What Can We Steal From Joseph Millar’s “The Day After Sinatra Married Mia Farrow”?
Title of Work and its Form: “The Day After Sinatra Married Mia Farrow,” poem
Author: Joseph Millar
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem debuted in Volume 80, No. 1 of New Letters, one of the top literary journals out there. The fine folks at Poetry Daily have been kind enough to republish the poem online.
Bonuses: Here is Mr. Millar’s Poetry Foundation page. Here is Mr. Millar’s poem, “American Wedding;” it’s accompanied by an interview about the poem as well as a very interesting discussion. Poetry is best enjoyed when read aloud, isn’t it? Well, here is a video of Mr. Millar reading that poem.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material
The poem depicts what happened (or may have happened) on July 20, 1966. The setting is the “Circle Diner on Kutztown Road.” (A place that may or may not have existed.) The first-person narrator is heading out to work at a construction site; Edna the waitress prepares his Thermos with boiling water to help keep the coffee warm all day. There are mailmen in the side booth, the cook is smoking a cigar that combines with the smoke from the grill to cloud the front window. An old man serves up a joke about Frank and Mia as the narrator eats pancakes and eggs. Do the people in the diner have the kind of fabulous, jet-setting life that Frank has? Nope. But they’re happy to go to work and happy to be alive where they are.
This poem is cool for a number of reasons. It’s extremely accessible and I wonder if a poem like this would help some of my poetry-averse students understand that verse doesn’t have to be opaque and abstract. How does Mr. Millar turn the trick of conjuring up a poem that is both “literary” and “fun?” Well, the gentleman looks at the lives of “normal” people in comparison to the celebrities everyone talked about in 1966. If you don’t know who Frank Sinatra is, hie thee to YouTube.
Celebrity culture was certainly in full swing in 1966, though the Internet, I believe, has made these distractions more pervasive. Sinatra’s marriage to Mia Farrow was a pretty big deal at the time. After all, she was thirty years younger than the crooner! We gossip about the same things today, don’t we?
Mr. Millar’s poem turns the camera around. What was life like for ordinary people on the day that news of the wedding consumed the many Americans who care about such things? Well, Sinatra and Farrow may have been enjoying their honeymoon in a beautiful place we’ll never see. Life went on for everyone else. The narrator went to work. The cook slathered butter on the grill. The waitress counted her tips. I suppose you’re more likely to get a piece into Vanity Fair if you write about the newlyweds, but isn’t there a great deal of value in examining the lives of “ordinary” people?
Everyone remembers November 22, 1963 as THE DAY JOHN F. KENNEDY DIED. What else happened that day? Many people far from Dealey Plaza were born and fell in love and died on that day. What was it like for those folks?
Kristallnacht took place on the 9th and 10th of November, 1938. There are (quite appropriately) zillions of books and short stories and poems about those terrible events. It’s hard to avoid feeling doubts about the potential of humanity because of our capability for such violence and discrimination. What would happen if you train your critical mind on people who weren’t directly involved?
World War I erupted on July 28, 1914. Although the world would be forever changed by those events, isn’t it worth lending some insight to what happened to people half a world away? Here’s what happened in Ogden City, Utah that day. (You really MUST love the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities…)
I love the way Mr. Millar lends a sense of suspense to the poem. There’s a joke in the middle of the poem. Edna, seemingly interested in making small talk, wonders how Frank is feeling that morning. We’re certainly happy to follow Mr. Millar wherever he leads us in the poem, but still…we really want to know the punchline that goes with the setup. (How does Frank feel? “Tired as hell!”)
Think about when you’re watching Jeopardy!. I’ll bet that you have trouble switching channels between the time an answer is presented and a contestant offers the correct question. Why? You want to solve the little mystery with which you’ve been presented. Here, want proof? Tell me this doesn’t drive you crazy:
How many musical acts have sold 250 million or more records?
I’m not telling you the answer. This is suspense.
What Should We Steal?
- Capture the lives and feelings of people who may otherwise go without recognition. The cast of characters in the neighborhood diner may seem anonymous when we’re passing through, but they have hopes and dreams and problems and successes. Just like Justin Bieber.
- Add suspense to short works by asking a question that invites an answer. You don’t need to tell a joke; we’re naturally wired to want both halves of a dilemma.
Fun poetry conundrum: The poem claims that Frank was “20 years her senior.” I didn’t intend to contradict Mr. Millar, but multiple sources seem to tell me that Frank was indeed “30” years her senior. What is a reader to do? I suppose there are two options:
- Mr. Millar made an artistic choice to offer the incorrect figure. I don’t believe a character in the poem makes the goof. What could it mean that he swapped twenty for thirty? Well, is there that big a difference between the two figures? I dunno…probably not. Mia Farrow was a grownup who could make her own decisions, so what does it really matter?
- Mr. Millar simply goofed. Hey, we’re all human. Perhaps he shall correct the poem in his next collection. Or maybe he won’t. Maybe he likes the effect caused by the mistake.
What do you think? What’s the proper stance when it comes to changing your interpretation of a work when it has a slight factual goof? Leave a comment.