It's a story we've heard a billion times, in song and film and books: The young, naive poet with a lot of heart makes their way in the big city (ideally in the '60s or '70s, though the '80s are now acceptable, too) and is beaten down before finally finding a community and experiencing a few life lessons that help him/her find his/her own voice. The difference between those hordes of Basketball Diaries rip-offs and Inferno (A Poet's Novel) is simple and dramatic: The latter is written by Eileen Myles, and that's enough on its own to rescue it from the dustbin of banality.
Whether she's writing poetry, essays, novels, or memoir, Myles is quite simply one of the best stylists in the business right now. Her voice—stammering, halting, and beginning again, shot through with the occasional image that feels so alien and so right at the same time, the way the "falling structure" of a poem is also like "a sky"—is so singular and specific to her that it comes back around and gathers the weight of the universal. She writes the voice in your head, even as she shares her very specific experiences of being a young lesbian poet who likes to drink and drug and fuck a little too much.
Inferno at times resembles a juicy tell-all memoir (it's virtually impossible for the reader to detect which, if any, parts of the book are fiction), and Myles names names throughout: As a young poet on tour, she develops an intense dislike of the cult of celebrity surrounding a very young on-her-way-up Kathy Acker, portraying her as a scene-diddling (and somewhat shrewd) opportunist. Not that Myles doesn't wrestle with her own spotlight-grabbing shock-poet tendencies; her poem titled "On the Death of Robert Lowell" begins with this line: "Oh, I don't give a shit."
The most delicious parts of Inferno are the passages of Myles's writing about writing. Taken together, they could serve as a master class for aspiring poets:
Another poem contained the line "It's fun to dance with women but nobody's aiming." I thought I was being John Ashbery–ish. The problem with imitating a poet is that you don't really know what they mean. Hopefully. But then you start to implicate their style in your confusion and next thing you know, you're parodying.
And she follows that up with a witty riposte against reviewers who maintain a chilly distance from the books that they're reviewing, and at the same time, she makes the perfect case for her own books:
Holding their heads oh no like a virus is taking over. My mind! Like it's such a big deal. Minds are always being taken over. Succumb, don't resist. Because we do get to choose what we are succumbing to. We create worlds out of what we put into our heads. I don't know about you. It's why I read.
This world-building—a universe of torrid sex and dirty drugs and explosive language—is why people read Myles, and now she's shown us the foundations of that world. It should surprise no one that those foundations are beautiful.
Eileen Myles will read with other poets and hiphop artists on Sat Oct 23, Washington Hall, 11 am, $10. She will discuss "The Death of Fiction" later that day at the Sorrento Hotel, 4:30 pm, $5.