Mary Shelley, Morrissey, and me

A few years ago I received an email from someone in Ireland asking if I was the same Bryan Waterman who had, in the mid-1980s, published a certain poem in one of those vanity volumes of the American Poetry Anthology. Alas, I was. As a teenager who dreamed of one day gaining fame and immortality as a published poet, I had been suckered by the “Win $10,000” contest ads in the back of comic books and as a result had spent $40 (and talked my grandmother into doing the same) for a volume of awful poetry the size of the Manhattan telephone directory. The fellow on the other end of the Internet connection wanted to know, assuming he’d found the right poet, whether I’d consent to have the poem included in a book he was working on.

I couldn’t recall the actual poem, but I felt sure I wouldn’t want to see it in print again. My teenage poetry was pretty teenagery: a healthy blend of smalltown alienation and pent up sexual energy, influenced (and unmistakably so) by T. S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, those weird little poems by Stephen Crane, and, most of all, by The Smiths.

 because the music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life ...

I politely declined the offer to usher such a literary gem back into print.

My new friend persisted, though, and his extended description of his project fascinated me. He had been working for twelve years, he told me, on a book ostensibly about parent-child relations, only it promised much more: it would, in fact, unlock most of the mysteries of human history: “the exercise” of working on this book, he wrote, “had no less than insisted upon taking me where I in some cases least suspected I would go — to Aeschylus and to Olympia and to revolutionary France, certainly, but not to the foundations and demise of the Roman Empire — to the Protestant Reformation, to the English civil war — to the rise, and fall, of the post-Waterloo British radical — and into the Creation myth — the Torah, and (most reluctantly, I might add) the New Testament.”

At the center of this project was, of all things, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. My poem, he wrote, which was “unique in the history of verse,” had helped him crack the novel, and so he had spent years trying to track me down. He needed my poem to help him argue for the One True Interpretation of the novel, exposing a secret at its center, something almost two centuries of readers had never fully grasped. (I would tell you the secret, but he asked me on my “honour” not to reveal it before his book was published.)

See, my poem was called “Reflections” and had something to do with a mirror. And “Mirrors,” he wrote, “and the tricks we play with them, are … in the most real sense, really what Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus’ is all about.” My poem’s very teenagery-ness turns out also to have been key, since Shelley’s novel too was written when she was a teenager, and its teenagery-ness is one of the reasons it explains so much about human existence. (Again, I wish I could tell you why, but you’ll just have to trust me and hope it’s published someday.) My new friend said he wanted to collaborate on a revised poem — he wanted to change only one or two words — and then to use the new version as the Rosetta Stone for interpreting Shelley’s novel, and through it reading some fundamental historical patterns. “Your little poem,” he assured me, carried world-shattering significance. “With all its precocious flaws, more or less — and this is the glory — the magnificence — of it,” my little poem “precisely mimicks not only The Monster’s copious sentiments, but also in such a manner as if The Monster had written it himself!”

i'm looking at the man in the mirror ...

I found this idea delightful for several reasons, and not simply because the poem’s republication would evidently elevate me to celebrity, sainthood, and beyond, as millions fell at my feet and thanked me for my adolescent verse. Although I hadn’t read Frankenstein as a teenager, I did read it — teach it, even — as a grad student, and had, in fact, come to count it among my four or five all-time favorite novels. Even better, I was then in the midst of writing a book about a group of writers in New York in the 1790s, including the relatively unknown early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown. Brown and his friends had been avid readers of Mary Shelley’s parents, the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the anarchist philosopher/novelist William Godwin. Influenced by these and other radical British writers, Brown wrote several semi-philosophical gothic novels at the turn of the nineteenth century, and it turns out that a decade or so later, back across the Atlantic, little Mary Godwin and her new boyfriend Percy Shelley were fans of Brown’s fiction. And now I was to be caught up in this very same circuit of transatlantic literary influence!

Before we do it on your mother's grave, would you please just read me one more poem?

I had initially turned down the offer to reprint my poem, but now I had serious cause to reconsider, in spite of my professional conviction that there’s no such thing as One True Interpretation of a text. Could Shelley’s novel be “about” what this guy said it was? Sure. His reading of the novel seemed reasonable enough. It was rooted in a close reading of the text and was informed by a serious engagement with the biographical and historical conditions within which the novel emerged. But could it open up recurring historical patterns on a grand scale? Though I use novels all the time to open up specific historical moments — it’s my primary activity as a literary critic and historian — I’m less certain about the possibility that any single element of a given text can be used the way this author was hoping to. Even if he made a persuasive case for his reading, it remains just that: a reading. And no single reading, no matter how compelling, can hope to arrive at One True Interpretation, much less explain all of human history.

Why reconsider, then? Because I found something moving in the quest this person had undertaken. Twelve years coming to terms with a single novel? Amazing. I was moved, too, by his confidence that reading a novel could pack such global significance. It reminded me of Mary Shelley’s own confidence in the power of reading: after all, her Creature learns to be human in part by reading a satchel of books he finds in the woods one day. From Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther he learns to identify feelings like love and loneliness; from Plutarch’s Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans he learns to idealize civic virtue and fame; from Milton’s Paradise Lost he learns to discern “the bitter gall of envy” he feels, unable to commune with his creator and those he loves but forced nonetheless to observe their apparent bliss. These texts set the stage for his encounter with his creator’s diary, which he finds in the pocket of the clothes he took from the laboratory. Learning of his unpleasant origin he exclaims:

Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.

If reading makes the Creature human, it also condemns him to an existence as a Rortyan liberal ironist! Or maybe just a perpetual teenager. Either way, I can relate.

To be fair to my Irish correspondent, the teenagery-ness of the Creature’s lines here does seem to resonate with the sentiments packed in my own angsty poem. My smalltown woes were, apparently, just a late expression of the same structures of feeling that spawned Romanticism. Instead of Milton I had Morrissey. What did we all have in common? A propensity to turn our myopic misery into texts, and for all I knew this guy had spent the last twelve years doing the same thing. If my little poem had provided the key piece to his personal puzzle, why stop him from celebrating?

For years I’ve kept that email as the first message in my inbox without really knowing why. The other day I decided to email its author and see how the project was coming. No luck. The address has expired. Maybe I’ll never hear from him again. Maybe someday he’ll Google search Mary Shelley and me and this post will pop up. Until then I’ll leave his message in my inbox as a sort of permanent installation, an echo of the adolescent emotions that drove me to discover a world bigger than the one I was born into.

14 responses to “Mary Shelley, Morrissey, and me”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    What? We don’t get to see the poem? If the key to all mythologies is in there, don’t you think you owe it to the world to let us get a crack at it?

    But seriously, very nice post. Sometimes I wonder if all we do as we move through this world is pick up obsessions, get taken over by them, then drop them as we figure out their emptiness, only to move on to othesr that we falsely believe will fulfill us. Or perhaps the objects of our obsessions (books, music, etc.) inhabit us and move from creature to creature like viruses. Thus, maybe “Frankenstein” inhabited, used and then discarded your Irish correspondent as it eternally seeks its ideal reader. It may sound gloomier than I mean it to be. Through our mutual obsessions we are afforded connections to other obsessives, along with the past and the future.

  2. nikki. says:

    post-the-poem! post-the-poem!

  3. Barry says:

    Great post, Bryan! I wonder if my teenage poetry notebook still exists. Horrors.

  4. Lisa Parrish says:

    Did anyone else notice the facial similarities between Morrisey and Frankenstein? My god, look at that brow!

  5. Stella says:

    My mother used to snoop around my bedside table and occasionally came across my teenage poetry. She was understandably alarmed at “Anger and Rage in the Year 2000,” written not long before my parents’ divorce in 1981. She showed it to friends, consulting them on my psychological state. (2000 of course seemed far in the future, but in the end slipped by so fast and apathetically.)

    One night, I pretended to be asleep to avoid any interaction when she came in and picked up my latest notes. She read that I felt so lonely, so lonely, so lonely, and called in my Dad to discuss the situation in worried tones. I had in fact been transcribing the words to The Police’s classic “So Lonely,” but it was too late to admit I’d been faking sleep to intervene.

    All of this is to say: PUBLISH THE POEM, PLEASE. I’m not reading enough teen poetry these days.

  6. PB says:

    I was reading the 5th Harry Potter book when I discovered the secret to my universe–I was eternally stuck as a 15 year old boy! It was the answer to so many psychic riddles in my personallity. Age and gender be damned–it was all there, the whining, the angst, the misguided bravery. That is what I love most about literature–safe and lucid reflections of what we most fear and hide away.

    Amazing post as usual. And truly–your fan base implores you: show us the poem.

  7. James says:

    You’re definitely skilled at sussing out spheres of transatlantic – and transtemporal – literary and cultural influences, Bryan.

    Your correspondent discerned attributes of FRANKENSTEIN that, to him, were illuminated by a poem influenced by Morrissey and The Smiths. I got a similar vibe from your own essay about HARRY POTTER and Elihu Smith – and while perhaps on a less profound level than your Irish correspondent experienced, it seems your reading of Rowling opened up a few new avenues into your research of Smith.

    (And by the by: your grandmother wasn’t the only one who coughed up the forty bucks. I remember being very impressed with your accomplishment, then reading the poems in the book and thinking “Bryan’s poem must have really impressed them when it came in – because a lot of the others are really lousy.”

  8. Hi, all. RE: sharing the poem. Believe me, it’s better left unread by the world at large. It would surely be a letdown. Even for my teen writing it’s pretty bad. (Somehow I think I peaked as a poet around age 20 or 21, then gave it up altogether, as I imagine many people do. It’s fun for me to be around really devoted — even world-class — poets in my department, to think about what keeps some people going at it their whole lives.) Also, I don’t actually have a copy of it. I might be able to get my mom to dig it up in their home library, but I’d really rather not. [he shudders.]

    Barry — I thought I had all my old poetry notebooks safely in my possession when, several years ago, I was visiting my parents and discovered that my brother (and TGW contributor) Nathan, who was then in high school, had turned up one of them — one that had particularly racy poems about a current crush! He and his friends had actually set some of them to music. Maybe if enough of us have those old notebooks around we could get a good ironic coffeetable book out of it. Stella, are you in?

    Lisa: Yes, I picked that Morrissey photo for the monstrous brow. Uncanny.

    PB: I love your gender-bending moment, but of all the HP books, 5 is the one that did it to you? I can’t imagine you being so whiny. I had a hard time getting through that one. The HP essay James referred to is here. I guess I do have a thing for transatlantic stories — I’m starting another one in earnest this summer in LA. Thanks for kind words, James — and are you suggesting I actually coerced friends into buying that pablum? — but no, that poetry was really, really awful.

  9. James says:

    Coerced? Not at all! After being accepted into the compilation (cue sparklers), you’d already started to realize what the deal really was (cue cold water), and you became reluctant to show off. I bought it on my own – I was just slower on the uptake, and didn’t realize it wasn’t really a competition…

    For years after, I’d have friends who were aspiring writers show up, announce they’d just won a poetry competition (eyes aglow), and would I like to get one of the books? They’re only forty dollars… The problem was you knew, even back then, the distinction between good writing and bad. A LOT of people who submit to those books don’t.

  10. Stephanie Wells says:

    Re. the Morrissey-Frankenstein connection: his highness seems to be aware of his lineage on some level, as evidenced by his autobiographical wail about his ill-starred birth: “November spawned a monster in the shape of this child.”

  11. Dave says:

    An ironic high-school poetry anthology — that’s pure gold! I’m sure I could dig something up that’s so bad that I can now plausibly distance myself from it.

  12. maybe that should be our first “the great whatsit presents” print volume …

  13. ssw says:

    I can’t fully distance myself enough to be ironic about my high school poetry collection (mostly freshman year of college actually) because even though it is plausible to go back, and label my first efforts as “really bad” why would I do that to myself? Most of it was really just about self-exploration, including lots and lots of poems about love. Heh..heh what’s changed?

    Ultimately poets must at some core level be people who aren’t afraid to keep using their voice to name things that they feel. Is that too limiting a description? It has certainly always been why I wanted to write a poem–it was to get out (to try to give words for) something that I felt.

  14. […] Indeed, by the time Brown wrote his novel, Mary Wollstonecraft had become a pariah on both sides of the Atlantic. After she gave birth to her second daugher (Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who would grow up to become Mary Shelley), Wollstonecraft died of childbed fever. She was 38. […]