one gets the sense that the adventurousness and insularity of her poetry is somehow related to her own vulnerability. As she wrote in another letter to Anderson about her continual frantic desire to be productive, “Time seemed to grow into a drum-beat sounding in my mind till all I could hear was lazy, lazy, work, work, work!”
In his musings on what it means for a poet to be major or minor, Auden observes that quantity and duration inform the distinction. “In the case of all poets,” he notes, “we distinguish between their juvenilia and their mature work but, in the case of the major poet, the process of maturing continues until he dies so that, if confronted by two poems of his of equal merit but written at different times, the reader can immediately say which was written first.” When one dies at 24 and produces most of one’s work in an 18-month period, such comparisons and chronologies become immaterial.
A figure Murray returns to frequently is that of the architect, a builder whose genius plans may never quite come to fruition. In “The starved houses without brinks or people,” she writes,
It is the young architect in the old villageAnd with what trepidity he reaches for a timeDizzy with starved action handles clay,Threads with the slightest over-dream a cityPlanned with a bird upon each bow a light upon each face.
This book—with its odds and ends, fragments and drafts—gives its audience the opportunity to look in wonder at both Murray’s finished structures and some of the remarkable blueprints she left. We can, of course, feel regret at what could have been—that she could have done more, could have been a bigger deal. But more than that, we can marvel at what she calls in a letter “the sweet off note that sings up from the very middle of me” and at the immensity of what she was able to do in such a brief span.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...