Essay

I Might Die of Love for You

Michael Lally’s poetry is experimental and unabashedly romantic.
Michael Lally Faded Portrait

By the late 1950s, when Michael Lally decided he wanted to be a writer, the chasm in American poetry, in the wake of Modernism, had widened. On one side was the mainstream, often disparaged today as “MFA workshop poetry”; on the other was the avant-garde as exemplified by groups such as the New York School, particularly Frank O’Hara. Lally’s work as a poet—and as a musician and, later, an actor—wouldn’t have been possible had he opted for the “Official Verse Culture,” an epithet coined by the poet and critic Charles Bernstein. Instead, Lally honed an experimental style and a voice that was driven, needy, honest, and open to experience. It was the voice of an irrepressible gadfly and an equally irrepressible and exuberant lover besotted by romance. The publication last spring of Another Way to Play: Poems 1960–2017, a generous retrospective of more than a half-century of Lally’s poetry, offers readers a deeper appreciation for his sometimes-overlooked role in American literature over the last several decades.

Lally has been a singular presence in the avant-garde since his early 20s, when his poems began to appear in literary magazines. His first brush with acclaim was The South Orange Sonnets (1972), which won the Discovery Award from the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center. The book mythologized Lally’s childhood as the youngest of seven children born into a blue-collar, Irish American family in South Orange, New Jersey:

The tree between the sidewalk and the curb
attracted me. The leaves turning up in the
breeze before a summer storm revealed a side
that glowed, flashed like the palms of a
dark woman shaping castles in the air. My
father didn’t like it. He’d ask why a boy sat
on the stoop staring at trees when he could
be watching TV learning the things a boy
should know to be well liked by the men who
could help him. Golfing terms, starting line
ups, some news. Too much thinking can ruin
you, he’d say. When we were alone my mother
would ask Don’t you think there might be
something wrong with having no white friends.

Lally, something of a prodigy, read everything he could then and was a riddle to his family. He took up piano at age four, later taught himself jazz, and played gigs as a teenager. He also began to write. In 1962, he joined the Air Force and subsequently attended the University of Iowa on the GI Bill, where he earned a BA and an MFA. One of his teachers was the poet Ted Berrigan, who was prominent in what came to be called the second generation New York School and who had just published the first edition of his landmark The Sonnets (1964).

After college, Lally taught in Washington, DC, and got involved in the city’s local poetry scenes, including the nascent Language writing movement. In 1975, he returned to New York’s East Village, where he continued to develop his personal, declamatory brand of poetry while turning out book reviews and political columns for the Village Voice, the Washington Post, Kirkus Reviews, and other outlets.

By age 40, Lally was divorced, broke, and living with his two children in what was then a sketchy and still-ungentrified SoHo. The three of them struck out for Hollywood, where Lally jump-started a successful acting career with roles in Basic Instinct, Deadwood, and many other films and TV series. Although he divided his time between acting and scriptwriting, poetry remained central. All the poems in Cant Be Wrong (1996) were produced during his West Coast period, as were many in It’s Not Nostalgia (1999).

When Lally arrived in Los Angeles in 1982, the city wasn’t the cultural capital it is today. There were few coffeehouses or poetry reading series. Lally helped change that. He enlisted actors to read poets’ work at fundraisers and other public events. He also encouraged non-poets to write, which led to the weekly Poetry in Motion reading series at Helena’s, a chic private supper club in East LA favored by celebrities. Lally then pulled up stakes in 1999, two decades after settling in the West, and returned to his roots in New Jersey. Now 76 and living just outside New York City, he is once again a familiar figure in the downtown poetry scene from which he first emerged. 

This is the broad outline of Lally’s life, the particulars of which are inseparable from his largely autobiographical verse. His work didn’t hit its stride until the early 1980s, when he gained full command of his poetic idiom. In “Fuck Me in the Heart Acceptance!!!,” from Hollywood Magic (1982), he has learned how to modulate his diction, supported by canny rhythms and line breaks, syntax, and anaphora. The rant is brash and riotous but never spins out of control:

Fuck me in the heart
in the acceptance
in the part
I fuck you in the heart with
when I fuck you in the fantasy
of childhood acceptance
of the cosmic connection
with our deaths
that fuck us crazy in the end.

Lally finds comedy in the supposedly obscene here. “Fuck the 1950s / til theyre over and over at last,” he continues,

and the best of the 1970s
that refused to give in to the past
and the worst of the 1960s
that I refuse to believe was all bombast and gesture
I still live that dream
in my fucking for pleasure
fucking guilt in the ass of a brain without hindsight
or quality control
or speed monitor
or check-in-the-mirror devices.

In later poems, Lally’s line breaks even out, yet in this poem his diction, beat—all the elements of the poem—are in sync, working toward an overall poetic effect. One of the pleasures of Another Way to Play is that it invites readers to trace the half-century development of Lally’s style, along with the development of his persona as an unabashed romantic. His later poems—less jagged than “Fuck Me in the Heart Acceptance!!!”—are supple, suggesting a new reflective quality. At times, his directness threatens to become sentimental, as in “The Blizzard of ’16” (published for the first time in this collection):

But in previous years, before
my kids and loved ones kept
warning me not to shovel
[. . .] I loved
shoveling snow the morning after
a snow storm. I would do it in
short spurts with lots of resting
on the shovel handle digging
that unique post-snow silence—
none of the usual world’s sounds

Casual readers might mistake this for prose. Indeed, the difference between the early Lally’s mad exuberance and the recent, mellower Lally is extraordinary. The compression in his line has eased. It took him a while to get to this point, though. Even in the book-length poem Of (1999), published when he was in his 50s, Lally has yet to settle into the even, lovely lineation of his latest work:

People say things in their enthusiasm, and you
hear them in your need.

People—snow—the cold—
I forgot how the cold could heal you—
how soothing the snow can be—
I just want to live with true humility—
which somehow the snow falling teaches me—
I used to want to make you see
everything that mattered to me—
now—I just want to
let it be—

The poem is talk-like and incantatory as it loops back to previous phrasings:

People say things
from their enthusiasm
and I hear them
with my need

again & again
I miss  the ones
I let go—of
I wanted to be a man
with few regrets & no excuses
but but but but

The intimacy expressed here was beyond the ken of the young Lally, who sometimes seemed like a latter-day Shelley. “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” Shelley famously exclaims in “Ode to the West Wind.” In Dues (1975), Lally offers his own version: “my face went through the shattering glass laughing.” Like Whitman—especially the Whitman of “Starting from Paumanok,” from Leaves of Grass (1855)—Lally now writes with simplicity and tenderness and a steady undercurrent of pathos. His late work reminds me most of the Objectivist Charles Reznikoff, whom Lally also credits as an influence. Here’s Reznikoff, a quintessential poet of New York, writing in Rhythms II (1919): “we sip our coffee watching the rouged women / walk quickly to their seats, unsmiling, contemptuous.” In New York Notes (2004), Lally lovingly updates those lines:

A couple of black
Women at the next
Table respond to my
Tray with woops of
Interest as they pause
In their intake of
Carbs to admire
My salad and grilled
Chicken plate—I
Should eat like them

Ultimately, the difference between early and late Lally has less to do with artistic ability than with self-possession. Consider, for example, a pair of poems composed two decades apart. “In the Distance,” included in Stupid Rabbits (1971), cuts right to the pain via what was then the young Lally’s characteristic compression and muscularity of line:

In the distance called My Father
I rode my innocence down, rode it
down on its hands and knees like
the people whose dance created the world

What do we know about the world
or the distance we create for our personal atmosphere

What we know is the way we fall
when we fall off the little we ride
when we ride away from the things we’re given
to make us forget the things we gave up

How far is it to where my son
will break my bones and dance on them    

Lally, who was 28 when he wrote this, already exhibits a propensity to take the past on its own terms while sizing it up. “Sports Heroes, Cops and Lace,” included in Cant Be Wrong, yields a Lally who is cooler, more settled, more patient. His line is thinner too. What he says, however, is even more devastating.

Lally’s first sports hero was Jackie Robinson. A white kid in South Orange could earn only derision for professing such a thing in the 1950s. Lally recalls his “sporting man” father who, with his son, watched the Friday Night Fights on TV, nearly as a ritual, and who “played the ponies every day / and knew everybody at the track and even made a / little book on the side.” Thanks to a family friend, the kid gets to meet the heavyweight champion “Jersey” Joe Walcott and will later write that the fighter possessed an “unexpected gentleness / when it was obvious he could have easily killed / anybody there with his bare hands.” The young Lally lived among “the bookies / the petty crooks and over-the-hill / champs.” 

It was a childhood filled with guys who “seemed somehow tarnished,” some of them his father’s friends, who were “nice enough” but had a whiff of the “underworld” about them. He’d sneak into the closet to get “a feel” of his father’s camel hair coat (a touch worthy of the flights of memory in Proust or Nabokov). In Robinson, however, Lally finds his true hero:

The man had something more than the romance
of the streets and sporting life and my father’s friends
and closets of my home. The man had what
my father feared and desired most—“class”—the thing
my father’s friends would toast him for.

Robinson is a talisman for Lally: “He gave / me a way to go beyond that world and to go deeper into me— / and when I came back, what I had learned / helped me to see that even the people I had left behind knew / these things too.”

In this later poem, the difference is Lally’s persona, who doesn’t merely recount events from his past but also shares insights about them. His calm autopsy of his family and his community is a form of confessionalism all his own. More to the point, perhaps, it’s a form of candor. “I dug the romance of it,” he says of his father’s world, “because despite the idea people / usually have who have never lived that life, it is romantic.” This neighborhood wasn’t all that imparted to Lally a love of romance. Dating a Black girl in his early teens, for instance, also made him finally a lover of romance per se, separate from the violation of taboo then.

Lally came of age in the same postwar cultural milieu that gave rise to Donald Allen’s seminal anthology The New American Poetry, 1945–1960. Allen organized the writing in his collection according to cadres of poets he christened Beat, Black Mountain, New York School, San Francisco Renaissance, etc. The book still stands for the extant rift in American poetry between “mainstream” and “experimental.” Three years earlier, New Poets of England and America (1957) appeared, edited by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson. It was assigned in college classrooms. No poet’s work appeared in both collections. The New American Poetry is still discussed and considered a milestone; New Poets of England and America is mostly forgotten.

Lally’s sense of “romance,” and his poetics overall, comport with the writings in Allen’s book—like them, his poems reject traditional formalism and embrace the looser style then emerging in American culture. There was, indeed, a new kind of romance in the air. The Shellyian figure of ardor and vulnerability had been reprised by Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One or John Derek’s in Knock on Any Door, but the figure was now tinged with lawlessness. Lally didn’t share the hint of menace, but like those characters, he struggled for genuine feeling in a time of social turmoil. It was an era that saw a collective loss of innocence, its paranoia first typified by the Army-McCarthy Hearings in the early 1950s, which were televised as Lally was coming of age.

By the end of the Korean War, the Beats and other radical artists were courting controversy, intent on undermining the American master narrative prevalent in magazines and newspapers and on television. The narrative was a chauvinistic, monolithic fantasy that celebrated American progress and exceptionalism, heroism and wholesomeness. The patriotism and propaganda that were arguably necessary to triumph in World War II had calcified into a bigoted conformity that pervaded all corners of American life. To my mind, the two poems that are the turning point in American poetry are Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which expresses hurt and outrage in long, meandering lines that Lally later reprised, and Robert Creeley’s “I Know a Man,” which evokes the alienation and paranoia underlying what large corporations sold to American consumers as modern life. These poems embodied the counterculture that Allen’s New American Poetry fostered and led, however circuitously, to Lally the young rebel.

In downtown Manhattan, poets devoured the anthology. Lally’s work didn’t resemble either Ginsberg’s (the long, ranting lines notwithstanding) or Creeley’s. The persona he continued to nurture was that of someone who brooked no patience with the phony. New York City was primed for dialect—and obscenity-laced frankness. And Lally was a self-styled rebel who, in the parlance of the time, was “for real.” He celebrated “romance”—which included political, sexual, and artistic freedom—and rebuked hypocrisy. He was, in effect, a scourge.

Moreover, Lally’s tendency to talk about his life evolved into a singular form of the confessional poem. He wanted to sort himself out. He grew up in the baby boomers’ cultural moment of the personal in contrast to the regimentation of their parents’ generation. In talking about his life, he replaced the anomie and spiritual loss that Creeley and Ginsberg had called out with a focus on the quotidian that could feel metaphysical. 

Lally’s poems are fixated on the surfaces of daily life. Berrigan’s riff, “no ideas but in juxtapositions” (playing on William Carlos Williams’s dictum “no ideas but in things”), likely encouraged Lally to employ even more juxtaposition in his own work. O’Hara, Lally’s principal influence (and possibly Berrigan’s), had made juxtaposition integral to his poetics. A poem such as O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” opens with what the critic Brad Gooch calls O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” stratagem, which is also a kind of reportage:

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

Only at the end of another four stanzas does one get to the supposed point of the poem. It’s not the narrator’s seemingly aimless wandering or his chattiness—elements that recur in Lally’s poetry. O’Hara was “leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT / while she whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.” Only at the end of this poem does O’Hara even hint at being captivated by the great jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday as she performed one evening years earlier. O’Hara’s readers attend to the little things going on all around him and finally realize they’re looking in from the periphery. Lally’s readers experience much the same.

O’Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, and the other New York School poets worked their magic on Lally. He was particularly drawn to O’Hara’s ability to collapse distinctions between high and low art, to elude class distinctions in favor of whatever was happening in front of him. Lally has always gravitated more toward these older, well-established poets than toward Berrigan and the rest of the second generation, including the so-called Tulsa Three of Berrigan, Joe Brainard, and Ron Padgett or someone like Eileen Myles. Lally did, however, absorb elements of poems by his contemporaries Diane di Prima, Ray Bremser, and Bob Kaufman, namely their jazzy patter and rhythms.

The older poets gave Lally something of crucial importance: the permission and courage to defy his upbringing in a way that might shame his father. In 1975, Lally published a long, sometimes raw, self-portrait that comprises his book-length poem My Life. A sample:

I ate everything they put in front of me
read everything they put before my eyes
shook my ass, cried over movie musicals
was a sissy and a thug, a punk and an
intellectual, a cocksucker and a mother
fucker, helped create two new people,
paid taxes, voted and served four years
and a few weeks in the United States Air
Force, was court martialed and tried
civilly, in jail and in college, kicked
out of college, boy scouts, altar boys
and one of the two gangs I belonged to,
I was suspended from grammar and high
schools, arrested at eleven the year I
had my first “real sex” with a woman
and with a boy, I waited nineteen years
to try it again with a male and was sorry
I waited so long, I waited two weeks to
try it again with a woman and was sorry
I waited so long, wrote, poetry and
fiction, political essays, leaflets and
reviews, I was a “jazz musician” and a
dope dealer, taught junior high for two
weeks, high school Upward Bound for two
years, college for four years, I got up
at 5 AM to unload trucks at Procter and
Gamble to put myself through classes [etc.]

His confessional tone, if it can be called that, is closer to O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” monologue and quite unlike the tortured self-analysis of “confessional” poets such as Anne Sexton or Robert Lowell. When Lally plunders his memory, turning its details over and over, it’s not to arrive at a psychological purchase on his life.

And Lally’s romancer persona—apart from his real-life three marriages and various liaisons with both women and men—functions in the poems as linchpin. It organizes his linguistic and formalistic constructions. “That’s a lie only not a lie,” Lally writes in “No Other Love Have I,” from Just Let Me Do It (1978). This is his tease. He’s winking at his readers. “By the time you read this,” he continues,

I might die of love for you
That means something doesn’t it?
Even if I do what people might think is
“Falling in love” with all kinds of people
Who think differently or think I’m swell
Or let me touch them any way I want to
Or especially any way they have never.

Over the course of Another Way to Play, which is arranged chronologically, it becomes clear that Lally the romancer is in love with the feminine mystique (and occasionally the masculine). This is also a pose. Lally has perhaps become his pose, as in these lines from New York Notes (2004):

I love the women who enjoy
The pleasure their beauty
Gives the rest of us—
An overweight white
Woman in a pleated
Skirt passes me—
The way the skirt moves
As she walks by is
So feminine, so sensual—

Would any man feel
That way?—or only
Those my age who
Grew up in a time
Of pleated skirts and
The rhythmic allure
Of women’s clothes that
Moved when they did,
But to their own secret
Beat beyond any man’s
Capacity for counterpoint—

These are the thoughts of someone whose practiced eye has seen much about women and men after a long lifetime of love affairs and marriages (as well as children and grandchildren). This isn’t about nostalgia, though. And I mean here to echo the title of Lally’s volume It’s Not Nostalgia (1999), as well as, two decades before that, these lines from Hollywood Magic: "I love them / anyway, & they love me, / but not the way I once/ loved you. Alright. No / nostalgia, I promise, / after all it was my idea [. . .].” Yet it’s in the late long poem New York Notes that Lally, the spirit of romance, finally achieves the directness and simplicity that his self-disclosure requires.

The question of Lally’s canonicity is inevitable given a career-spanning volume such as this. Has his success as a poet been the result of being in the right place at the right time? He rode the crest of the Zeitgeist, but he also helped create it. In his poetry, he aimed to ensure that America’s avant-garde would remain independent, idiosyncratic, often playful, and committed to innovation—in short, unable to be appropriated by the mainstream.

“What I love about Michael’s writing is that he really isn’t trying to do it again,” Myles writes and then adds, “His most famous poem is his emptiest poem. He knows that. That’s its joke. His last poems in this volume are his best poems and so are his earliest ones.” The Lally of the poems is fiercely self-determining—and the real-life Lally is much the same. I suppose it’s possible to be deceived by this comparison. The “Actual Lally”—Myles’s title for the book’s introduction—“is real because he’s courting the myth.”

Lally’s late poems, in particular, strike me as resonant with our time. They reflect on the cultural, social, and political upheavals of his generation; in tandem, they leave room for present-day crises. Here, again, is the problem of canonizing. Do we applaud Lally because of America’s current Zeitgeist? Are we simply entranced by the retro hipness of a poet who hobnobbed with innovative poets and musicians and Hollywood stars? The question of whether Lally himself was the cause of the readership he created, a larger-than-life figure whose poetry enshrined his allure, is one to be settled by later critics who can take the work out of its own time. For now, I’m thankful for this huge book and the comfort it bestows.

Originally Published: January 2nd, 2019

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Burt Kimmelman has published nine collections of poetry: Abandoned Angel (Marsh Hawk Press, 2016) Gradually the World: New and Selected Poems, 1982-2013 (BlazeVOX [books]), The Way We Live (Dos Madres Press, 2011), As If Free (Talisman House, Publishers, 2009), There Are Words (Dos Madres Press, 2007), Somehow (Marsh Hawk...