Join the Party: A Review of Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party


During graduate school, I completed a seminar in twentieth-century poetry in which the professor used the stock market as an extended metaphor for the rise and fall in popularity of the poets we discussed.  For example, for him T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound represented solid blue-chip stocks whose names would appear forever on syllabi throughout academia, much like Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, or Allen Ginsburg from the generation that followed.  Other poets, alas, would rise and fall depending on how scholars interpreted their validity with regard to the current zeitgeist, or how willing publishers were to issue new editions of their works.  My professor adopted this market-based image from an article by John Chapman Ward about Vachel Lindsay, once a “giant of the New Poetry,” and now somewhat akin to Enron in terms of visibility on the Dow Jones of poets.  Ward notes: “The stock market rises and falls, but poets who are forgotten rarely rise again; even in the rare book catalogs and used book stalls, Lindsay is not seen much these days.”

John Moncure March is another poet my professor might deem as forgotten and unworthy of reinvigoration.  His The Wild Party has experienced a curious history, however.  In 1928 — two years after he finished writing this narrative rife with gritty sexuality, blowsy characters, and jazz-age debauchery —  the work was released in a limited run.  But unlike Lindsay who eventually fell with no resurrection in sight, March rose in the market periodically.   In 1975, Merchant Ivory Productions composed a film of the same name loosely based on March’s text, earning the poem a brief resurgence of notoriety.   Decades later, Art Spiegelman of Maus fame discovered a copy in a used bookstore and in 1994 set forth unto the world his illustrated edition of this “lost classic.”  In Spiegelman, March had earned a latter-day champion, and his efforts once again are enjoying visibility, this time perhaps for a extended period thank to how Spiegelman’s artwork not only enhances the story, but places the book into a different genre than jazz-age poetry alone.  I will say more on this later.

Critics have hoped to keep Spiegelman’s revival of March brief.   For example in Artforum, Griel Marcus deemed The Wild Party as “junk,” and labeled Spiegelman’s illustrations as merely “a fan’s tribute.”  Others, however, such as Margo Jefferson of The New York Times, were more graciously open-minded.   In her review, Jefferson states:  “The Wild Party works because its author, Joseph Moncure March, believed in every one of its excesses and brought real skill to versifying them.”  This idea of belief and skill going hand in hand is crucial to instructing readers in how to approach this poem.  In his introduction to the first edition of the book, Louis Untermeyer declared, “I haven’t the faintest idea whether it is good or bad poetry.  In fact, I’m not sure it is poetry at all.”  Nonetheless, he moves on to express admiration:

All I am certain of is that this is only of the most rapidly moving, vividly projected, highly exciting manuscripts I have read in years.  It is frankly vulgar, but rightly so; for the people and the scene it depicts are the very essence of vulgarity.  It is brutal, cynical, ugly, sensational – but so is the milieu with which it deals.  And first and last, it lives.  This Joseph Moncure March (And who in Goddes name is he?) knows his broads and his Broadway.

Untermeyer gets it.  Perhaps March has not written in the manner of Frost waxing philosophically in the woods or in the style of Eliot rhapsodizing on the decay of contemporary civilization, but why should he?   Instead he remains true to his subject and his themes, to what he believes, selecting a poetic form that Griel Marcus sneeringly derides as “doggerel,” because in this context such a base, rapid rhythm rightly accentuates the mood.  In the end,  then, he produces living art.

As for subject matter even Eliot, the High Priest of Modernism and devoutly Anglican, delved into the tawdry when it suited him.  Among his collected oeuvre are poems and one dramatic piece featuring Apeneck Sweeney, a character likely to fit in well with Queenie, Burrs, Mr. Black, and the other reprobates attending the party March describes.  He set one poem, Sweeney Among the Nightingales, in a restaurant or brothel somewhere in South America:

Gloomy Orion and the Dog

Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;

The person in the Spanish cape

Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

Slips and pulls the table cloth

Overturns a coffee-cup,

Reorganized upon the floor

She yawns and draws a stocking up;

The silent man in mocha brown

Sprawls at the window-sill and gapes;

The waiter brings in oranges

Bananas figs and hothouse grapes;

The silent vertebrate in brown

Contracts and concentrates, withdraws;

Rachel née Rabinovitch

Tears at the grapes with murderous paws; (Lines 9 – 24)

March describes a moment from the party in Queenie and Burrs’s apartment:

On the bench before the grand piano

Sat Oscar and Phil; the brothers d’Armano.

They played with fury to the crowd about them:

Bang and sang,

And tried to outshout them

They swayed: they bent:

They hammered on the keys,

And shrieked falsetto melodies.

Now Jackie stood back of Phil,

And his hands just wouldn’t be still!

One clutched Phil’s shoulder:

The other was bolder:

It ran white fingers through his long black hair,

Then fondled his throat,

And rested there.

Phil’s hands played on with an agile grace,

But he leaned back:

Lifted his lily-white face.

Jack took it between pink finger-tips

He bent down and kissed Phil on the lips. (Part 4, Lines 15 – 34)

Eliot employs complex metaphors and language to illustrate his demimonde, while March opts for a more direct, plain-spoken style measured into uneven couplets of various line lengths.  Additionally, Eliot practices restraint while March strides boldly into his subject.  Eliot only alludes to sexuality, as with the “stocking drawn up” image in the passage cited above, while March presents brazen scenes of sexuality of all stripes. But regardless of their different approaches to form and content, both succeed in remaining true to their voices, to their beliefs and by doing so successfully emphasize similar moods and themes: seedy, ribald, and lurching toward disastrous finales.  Would Griel Marcus and others who turn up their noses to March’s explorations into scandalous material react as harshly to Eliot when he does the same?  I speculate, but I doubt it.  I will assert, however, that both gentlemen deserve serious appraisal, completely agreeing with Margo Jefferson and Louis Untermeyer that March displays true skill in versification.

But having said that, I insist readers encounter The Wild Party only through the edition illustrated by Spiegelman.  Earlier I mentioned how Spiegelman’s art not only enhances the narrative but places the book into a different genre than jazz-age poetry alone, that of illustrated literature.  Children’s books stand as the best examples of illustrated literature, for example the lovely renderings W. W. Denslow crafted to accompany the prose of L. Frank Baum.  Honestly, certain friends of mine cannot abide any edition of Baum that does not include Denslow’s visual accompaniments.   Similarly, I find March’s poem wonderful, but not as wonderful as with Spiegelman’s renditions of the party’s raucous happenings and bawdy participants. Two short-story collaborations from Charles Bukowski and Robert Crumb elicit the same reaction, both of which also involve earthy, shockingly explicit themes.  The first, Bring Me Your Love, appeared in 1983, and Bukowski tells the story of a man visiting his wife in an asylum for the mentally ill.  The second one, There’s No Business, came out the following year, and here we have the tale of a down-and-out comedian.  Bukowski’s stories shine, and yet Bukowski needs Crumb as much as March needs Spiegelman for additional oomph.  If only March and Spiegelman had been contemporaries.  Then maybe The Wild Party would not have had such a roller-coaster ride in the stock market of poets my former professor and I so adore.  The poetry breathes on its own, but the embellishments by Spiegelman intensify its excellence.  Thus, Joseph Moncure March is bullish once again, so much so that in 2000 Andrew Lippa adapted The Wild Party into a musical that opened off-Broadway.  Like Spiegelman, Lippa has succumbed and accepted the invitation of Queenie and Burrs, adding his cachet to that of the other guests: Madelaine True, Jackie, Eddie, the brothers D’Armano, Dolores, and, of course, Mr. Black.  You too should stop for a gin and tonic, and a quick dance.  Do so quickly, however, before the cops rush in!

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