Poems for the Clothesline
From ready-to-wear to haute couture, poetry addresses the coat, the jacket, the shoe and other loved articles we keep closest to us.
If the poem, like the article of clothing, is "a made thing that indicates the nature of its own making," is it any wonder that fashion—from the worn and loved articles of clothing to haute couture—draws poets to its houses?
Clothing in poetry often appears in transformation, taking on more than its nature. This is the case in Laura Jensen's poem "Heavy Snowfall in a Year Gone Past:"
My favorite coat, lush sable
in color, a petty fake
that warmed me to the ears
hangs after the seasons
a beaten animal grinning buttons.
It became quite real to me
and now is matted on a hook.
The made thing, the favorite coat, becomes more authentic for its relation to the poet while the poem becomes its own visible field, widening from the image of the coat down "the tasty road in the wood."
"The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible," wrote Oscar Wilde. The visible world of fashion and costume championed by Wilde saturates James Merrill's aesthetic, as Stephen Burt notes in his essay "Becoming Literature: On James Merrill's Poetry of Autobiography and Social Comedy." Burt points to Merrill's poem "Dreams About Clothes," which address Arturo, the man who picks up the speaker's dry-cleaning. Arturo becomes Art itself:
Tell me something, Art.
You know what it's like
Awake in your dry hell
Of volatile synthetic solvents.
Won't you help us brave the elements
Once more, of terror, anger, love?
Several poets have been influenced by Merrill's aesthetic, taking inspiration from inside the armoire. Mark Doty's "Couture" and Lynda Hull's "Red Velvet Jacket" both conclude with visions of the world defined in relation to clothing. Hull's lost jacket offers "its charm / against this world burning ruthless, crucial & exacting." In "Couture," Doty dares, "Show me what's not / a world of appearances." The poem goes on to personify autumn in "those October damasks, / the dazzling kimono."
Many modern poets embraced fashion to "brave the elements," sometimes to epic effect. Randall Jarrell traded scarves and gloves with his wife; ties with his colleague Robert Watson; and jackets and hats with his friend Peter Taylor, as depicted by Mary Jarrell in her memoir Remembering Randall. Marianne Moore's love of clothing is well-documented. On receiving a knit dress from Hildegarde Watson, Moore used three paragraphs to praise it, writing: "this delicate zephyr of a thing stirs us to the soul."
James Laughlin was also stirred by clothing. On first meeting Ezra Pound, he wrote, "There came Ezra, dressed to the nines in his velvet jacket, pants with equestrian seat, his cowboy hat, swinging his silver-headed cane as he made for San Ambrogio, women applauding him from their windows." Pound's short poem "Salutation," ends a complaint addressed to "the generation of the thoroughly smug" by pointing to the happiness of fishermen and their catch: "And I am happier than you are, / And they were happier than I am; / And the fish swim in the lake / and do not even own clothing."
Clothing in poetry often contemplates the last appearance in a world of appearances. "The thrill of victory is, we're exiting earth," writes Harryette Mullen in her poem "Black Nikes." May Swenson's "Question" enacts the exit, contemplating loss of body while locking in the images of house and dress:
How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye
With cloud for a shift
How will I hide?
Here is a selection of poems addressing the clothes we wear or dream of wearing:
"Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" by W. B. Yeats
"Black Jackets" by Thom Gunn
"Black Nikes" by Harryette Mullen
"Couture" by Mark Doty
"Delight in Disorder" by Robert Herrick
"Derrick Poem (The Lost World)" by Terrance Hayes
"Dressmaker" by Éireann Lorsung
"Duality" by Tina Chang
"Fat Southern Men in Summer Suits" by Liam Rector
"For a Daughter Who Leaves" by Janice Mirikitani
"From The Book of Questions" by Pablo Neruda
"It Was The Beginning Of Joy And The End Of Pain" by Gillian Conoley
"My Shoes" by Charles Simic
"Ode to a Dressmaker's Dummy" by Donald Justice
"Old Coat" by Liam Rector
"On A Pair of Garters" by Sir John Davies
"Question" by May Swenson
"Red Slippers" by Amy Lowell
"Red Velvet Jacket" by Lynda Hull
"Shirt" by Robert Pinsky
"The Clerk's Tale" by Spencer Reece
"The Plaid Dress" by Edna St. Vincent Millay
"What Do Women Want?" by Kim Addonizio