|‘The Death of Marilyn Monroe’ – Edwin Morgan
Answers to questions on poetry should address relevantly the central concern(s) / theme(s) of the text(s) and be supported by reference to appropriate poetic techniques such as: imagery, verse form, structure, mood, tone, sound, rhythm, rhyme, characterisation, contrast, setting, symbolism, word choice . . .
Choose a poem which is concerned with a sense of loss and/or deep sadness.
Show how the poet portrays these emotions and discuss how effectively she/he uses this to enhance your understanding of the central idea of the poem.
A poem which is concerned with a sense of loss and deep sadness is ‘The Death of Marilyn Monroe’ by Edwin Morgan. The poem reminds the reader of the price paid by the private person for living life to the full in the public eye. Throughout the poem, Morgan deals with the issues surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe, who appears to have committed suicide by overdosing on drugs, and explores who he feels is responsible for her death. He explores the emotions of loss and sadness through various techniques, such as word choice, imagery, sentence structure and the themes of the poem.
One way in which the poem immediately identifies the poet’s sense of loss is his unusual sentence structure. The poem opens dramatically with the clamour of a series of short rhetorical questions which show the reaction of the public and the media to Monroe’s death and to the circumstances in which her naked body was found:
“What innocence? Whose guilt? What eyes? Whose breast?”
This conveys the poet’s sense of loss and the shocking and confusing nature of her death and highlights to the reader that the poem will be exploring the themes of responsibility and innocence. These questions mirror newspaper headlines and allude to the media’s obsession with Monroe, in life and in death. This introduces the idea that Morgan feels this media obsession was at least partly responsible for Monroe’s death as she had no privacy and was constantly hounded by them.
Another example of unusual sentence structure is when Morgan uses a series of abrupt exclamations to point the finger of blame at areas of Monroe’s life which he feels contributed to her destruction:
“Di Maggio! Los Angeles! Miller! Los Angeles! America!”
Morgan is alluding to Monroe’s ex-husbands and, through his use of exclamation marks, expresses his anger at Monroe’s death; as if he is accusing them of blame in her death. The poet repeats this technique, and his reference to Los Angeles, later in the poem:
“Los Angeles! Olivier! Los Angeles!”
Morgan uses this repetition to reinforce the blame he is placing on Los Angeles (and therefore the film industry) and the people Monroe has worked with (in this case Laurence Olivier), as well as the men she was married to. This may be because of the pressures they put on her and / or because they appear to have deserted her at the end when she needed them most.
Another effective example of sentence structure is the use of dashes at the end of lines 5, 7 and 10. These caesuras create dramatic pauses that break up the lines of the poem and invite the reader to consider, after each section, the extent to which the media and public controlled Monroe’s life. I feel the most effective piece of sentence structure in the poem is at the very end when Morgan blatantly directs the blame for the death of Marilyn Monroe at Hollywood. He does this by directing a series of questions directly to the Hollywood industry:
“Los Angeles? Los Angeles? Will it follow you around? Will the slow white hearse of the child of America follow you around?”
This also links the themes of innocence and responsibility with the words “child” and “America”. This shows that Morgan feels Marilyn Monroe is the innocent party in her death and it is really the industry, and American society, which are to blame. The words “white hearse”, also referred to at the start of the poem, portray a very child-like innocence and vulnerability as it is normally children who have white coffins, and this emphasises Monroe’s vulnerability.
Imagery is another technique used by the poet to highlight Monroe’s vulnerability and child-like quality and this further emphasises Morgan’s sense of loss. He uses the metaphor “Crumpled orphan” to describe Monroe which is effective as orphans are usually thought of as children, and this image of abandonment highlights her innocence and evokes the reader’s pity as we wonder who she was abandoned by: the public? Media? The film industry? The word “Crumpled” in the metaphor also shows this as it has connotations of vulnerability and being scrunched or screwed up, which in turn has connotations of mental instability and shows, he feels, that she did not really know what she was doing when she took her life. This image helps to convey Morgan’s sense of loss at such a vulnerable person being hurt. This metaphor, which appears at the start of the poem, is referred back to at the end of the poem in the image “child of America” which contains an implied sense of parental responsibility on the part of American society. Morgan points the finger of blame firmly at American society and the reader is left feeling that ‘Mother America’ has abdicated all responsibility for her ‘child’, reinforcing his sense of loss.
Morgan also uses personification effectively in the poem to convey his sense of loss and sadness and make us feel sympathy for Marilyn Monroe, for example when he describes death as a kind figure:
“That Death should seem the only protector”.
He is saying that life was so intolerable for Marilyn that death almost seemed like a welcome release and was the only friend Monroe could turn to in her despair. The use of “protector” shows that she was not very strong, was scared and needed looking after.
Morgan also uses personification to intensify the sense of Monroe’s insecurity and confusion, and to introduce the idea that she was no longer in control of her life:
“That lonely Uncertainty should limp up, grinning, with bewildering barbiturates”
Morgan portrays Monroe’s uncertainty as a sleazy voyeur, preying on her pain and naivety while luring her to her death, and the hard alliterative sound of the ‘b’ and the placing of “bewildering barbiturates” at the beginning of the line emphasises her bewilderment and Morgan’s pity for her.
Morgan also uses word choice to highlight his sense of loss and also his anger for those that he perceives to have caused this loss. He lists these negative influences, which has the effect of making them seem more numerous:
“That the many acquaintances, the autograph hunters, the inflexible directors, the drive-in admirers”
The word “acquaintances” shows the loneliness felt by Monroe; the people who surrounded her were there because of her name and fame, not because they were her real friends. The phrase “drive-in admirers” effectively conveys the sense of Monroe’s emotional isolation by suggesting that there is a barrier between Monroe and her fans: they are literally separated from their idol by two screens, the movie screen and the car windscreen, just as the invisible division of fame existed between the public and their idol. Morgan comments more directly on Monroe’s death later in the poem and highlights the importance of communication in people’s lives:
“Let no one say communication is a cantword. They had to lift her hand from the bedside telephone.”
Marilyn died trying to reach out to someone, which emphasises her loneliness and isolation. Perhaps if she had managed to speak to someone, she would not have died, and this poignant, desperate image reinforces the poet’s sense of loss and deep sadness.
Effective word choice is also used in the lines:
“the great cameras and lights become an inquisition and a torment”
This shows the pompous self-indulgence of the selfish and uncaring film industry and the words “inquisition” and “torment” show us that the pressures of the film industry, and the fame connected to it, had become unbearable for Marilyn and that she was unable to take any more. The poet holds the whole industry responsible for Monroe’s death.
Morgan explores the poem’s theme towards the end of the poem by allowing the reader to see Monroe’s perspective. He admits that she would not have blamed others for her death, quoting what she said to a friend shortly before she died and giving us an insight into her attitude towards life:
“All I had was my life. I have no regrets, because if I made Any mistakes, I was responsible.”
She believed that she had made her own choices and that she had to live with that. For Monroe, all that mattered was the present and the future, she was a person who lived life to the full and regretted nothing:
“What happened is behind. So it follows you around? So what?”
However, Morgan does not accept this point of view, or agree with those who think she is responsible for her own death, as can be seen from his ironic comment:
“And so she was responsible.”
It is quite clear who he considers to be to blame: his repetition of “Los Angeles” seven times in the course of the poem suggests that as far as he is concerned, the pressures of Hollywood drove Monroe to her death. He repeats Monroe’s words in a rhetorical question:
“Will it follow you around?”
This forces the reader to see that, while Marilyn was willing to accept responsibility for her life, Los Angeles, and American society in general, is unwilling to accept any responsibility for the part it played in her death which angers the reader and means that we share his sense of loss and deep sadness.
In conclusion, “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” is a poignant, heartfelt poem in which Edwin Morgan effectively portrays his sense of loss and deep sadness through sentence structure, imagery and theme. Morgan explores the nature of celebrity, reminding us of the price paid by individual celebrities for their fame and, although this poem deals with Marilyn Monroe, the concerns which he raises about the issues surrounding her death in 1962 are as relevant now as they were then. Society’s obsession with celebrities is far greater now than they were nearly fifty years ago, with ‘paparazzi’ photographers hounding celebrities for candid photos, and internet gossip sites like perezhilton.com and tmz.com and magazines such as ‘Heat’ and ‘Closer’ revelling in the misfortunes of those in the public eye. We only have to look at the storm of media coverage following the bizarre life and recent death of Michael Jackson to see that celebrity continues to exact a high price from those it touches.
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