18. Joseph Moncure March – The Wild Party (1928)
“Of course it’s poetry. It rhymes!”
So said Burroughs of Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 doggerel epic The Wild Party.
It was the book he credited with making him a writer. He read it in 1938. The decade that followed would bring him into contact with the Beats, the publication of his first stories, and his first two novels: And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks (unpublished), and Junky.
When Art Spiegelman mentioned the book to Burroughs in the 1980s, WSB reportedly quoted it verbatim, dozens and dozens of lines of it, despite not having seen a copy for over thirty years.
So what is it about this book that made Burroughs write?
Three things: 1) its open depiction of wild parties, overindulgence, homosexuality, casual sex and violence, 2) its 1920s jazz age setting, and 3) the fact it’s quite badly written.
We’ll cover these things in order.
Firstly, March’s depiction of a jazz age party is no victim to self-censorship. It’s as candid as can be, written in a straight talking, jazz age lingo that is curiously contemporary in its directness.
Lines from it were even redacted in 1968, when an “official” version was finally released. The following line, from the 1920s version, for instance, is excised:
His breath thickened,
She covered his mouth with kiss like a flame;
And he quivered; and he gasped;
And he almost came.
It was only put back in for the 1994 version, illustrated by Art Spiegelman. It’s a testament to the freedom of the twenties, that a poem like this which was fine in ’28 would take another 66 years to be acceptable again.
Although, one suspects it might have come out sooner if it had a little more artistic merit….
The story follows a flapper, Queenie, whose “age stood still / and she danced twice a day in vaudeville”. She hangs around her flat naked, fighting with her man, Burrs, a famous clown; sometimes with knives.
Having “not got tight for a week”, they decide to throw a wild party.
All their vaudeville gang arrive: Madeline True (a vampiric lesbian), Jackie (an “ambidextrous” heartthrob), Eddie (a “gorilla-like” boxing champ), the Brothers d’Armano (boyish singers hinting of incest: “rouged / sleek of hair / they must have worn / pink underwear”), and Queenie’s rival Kate.
Kate brings a new man, Black. As Kate flirts with Burrs, Queenie decides she’ll steal Black.
The rest of the poem follows Queenie’s seduction of Black and Burrs’ jealousy, interspersed with increasingly drunken scenes from the party.
It ends with a naked Queenie embracing Black, who holds a smoking gun while Burrs lies dead on the ground. Black stumbled, bumps his knee:
Jes’s Christ! –
I’ve hurt my shin:-
The door swung open
And the cops rushed in.
The shin-bump is something of a non-sequitur, and I suspect March added it merely to get us to that final, admittedly highly impactful line.
There are no drugs in The Wild Party, but the rest of the Beat world is there. Its action could just as easily be a from a Kerouac novel as a 1920s book-length poem.
The fact that it came out in the 1920s is the second reason I believe it important.
As we’ve already seen, the 1920s are an idealised time for Burroughs. He was a child then, so the movie stars and gangsters of the era loomed large to him. He is drawn to 1920s books and regularly sets scenes in “1920 streets”.
The 1920s act as a bridge between the two normally opposed worlds that Burroughs sought to inhabit: the upper crust and the underworld. In The Wild Party we get both. Tuxedos, champagne, jazz bands and Rolls Royces exist side-by-side with gangsters, bruisers, hookers, queers, drinking, fighting and fornication.
Burroughs’ attraction to “light verse” – the polite form of humorous poetry practiced by Dorothy Parker – is arguably mimicked in March’s better lines:
Propped in a corner two men stood giving
Each other a lecture on the high cost of living.
Each insisted the other was right.
They stood there mumbling,
Neither one knew what the other was saying.
This is perhaps the only stanza in the poem that works in any conventional poetic way, and it clearly reveals the influence of the light verse format.
March was, after all, an editor for Vogue in its early years. He would have been more than familiar with this witty, affable format, even if his own style was more blunt.
This jauntiness – the kind one finds in 1920s hits like “Puttin’ on the Ritz” – is a nudging, winking ancestor of Burroughs’ beloved Jane Austen. In March it simply expands its range.
Which brings us to our final point: the lack of polish.
The problem with polite forms, after all, is their tendency to be read by the most snobbish and nitpicking of people and, as a result, they allow for not a single weakness in their verse or prose. As pleasurable as a Parker or an Austen, or perhaps a Fitzgerald, are to read; to write after reading them is unbearable.
March, by contrast, positively invites you to write in response. His many clangers, duff lines, obtuse over-syllabic lines, all function the same way that the three-power-chord structure does in punk songs. It blunders its way along, showing you that anybody, absolutely anybody can do it.
Of course, this terribleness might not readily have been recognised by Burroughs. I’m currently reading my way through his final notebooks and he has some poems in there that make March look like Keats.
One might also defend March on the grounds that this is performance poets; meant to be read aloud, perhaps at your own wild parties, and not pulled apart and dissected on the page.
But what to make of action scenes like this:
The bottle glittered,
On Eddie’s head:
Or this piece of scene-setting:
The studio flickered with uneasy light.
Two sunken candles made a fight
Against grim, overwhelming night.
Perhaps with some generous jazz music behind it, the poem itself is salvageable. And yet, I can’t help feel that this is one of those poems that’s much better as a bad poem.
In some ways it’s easier to be good than bad. A good writer simply has to make their writing comply with the rules established by their peers. A bad writer tries new things, plunges into dark, unknown waters, lacks all sophistication, and yet must stand before his judges just the same, knowing he’s not produced the thing that they would like.
Burroughs would never let a lack of sophistication get in the way of his enjoyment. In the joyously unsophisticated Wild Party we have, I believe, a point of genesis, a divine spark that lit the fires of Burroughs’ own tasteless creation.