Which may get a bad rap. My son tells me something I never knew before. It’s a musical term. It means opera, first of all: a story set to music, a drama carried by melo, song. Mom, don’t get your knickers in a twist over this again, he implies as I hold the landline receiver close to my ear.
Long distance, we used to say about such phone calls. I imagine him singing the get over it I hear in his tone, maybe his regular voice or as joke-falsetto where inflation has a rightful place, our once mock-doing La bohème in the kitchen, staging the simplest request in D-minor:
Oh please please! Take out the compost!Okay okay! I see it overfloweth!
But — seriously? It’s just that melodrama has always worried me. What about the standard bad stuff always about to happen in opera, I argue, the raised hands as exclamation points, the collective choral shriek of onlookers, the hit-the-lights plunge into dark after the shiny knife goes down? Be fair, my son says. Then it could be we’re both thinking of those subtle duets, gradual and intricate, how they tear your heart, ending abruptly before you expect: La bohème’s Mimì wrapped in Rodolfo’s arms, The Consul’s Magda mournfully interrupting her husband John, or the tomb-with-a-view finale — as my brother calls it — between Aida and Radamès, all the lush, various stops and starts from Puccini, Menotti, Verdi. And big, this tangle, always so earnest, such grand charged dignity to whatever ordinary or outrageous shard of word or deed, a grave eternal eye on whatever mess we made — or will make. In the body, the very sound exhausts and thrills.
Familiar pathways the nerve finds through muscle, the electrical charge of realizing anything crucial: are we so predictable a creature, that we all cave the same way? How a sonnet has some opening jab, heartbeat unto argument, then turn, a new way to see, a winnowing and an arrival echoed ever since in free verse. Is our brain so used to this that it’s become theater? Or consider Freytag’s triangle — the guy, not surprisingly, a nineteenth-century drama critic — and how it freezes narrative into formula, his pyramid drawn on the board by English teachers a hundred million times, a dream for our next step and the next nicked from Aristotle: the rising until get it, get the point? falling slow or fast then at an angle. That’s another get over it, meaning something actually to get over and get on with, I suppose, an honest-to-god human fate that takes an hour, a day, years. Who cares if you know what will happen, the waterfall of sorrow’s same old, same old — boredom’s deliberate silence pushing off into another way to notice.
Or to remember. For instance, from Dickinson’s slush pile, her torn notebook page photographed for a valuable book of such drafts, Open Folios. After Dickinson’s few words about a tree in winter, she writes this:
I never heardyou call anythingbeautiful before –It remainedwith me
Not the tree but the telling keeps ringing in the ear: “remained / with me.” A musical idea, say the musicians, is a thing that recurs. Thus, is memorable. Just this: It makes a shape.
Perhaps what we do, our movement through time, is musical — it repeats, repeats — therefore is melo, is drama. One hears it linked, like singing links, one note, slight breath before another, voice next to voice in whisper or resistance. No filter though. Sound enters the body any which way, the ear an indifferent machine, little incus and malleus and stapes in there, merging, making sense of whatever onslaught. Its hunger is huge. High contrast, cause and effect, loud, soft, the edges sharp. Something happens. It sings to us, or we sing it to the world that goes on, open to us or not. What was it that Elizabeth Bishop said in a conversation once recalled by Wesley Wehr in the Antioch Review? That we always reveal “the truth about ourselves despite ourselves. It’s just that quite often we don’t like how it comes out.” A given then: melodrama lurks behind any story, pattern, poem. It’s like a virus that way, always in the air. And some of us succumb.
To succumb. That includes a lot but what about my rage at the feel-good end of some hokey movie? — so melodramatic! we say, the punch of it, a few tears coming anyway, though such manipulation toward that moment so clear. Are we so predictably hot-wired? Really? Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, I keep hearing from childhood, from the old Latin Mass: through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault . . . Tears! How is it the body knows — in spite of good sense and taste, in plain dogged embarrassment — releasing them regardless? Take that, oh fine cool aesthetic, sophisticated mind with its perfect engineering.
To be moved, moved. I love that word, how it happens to you, a surprise, a kind of miraculous undoing about which Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his journal:
there is always one touch, something striking sideways and unlooked for ... and this may be so delicate that the pathos seems to have gone directly to the body and cleared the understanding in its passage.
Delicate isn’t exactly how to get at melodrama’s not-so-sleight-of-hand. But a little wallowing in the theater’s large dark can’t be that bad, can it?
Meanwhile, this delicate meanwhile: Bishop’s greatest hit, “One Art,” a model of reserve and passion and wit, plus terrible — however brief — altogether human realization. Her poem’s a courtly, careful mash-up, the unsaid speaking as clearly as what actually makes it to the page. Irony, after all, orbits the wink-wink-nod-nod of the unspoken, a secret life that’s semiobvious, delicious to share. “One Art” is an immediate insider pleasure via Bishop’s colloquial ease, however measured its villanelle givens of obsessive repetition. Her well-known refrain — “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” — comes right off the bat, first line and already tongue-in-cheek, a staged shrug about beloved things in peril, disappearing, though she starts comic and small-scale — keys, an “hour badly spent” — as in any practice to learn a great art, fast morphing into a more weighted personal mode, “my mother’s watch” vanished, and loved houses — three! Then she’s going larger, unto global:
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
But all “hard to master,” such losses, still partly whimsical by way of simple geography, wild leaps, and a bird’s migratory, exacting eye until the final move inward that really does switch, click, get down, get close, never to be saved by offhand humor or anything else. “Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied.”
Her characteristic steel won’t belabor this vulnerable moment, won’t and can’t — “It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master,” Bishop re-insists after her revealing slip. But we get a stained new thought, “though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster,” she says, in fact writing that, ending the poem in a quickened second twist of that screwdriver parenthetical. Thus her “Write it” — old Anglo-Saxon’s mono-stress emphatic — goes on, secret and regardless and of course as lifeline, way beyond the poem. And then there’s that wrenching do-it-anyway hit of italics. Here it’s grief in this momentary dive under the surface where loss looks like, probably is, “like disaster,” a greater dark that even the soothing rhyme against the predictable “master” can’t fix, though getting back to work must be a kind of solace. It’s a villanelle, for god’s sake; you have to forge on — write it! — repeat, to end only this way. That does cut short the release of tears, a sudden almost bit of melodrama in its wake. And that wake could be as haunting as the one-thousand-foot spread of watery lurch and undertow any ocean liner worth its tonnage leaves behind.
What we think of as the first draft of Bishop’s poem, then titled “How to Lose Things” or “The Gift of Losing Things” or “The Art of Losing Things” — from Vassar’s archives — might be such a wake; that early version does seep back. On her old manual machine, she typed a very sprawling attempt, notes really, including this initial stab at closure:
A piece of one continent -and one entire continent. All gone, gone forever and ever..One might think this would have prepared mefor losing one average-sized not especially -------- exceptionallybeautiful or dazzlingly intelligent person(except for blue eyes) (only the eyes were exceptionally beautiful andBut it doesn’t seem to have, at all . . . the hands looked intelligent)the fine handsa good piece of one continentand another continent - the whole damned thing!He who loseth his life, etc. - but he wholoses his love - never, no never never never again -
Hear that? Think Verdi, think Puccini, think King Lear for that matter: never, no never never never again . . . The orchestra rising, hands to a collar, a flood of sound from a throat.
Pure melodrama! Though reason’s logical build is here (those eyes, the intelligent hands), and a reasonable tone (“one might think”), it’s because of melodrama that we have Bishop’s lasting, heartbreaking poem — plus her numerous drafts that wrestled such sorrow down to mere mention. Still, which is greater, more necessary in this struggle — her witty reserve pressing hard or that great ache that must have started everything? No answer yet. Sincerity and irony still restlessly at it and at it . . .
Three thoughts now —
1. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, around 1973, right before a reading there. The poet Paul Carroll is in the audience, most generous editor of The Young American Poets, an anthology that meant much to those of us young, but old enough, when it appeared in 1968, where I discovered Louise Glück — not to mention Charles Simic and James Tate and Ron Padgett, not far from their baby fat. The pre-reading chat and buzz narrowed to Roy Lichtenstein, whose massive paintings patched the wall. Everyone around us with something to say.
I recall his campy cartoons, one big weepy female face, her talk balloon blown up to read It doesn’t matter what I say! while a male face in another painting, equally oversized, speaks into his bubble: Forget it! Forget me! I’m fed up with your kind!, looking off as a girl sulks in the background. At these cliches and earnest exaggerations rose up a lively, happy scorn in the room, many living out a similar melodrama in their own young lives of break up and come back, only to break up again — at twenty-two, I was among them — who pointed and mocked, made fun of . . .
And Paul Carroll — so much older than we were, a large man, impeccable against our fashion-of-the-day ragged jeans, his derby and pin-striped suit, his great charm and goodwill and sadness — went silent for a while before saying: but that’s the way people really talk, isn’t it?
2. Impossibly beautiful — with all the necessary shadow that claim implies — is Theodore Roethke’s poem “The Far Field,” off what might be my favorite jump-start first line (and shouldn’t this really be on his tombstone?): “I dream of journeys repeatedly.” But to tamp that down, there’s the “driving alone, without luggage,” to the end of “a long peninsula” only to stall, “Churning in a snowdrift / Until the headlights darken.” That’s it for section one of four, all lush renderings of the natural world. Next — “At the field’s end . . . Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of the field-mouse” where “Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes, broken machinery, — / One learned of the eternal.” Eternal. Thus high abstraction enters (“the thinky-thinky” Roethke called it) to enrich or weigh down, but first this gorgeous unapologetic countdown of spring delights:
For to come upon warblers in early MayWas to forget time and death:How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless cloud, all one morning,And I watched and watched till my eyes blurred from the bird shapes, —Cape May, Blackburnian, Cerulean, —Moving, elusive as fish, fearless,Hanging, bunched like young fruit, bending the end branches,Still for a moment,Then pitching away in half-flight,Lighter than finches.
Or later, lines that put us in our rightful place on the planet, the speaker in a “slow river, / Fingering a shell, / Thinking: / Once I was something like this, mindless.” On and on this stunning meditation goes, idea to hard detail and back again, to arrive midway at this: perhaps the worst worst worst, most squishy melodramatic phrase in the history of good poetry: “the windy cliffs of forever,” Roethke wrote. Huh? That’s what my thought balloon says in the margin, were I to write one. Granted, he’s already jacked up the mood music in the previous line — “I learned not to fear infinity.” But it continues to shock me that Roethke kept on going into poetry la-la land with this bit of purple prose. The windy cliffs of forever! What does that even mean?
My beloved old cousin Elinor had her Achilles’ heel, known to her worried daughters as her “wheee! factor,” which meant she’d spend her savings, spend down to nothing left, if given half a chance. Who knows how that crazy let loose in her. That impulse to pitch it all — caution included — made everything else we miss and cherish about her possible: her wit and warmth and zero self-absorption, her intolerance of intolerance, her embrace of the world and its weirdness.
In more merciful, if not saner moments, I can think: So what? Roethke gave way now and then. But it’s brave and it’s great. And probably crucial to every fine thing he wrote that he dared that edge.
3. A couple of words come back, dragging their ghost: Sylvia Plath. A single numbing stress begins then ends that run of four syllables, and with that name, the terrible last work looms up, late 1962 into the bitter winter of ’63 before her death in London that February, her scathing, meticulous attention to the present moment, day after day, that made so many poems in Ariel. “Daddy” is among them, its wrath a trademark by now, drowning out the quieter, more compelling parts of her genius. The poem’s commonly read as near melodrama, an operatic outburst, an invective against father and husband. Biography has done it in good.
No doubt for good reason. There’s a breadcrumb trail of image from life, Plath’s difficult father and his German heritage, his position as professor of entomology squaring with the poem’s figure “at the blackboard,” his death when she was eight an experience identical to the speaker’s. The drafts for the poem, now in the Mortimer Rare Book Room of the Smith College libraries, show fury imprinted and measured out from the first through the last stanza and its memorable ending utterance — “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” — was a fiery addenda handwritten into the typed second version, albeit not much different in tone from her famous opening, in place from the start:
You do not do, you do not doAny more, black shoeIn which I have lived like a footFor thirty years, poor and white,Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
The melo in her drama is heated exclamatory on obsessive repeat, possibly made more deliberate — and slightly whimsical, that “Achoo” there, capitalized à la A.A. Milne, no less — by the storybook rhymes she must have been reading to her small children.
Her drafts for the piece aren’t a flip-book; she didn’t start slowly and change a lot. Pretty much the poem roars, teeth bared from the get-go. Still it’s staggering what can happen in the making, the writer remade too, scaring herself until fact itself fades, to get all jacked up via metaphor and analogy to become somehow truer. How else to account for the poem’s last hammer blow, her final stanza’s over-the-top, weirdly animated, medieval folktale-grim lines that proceed her ringing “Daddy . . . I’m through” by way of those murderous near- Lilliputian “villagers” who “never liked you. / . . . dancing and stamping on you. / They always knew it was you.” That vengeful you you you, the triggering heart of all this to pierce pierce pierce . . . By the end of her working through the drafts, who was writing that?
Plath, to a bbc interviewer, later carefully removes herself. “The poem is,” she tells him, “spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died when she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi.” Come again?
Backstory then, poem as case study, a persona piece. Sure, like anyone believes that, says whatever Plath fan/fanatic you choose, passionate young women mostly who have just discovered her, a few of them my undergraduate students who stand with me in the hallway after class, and fight for her right to be a woman wounded and fierce, unaware it was the grounded, dogged artist in her — not the suicide — who made this brilliant work. Remote control is still control.
On the radio, Plath is almost dismissive in her acquired British accent, calling “Daddy” an “awful little allegory” spoken by that Nazi’s daughter locked in her own terrible twentieth-century moment, a layer that adds weight and historical edge to the piece to change it and alter our received idea of the poet herself. Had Plath lived, is this mainly — or at least first — how we would see her poem?
All these claims and reads after the fact. What is the link between art and life? No one knows, even the writer sometimes, what happens in the night-blind whirlpool of the making.
Then there’s this: girls in my grade school collected holy cards, those fake-gilt-edged, frozen, sentimental pictures of saints, the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary, given out at funerals and by our teachers at Christmas, Easter, the end of school, hoarded up to vie with our brothers’ baseball stashes, their cards coming in packs with a hard pink slab of bubble gum in the middle. I had — still have — favorites in my cache, including a John F. Kennedy printed hurriedly after the assassination and inexplicably sealed in plastic. But in my whole childhood not one St. Sebastian turned up, every inch of him — minus the skivvied bits — pincushioned brightly by arrows, the ultimate martyrdom, Rome, ad 288. Was it his near nudity that put the nuns off? Or it may well be the holy card extruders simply played it safe, going for the more sickly-sweet options for the kids and old ladies who would fondly save their handiwork.
As a devout lapsed Catholic for decades, I might be allowed this one arched-eyebrow thought: is it not partly the sick genius of the Church that he is also the patron saint of archers? (How comic is that? No waste. Use the whole chicken, I call it.) He’s the guardian of soldiers, too, once in the Roman army himself. Most astonishing and least known: he is the patron saint of surviving the plague.
The fact is — breaking news! — Sebastian did outlast those arrows. Proof: at least one painting of St. Irene lovingly tending his many wounds as he slumps against her, though another artist followed the competing legend and put an angel in full wingspan to that task. In any case, he healed; he lived to tell the tale. Which is why my husband and I can play Where’s Waldo? to find him over and over, museums in Europe — or America, for that matter — room after gallery room of Sebastians in various melodramatic, tormented gyrations, even ridiculously out of place at times, in the lower corner of some large, cozy Nativity, say, Mary and Joseph and a lit baby Jesus basking in cow breath and sheep warmth. There he is, to the right and down, oblivious, practically naked and tangled in rope, feathered arrows starry-haywire, the saint in agony or indifference, depending, but surely foreseeing his recovery, already plotting his return to Rome to mouth off to the Emperor and get his dream of being beaten to death, properly martyred at last.
But to survive that first assault! A miracle of the first order.
Think of it this way: It’s 1349. If Sebastian made it, then certainly his presence in whatever painting you commission will shield self and family from the Black Death sweeping the known world, some seventy-five to two-hundred million dead before it’s over. That’s the deal. That was the deal — and with it, the St. Sebastian survivor industry duly cranked up for melodrama, artists both good and only so-so at the ready.
Which is to say, not only does image last, it humbles and overwhelms. But it’s desperately practical too. Sebastian then, as metaphor and model, a signal, a white flag, bloodied saint-as-tattoo on some bicep to flash in a fight. Sebastian, a stay against danger, a safety valve, a vaccine, luck’s rabbit-foot, puppeteer of salvation. You rack up your chips for dear life and shove them all to the center of the table, Sebastian with his zillion arrows a hope against hope, a lamb nailed to the door to trick an angel, the stand-alone and cut to the quick but healing in secret regardless, the so there, the in your face, the held high note in an aria, or the moment in the poem before — beware! — it really gets dark. Sebastian twisting there in his corner, or skinny-hogging the whole canvas, shape to allegory, larger than life in painting after painting until he’s a musical idea, a repeat, repeat to make melo this drama, the worst of it to best all bad things. A charm. And please, a future. Poetry knows we are as close as a feather to disaster.
Is it hope then, since she intuited so much? Plath, for her bbc interview, making herself distant, even haughty, certain that in “Daddy” her scarred, giant, triumphant name-calling speaker “has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it.” She — nice try.
Melodrama: to exaggerate is to get bigger. And so continue, to last a little longer like those birds whose wings carry markings to fake a huge eye. It will scare away snakes, or attract a mate.
Poet and essayist Marianne Boruch grew up in Chicago. She is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including, most recently, The Anti-Grief (2019), Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing (2016); Cadaver, Speak (2014); The Book of Hours (2011), which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Grace, Fallen from (2008);...