It’s hard to think about Eileen Myles without being overwhelmed by her reputation as a badass. She lived on the Lower East Side in the 1970s, hung out in the Chelsea Hotel while working for Pulitzer Prize–winning poet James Schuyler, and has been a fixture of queer/underground/small press scenes ever since. She ran a write-in campaign for the presidency in 1992, and it wasn’t even stupid.
Recently, she’s been getting some mainstream attention. She wrote poems for Jill Soloway’s Amazon TV series Transparent, and this month Ecco (HarperCollins) reissues her novel Chelsea Girls, alongside I Must Be Living Twice: New and Selected Poems, which sports blurbs from Kim Gordon, Lena Dunham, and John Ashbery, among others.
All of that is, of course, really cool. Almost too cool. Nobody actually escapes their working-class background by running off to New York City to live the life of a poet and totally succeeds. Myles did, which makes it easy to engage with her as this super-cool bohemian figure without ever actually reading her work.
But the publication of her selected poems offers an opportunity to consider Myles’s actual contributions to the tradition of American poetry, which have been considerable.
The poems in I Must Be Living Twice are brash, conversational, and romantic. Their speaker is a real human being who seems to be thinking about stuff right in front of you, walking the avenues, talking to people, and having sex with them. The book has a good mix of love poems, political poems, and poems about how good the trees look, all of which showcase a formidable intelligence without a drop of pretension.
Lineage-wise, she’s a direct descendant of a few members of the so-called New York School, namely Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler. For good but persnickety academic reasons, it’s imprecise to think about poetry in terms of schools, but it’s impossible to talk about Myles’s significance without thinking about what she added to the conversation that those two ultra-talky poets reinvigorated in the United States in the 1960s.
Schuyler and O’Hara were very different, but they shared a chatty tone, which Myles adopted and adapted with powerful results. Take Schuyler’s charming snippiness, his attention to the natural world (flowers, trees), his tight line, and add O’Hara’s enthusiasm, romance, and attention to quotidian detail, and you got yourself a Eileen Myles stew goin’. Of course, we’re not just products of our elders. Her slightly older, more experimental contemporaries Bernadette Mayer and Alice Notley (considered second-generation New York School poets) clearly had a great influence on Myles, too.
For one, Myles brought a gay woman’s voice to an aesthetic dominated by gay men. You wouldn’t find the lines “I always put/ my pussy in the middle/ of trees/ like a waterfall/ a piece of jewelry/ that I wear/ on my chest/ like a badge/ in America/ so my lover & I/ can be safe” in an O’Hara poem—for reasons both obvious and not. The first crop of New York Schoolers did talk openly and powerfully about sex and being gay, but they rarely spoke of homosexuality in overtly political contexts. Though, in the late 1950s and ’60s, it was a political act simply to say the word “homosexual” (which O’Hara and Schuyler certainly did) without spitting afterward. Myles thinks a lot about women loving and fucking other women, and because the style she writes in is colloquial by nature, she doesn’t have to bury her queerness in imagery.
Form-wise, Myles made a calling card of the spaghetti strap line popularized by William Carlos Williams. The sentences in her poem “My Hat,” for instance, are broken up into little two-beat or three-beat chunks, amplifying music you might miss if the lines were longer: “I could/ cry &/ the landscape/ envelops/ me in/ mist. It’s/ astonishing,/ handsome/ to fly like/ a bird in/ the pink/ & brown/ sky. My/ heart shoots/ ahead.” The short lines put a lot of pressure on individual words and heighten word-level pleasures. Contemporary poets—Wave Books editor Matthew Zapruder comes to mind—owe Myles a debt for her experiments in this mode.
What really sets Myles apart is her facility with the kind of blunt argot that her Ivy League forebears could never really use in earnest. A good example of this shows up in the poem “Peanut Butter” (which is in a three-way tie with “An American Poem” and “Shhh” for the Best Poem in the Collection prize): “I am always hungry/ & wanting to have/ sex. That is a fact./ If you get right/ down to it the new/ unprocessed peanut/ butter is no damn/ good & you should/ buy it in a jar as/ always in the/ largest supermarket/ you know.”
In Schuyler, O’Hara, and Ashbery, lines like “If you get right down to it” are slightly ironic—Myles never sounds like she’s slumming when she employs working-class tonal markers. She sounds like she knows them.
In her latest work, Myles keeps the colloquial diction but loses some of the connective tissue between ideas and images, so it’s harder to follow the logic of the poems. If you’ve already mind-melded with Myles, though, the poems will make perfect sense, and so reading them feels like picking up a conversation with an old friend about where she’s at on poetry (“What there really is is a lack of emptiness/ I’m aiming for that empty feeling”), on perception versus experience (“Does it taste good/ or does it look/ like it tastes good/ you don’t know./ See.”), and on the death of rats. With that in mind, I’d suggest jumping straight into the selection from Sappho’s Boat and then reading straight through before tackling the new stuff.