Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party (1928; with Art Spiegelman’s drawings, Pantheon Graphic Novels 1999)
This little book reminded me of the Sydney University Porn Fests in the early 1970s, in which lewd texts were read to huge student audiences as a challenge to Australia’s repressive censorship laws. It was, largely, good clean sexy fun, which introduced a generation of young people to work by E E Cummings, John Wilmot Second Earl of Rochester, Sam Shepard, and any number of less memorable writers.
The Wild Party was published in the US in a very limited edition in the late 1920s. It’s a narrative poem, too short to be called a verse novel, whose jazzy, rhyming lines tell of a night of drunken debauchery that ends in tragedy. According to the introduction, it’s the piece of writing that made William S Burroughs Jnr decide to be a writer. By 21st century standards, it’s almost prim, and its treatment of Lesbianism and especially male homosexuality would sit easily with some of Cory Bernardi’s remarks, though with a lip-smacking delight rather than stern disapproval. Still, it’s a short read, and the verse swings along:
The noise was like great hosts of war:
They shouted: they laughed:
They shrieked: they swore:
They stamped and pounded their feet on the floor:
And they clung together in fierce embraces,
And danced and lurched with savage faces
That were wet
Their eyes were glassy and set.
The poem would almost certainly have faded into obscurity if comics artist Art Spiegelman hadn’t happened on it when he had just finished creating his masterpiece Maus and was casting about for a project that would allow him to experiment with visual style in a way that Maus hadn’t. And so, seven decades after first publication, The Wild Party was reborn as a ‘lost classic’, with brilliant black and white illustrations that feel completely integral to the work. The black candle and ominous teeth in this image, for example, perfectly capture the text’s dark undertow.
I read the whole thing on a single walk with the dog. I confess that I wrapped it in a plain brown envelope first, so casual passers by wouldn’t catch sight of the naked woman on the back cover – almost prim, perhaps, but still not suitable for reading in public.