Lyric Essentials: Jill McDonough Reads “To His Mistress Going to Bed” by John Donne

mcdonough boat

Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Jill McDonough reads “To His Mistress Going to Bed” by John Donne.

Damn! I felt like I was in high school again when I chuckled at the lines “By this these Angels from an evil sprite, / Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.” I guess I’m forever fourteen. There are so many places to start, but I guess we’ll dive right in—what’s your take on whether or not Donne is a chauvinist? Is it more complicated than that?

Jill: Oh yeah. Both.  Four hundred years later there’s so much we can’t know, but I can’t help feeling like he’s making fun of himself.  It’s so insistent and lawyerly, and there’s no specific woman here, no way to see the beloved.  It’s all about him, his desires and arguments, and she’s just an outfit and pubes.  Which is how we feel when we objectify people; it’s not about them, duh.

Of course I read this anachronistically–I’m alive now, I’m O My America!-n, I laugh at “balls,” which I doubt was meant to be funny. But I think one of the things poetry does, when you’re writing it, is give you permission to be a dick as long as you admit it, sort of apologize for it by making fun of yourself a little bit.

There are a couple ways to look at this poem’s conceit–one is that it’s all just a speech he makes while taking off his clothes in front of a skeptical, fully-dressed woman who’s trying to read a book or something: that’s funny.

Another way is that he’s describing what he’s doing as he’s doing it: she’s mostly undressed and down on the bed and has welcomed his hands “before, behind, between, above, below,” the best jam-packed line of iambic pentameter ever. And then instead of just fucking her he goes off on this tangent about balls and judging books by their covers while she’s like DUDE COME ON.

I love teaching this poem.  I’m teaching a lecture class in the fall to first-years, a new class called “Reading Like a Writer,” and the one thing I know I’m going to do is read this to them the first day, and talk about why “between” is my favorite word in the poem.  Then I’ll make them write short essays all term choosing the most important word in every piece we look at, explaining why it’s the best word.

It’s also a great poem for helping people hear meter, and understand what it can do.

Also you get to say “O my America!”

Chris: Totally! All of this. It’s all so good. I love “My Empirie” too. Part of me wants to think John Donne went around writing his lines of poetry like graffiti in a sort of “dicktation” fashion like Jonah from Summer Heights High. I’m sure he wasn’t, but in my mind it’s a beautiful image.

So, why is “between” your favorite word in this poem?

Jill:  That’s where it all shifts: it’s five words, all iambs, all prepositions, hella Bs, and even with all those constraints it moves so fast. We shift in that tiny space from hands on the front of a body to hands behind the body to hands between somebody’s legs to now she’s horizontal so hands are on top and underneath. It’s this little miracle of meter and economy and sound and narrative and implied sex.  It does so much without being vulgar or explicit, just funny and frank and direct.  “Between,” in a poem that blabs on about sex forever, is where we actually get to some crotch.

Chris: You mentioned the meter and using this poem to teach what it can do for a work. Is the iambic pentameter in this poem one of the qualities that makes it essential to you as a writer? What’s the meter adding to this poem?

Jill: I teach meter to everybody.  They get scared, and I mark the stresses in their names, point out that “MOther FUCKer” is two trochees, “SHUT UP” is usually a spondee, that they are already using meter all the time.  It’s just a way of organizing sound.  (That was a line of iambic pentameter:  it’s JUST/a WAY/of ORG/an IZ/ing SOUND.)

In this poem the rhythm is like time travel–I can read this poem out loud and know that John Donne–JOHN FREAKING DONNE–moved his mouth and breath the same way I’m moving mine.  He’s dead, but he still gets to borrow my body for a minute, to keep saying these same lines in ways, because now it’s filtered through my brain, my body, my America!-n-ness.  Plus it’s long enough that by the time you finish reading it aloud you kind of know what meter is: da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM/ da DUM.  be FORE/ be HIND/ be TWEEN/ a BOVE/ be LOW.

There’s also tons of substitution, so you can dive in to “O MY/ a MER/ ic A/ MY NEW/ FOUND LAND”–spondee, iamb, iamb, spondee, spondee.  Or show them how they need to quit just trying to get to ten syllables because sometimes five feet is more than that:  “MY KING/dom SAFE/li est WHEN/ with ONE/ MAN MANNED.”  Which makes up for all the time they spent in high school trying to make “shall I/ com PARE/ THEE to/ a SUM/ mer’s DAY?”  all iambs.  What kind of weirdo shouts the TO?

The winner of a 2014 Lannan Literary Fellowship and three Pushcart prizes, Jill McDonough is the author of Habeas Corpus (Salt, 2008), Oh, James! (Seven Kitchens, 2012), Where You Live (Salt, 2012), and REAPER, forthcoming from Alice James Books. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and Stanford’s Stegner program, she taught incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program for thirteen years.  Her work has appeared in Poetry, Slate, The Nation, The Threepenny Review, and Best American Poetry.  She directs the MFA program at UMass-Boston and 24PearlStreet, the Fine Arts Work Center online.

Christopher Petruccelli is an associate poetry editor at Stirring: A Literary Collection and has successfully survived his first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Action at a Distance, is available from UIndy’s Etchings Press. In his free time, Chris enjoys smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey with older women.

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