Monday, June 9, 2014

Diagramming Mina Loy's "Letters of the Unliving" as a Method for Close Reading

Diagramming Poetry as a Method for Close Reading
I have recently been working on a new collection of poetry that explores grief and loss.   In order to better study the poetry of loss, I've returned to the poet of my graduate thesis, Mina Loy.   I have found meaning in her poetry today that I could not find eight years ago. 

One of Loy's poems that quite literally makes me catch my breath is "Letters of the Unliving"  as published in The Lost Lunar Baedeker: Poems.

History and Syntax

Loy's history, thus the history of the poem is this: Loy met Arthur Cravan in 1917 and married him in 1918.  Opposed to serving in WWI, Cravan took Loy to Mexico to escape the military draft.  Once in Mexico, and after experiencing some trouble with both military authorities and the professional boxing crowd, "They bought a small, leaky sailing boat with the idea of patching it up and trading it in for a more seaworthy vessel"  so that Cravan might sail to Buenos Aires.  "In early November, only days before the Armistice was signed, Cravan set sail in the repaired craft for the nearby coastal village of Puerto Angel. The weather was fine and the boat apparently in good shape. Loy waited for days on the beach, gazing out to sea, but Cravan never returned" (Ford, 2007, para. 23).

However, no matter the interest in the tragic, romantic loss of love and self depicted this poem, the cathartic fear of loss we feel when we read the history, or perhaps because of the terrible beauty of the language of this poem, I have been having great difficulty sharing this poem with my students.  Although the idea, the elegy, makes the poem universal, the syntax makes the poem difficult to access.

Diagramming and Accessibility

Mina Loy
Image by Stephen Haweis, via Wikimedia Commons
In order to overcome the challenge of accessibility, I diagrammed a section of the poem to help my students better see and understand each unit of meaning, with all of its poetic license and grammatical truncation.  In its simplest form we can pick out subjects and predicates that, in and of themselves, are beautiful: "You left," she states.  "The racked creature shouted," she tells us, "'reunite us.'"  In the end, "Patience creeps up on passion."  The final diagram, though, is a mess, from a missing predicate in the second clause, to a phrasal verb in the final clause, to a fragmented quotation as part of an apostrophe in the third clause. Yet, no one said grief was grammatically pretty.  It's a tangle; a complicated tangle, and once my students and I saw it untangled for the first time, we shared a moment of understanding on one of its deepest levels.

The Gift of Excess

Of this poem and Loy, William Keckler beautifully and aptly states, "She creates a dignified superstructure in this dual elegy which allows for what might elsewhere be excessive; that is Loy's particular gift" (para. 3).  Once my students and I stripped excess from the poem, then put all of it back into place, we could all better understand this "dignified superstructure," this "dual elegy."  We could appreciate the language for what it gives us without leaving anything out.  Once we saw the poem for what it is we forgave what others might call "excess," and we embraced it, this looking back at grief from the future as a person forever changed by loss.


  • Ford, M. (1997). Spawn of Fantasies. New Republic, 216(21), 38-41.
  • Keckler, W. (2007). Mina Loy & Arthur Cravan: "Letters of the Unliving." [Web log, Joe Brainard's Pyjamas].  Retrieved June 4, 2014 from

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Contact the author for permission to republish.

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