There's a saying in the literary world that good poets borrow while great poets steal. By that standard, Madonna shouldn't be accused of anything more than borrowing, and some sage news outlets are accusing her of doing exactly that.
At issue is a love poem the pop star wrote to her former bodyguard James Albright, with whom she had a relationship in the early 90s. Albright--no longer in love and apparently in need of some cash-- just auctioned off some Madonna mementos at the online auction site Gottahaveit.com. For sale were erotic answering machine recordings, some "very personal and intimate" videos, and a series of steamy love letters that Madonna faxed (it was the early 90s) to Albright using the pen name Lola Montez. Here's the poem the press seized on:
I was the girl of the love letter
the girl full of talk of dreams and destination . . .
the one with her eyes half under the covers
with her large gun-metal blue eyes
with the thick vein in the crook of her neck.
As far as celebrity verse goes, that's not too bad, right? Well, sleuthy reporters discovered that Madonna may have borrowed heavily from Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton. Note the following lines from Sexton's poem "Love Song":
I was the girl of the chain letter
the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes . . .
the one with her eyes half under her coat
with her large gun-metal blue eyes
with the thin vein at the bend of her neck.
That can't be a coincidence. And while I don't think that borrowing a few lines to write a personal poem is a big deal, the act sheds some interesting light on Madonna. For one thing, the changes she made to the poem--while they make it a bit more pedestrian--are pretty solid. The chain letter becomes a love letter; coffins and keyholes become dreams and destinations (a little cliché); the coat becomes the covers; and the sexy thin vein at the bend becomes "the thick vein at the crook of her neck" (well, that's just not attractive).
It's also interesting that Madonna chose to poach this Sexton poem. While Sexton is well known, this poem is not, and it begs the question of whether Madonna felt some kinship with the confessional poet, a woman who--to put it mildly--led a turbulent life. Sexton battled serious mental illness, once writing of fellow poet Sylvia Plath's suicide,
how did you crawl into
crawl down alone
into the death I wanted so badly and for so long.
She took her own life less than a decade later.
"Love Song" is from Sexton's collection Live or Die, which documents (in verse) a period of recovery from mental illness. The poem's frenetic movement and strange and often dark imagery (you'll notice that the poem contains the words "chain," "coffins," "gun," "old red hook," "bleeding," "terrible" and "death") makes more sense in light of this. Here's the full text:
the girl of the chain letter,
the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes,
the one of the telephone bills,
the wrinkled photo and the lost connections,
the one who kept saying-
We must never! We must never!
and all those things...
with her eyes half under her coat,
with her large gun-metal blue eyes,
with the thin vein at the bend of her neck
that hummed like a tuning fork,
with her shoulders as bare as a building,
with her thin foot and her thin toes,
with an old red hook in her mouth,
the mouth that kept bleeding
in the terrible fields of her soul...
who kept dropping off to sleep,
as old as a stone she was,
each hand like a piece of cement,
for hours and hours
and then she'd wake,
after the small death,
and then she'd be as soft as,
as delicate as...
as soft and delicate as
an excess of light,
with nothing dangerous at all,
like a beggar who eats
or a mouse on a rooftop
with no trap doors,
with nothing more honest
than your hand in her hand-
with nobody, nobody but you!
and all those things.
nobody, nobody but you!
Oh! There is no translating
that field of ponies.
"Nobody, Nobody but you!" The speaker at the end seems desperate to cling to love so as not to fall into despair. Madonna (and I never thought I would be writing this) seems quite stable by comparison.