“A Disorienting Place”: On Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”

During my internet ramblings this morning, I came across three things that have stuck together like the lint, hair, and tobacco shake that inevitably find that random piece of restaurant candy deep in the bowels of one’s purse: an article in The Atlantic titled “The Joy of the Memorized Poem” wherein Billy Collins discusses how Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” got him through an MRI, Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” and an article in Vice by James Franco on Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker.

Ok. Go with me on this.

I’m cruising Facebook, click on the Collins article, read it. Collins says that he discovered the Yeats’ poem in college and, after many years of reading and teaching the poem, he made himself memorize it. Of memorization of a poem, Collins writes: “This process—going from deep familiarity to complete mastery—is a challenge and a great pleasure. In repeating different lines, your reading becomes more focused than you’ve ever had before. You become more sensitive to every consonant and vowel.” And I remembered reading “Porphyria’s Lover” in college.

This was the first poem that really stuck with me, and I read it over and over, memorizing the first person dramatic monologue from the point of view of a jealous lover who kills his lady-love by strangling her with her own hair so that she would remain “mine, mine, fair / Perfectly pure and good” (Browning lines 36, 37). Naturally, I then Googled “poems about serial killers.” Which brings me to James Franco.

On September 25, 2014, Vice published Franco’s piece on serial killer Richard Ramirez complete with five blood-and-gore pictures of Franco(?) as Ramirez and four poems by Franco about Ramirez. Without discussing whether or not Franco’s poems work (see this great article in Paper by Gabby Bess for that), I want to say that the whole piece disturbed me, and not just because I was a thirteen-year-old female resident of the Los Angeles area when the fear of the Night Stalker took hold.

In the article, Franco says that he doesn’t want to humanize Ramirez; he wants to understand Ramirez from an actor’s perspective. What would it take to get into that character? (In 2011, Franco was supposedly slated to play the part of Richard Ramirez in a film that, apparently, was never made.) Franco goes so far as to write that he “can relate a little to Ramirez’s feelings” because he, too has felt the “need for power — especially sexual power.”

I recoiled at this. I wanted to dismiss the idea that taking bloodied pictures, that writing poetry was a way to get into a character’s head, and that getting into a character’s head does not humanize him or serve to “celebrate a killer” (Franco). But then there was “Porphyria’s Lover” sitting there in the back of my mind, all dead woman posed so that she would remain “perfect” for the speaker forever. Browning put himself into the speaker’s character, someone who saw nothing wrong with murder, someone who, in fact, believed he was answering his love’s “one wish” (line 57).

About his own writing, Collins says, “I want the poem to be an imaginative thrill. To take the reader to an odd place, or a challenging place, or a disorienting place, but to do that with fairly simple language. I don’t want the language itself to be the trip. I want the imaginative spaces that we’re moving through to be the trip.” The imaginative space in Browning’s poem is a disorienting place, and it is a challenging place. The reader is placed squarely into the mind of a killer in plain language. The reader feels Porphyria’s hair pull tight in the speaker’s hands. The reader sits on a bed, the dead Porphyria’s head on his or her shoulder. It is disturbing at the same time that it feels genuine, and that is what makes this poem work.

I’m not quite sure why “Porphyria’s Lover” was the poem that first stuck. Perhaps Gabby Bess comes close to explaining it in her article on James Franco’s Vice piece, “Now more than ever, there seems to finally be a sense of what can happen when men feel entitled (and that entitlement is culturally reinforced) to something that was never theirs.” Perhaps my college self needed to be disoriented, to be challenged to understand that no one owned me but me.

Bess, Gabby. “Some Observations on James Franco’s Serial Killer Poems.” Paper. Web.        14 Nov. 2014.
Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.
Collins, Billy. “The Joy of the Memorized Poem.” The Atlantic. 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 Nov.      2014.
Franco, James. “Four Poems Inspired by Serial Killer Richard Ramirez.” Vice. 25 Sept.            2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

Dark Matters

by Gabrielle Brant Freeman

There must be something about a man in black that keeps us up at night. Robert Bly’s book The Man in the Black Coat Turns was published in 1981, and I can’t help but wonder if he and Stephen King weren’t drinking the same Kool-Aid, to put it crudely and in a very pop-culture, fascinated with mass-murderers sort of way. King’s first installment in the Dark Tower series was published shortly after Bly’s collection, and it involved its own “man in black.” Coincidence? Well…

SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss the ending of the Dark Tower series, which, if you haven’t read it yet, you’re not a real King fan anyway, so phooey on you. And no, that sentence wasn’t necessarily grammatically correct. Pffttt.

King’s series is based on Robert Browning’s poem, based on a dream, titled “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.” Stephen King’s Roland is a tested knight of his own realm, which has…moved on…, but his true challenge comes at the end of his journey when he reaches the long sought after Dark Tower. There is no Answer; there is no God. There is only a repeat, only the wheel. Roland Deschain must repeat the life he has known until, seemingly, he gets it “right,” or until the final beam breaks and all is lost. King begins the series this way: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Never has a first line enticed me to keep reading more than that.

Bly’s first poem in his book is titled “Snowbanks North of the House.” In it, there is a series of nots: a son does not read any more books after high school, the mother does not make any more bread, the husband does not sleep with his wife, and “the man in the black coat turns, and goes back / down the hill” (Bly 4). It is as ominous a line as King’s.

Perhaps the lesson is that we must follow the man in black, even if he turns away from our folly, even if he leads us to the beginning of the same old cycle, and perhaps especially if, on the turning away (oh yes, that’s a Pink Floyd reference, 1987), we recognize our shortcomings and accept that “ka is a wheel” (King). “And the sea lifts and falls all night, the moon goes on / through the unattached heavens alone” (Bly 3). Our lives move in a circle, and the hero’s journey often ends where it began. What we do with that realization, how we choose to address the man in black, that is what makes all the difference.

Bly, Robert. “Snowbanks North of the House.” The Man in the Black Coat Turns. New York: Harper Perennial, 1981.