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Published on 22nd April 2019

Solitude, multitude, words that seem like polar opposites, and yet, to a flaneur, are interchangeable. In fact, the flaneur finds immense pleasure when alone in a crowd. Eileen Myles, an American poet, has embraced this paradoxical concept of being solitary in the multitude through her obsession with wandering the streets of New York. She has spent a great deal of time in the bustling city, watching her surroundings and writing poetry in isolation. Of course, while she claims to thrive in this solitary life, her book, Not Me, is paradoxically riddled with poetry that contemplates her overbearing sense of aloneness. Interestingly, photographer Vivian Maier also put herself in isolation, and yet suffered from it. Both Myles and Maier not only align in their artistic expression of solitude, but also in their atypicality of straying from stereotypical norms. While they both attempt to thrive in the flaneur setting of being the singular in the multitude, their work reflects their abject loneliness in isolation.

Myles’ ability to be solitary in a crowd allows her to thrive artistically as a flaneur in New York. Myles finds inspiration through observing her surroundings while wandering the streets of the city. In “How I Wrote Certain of My Poems,” Myles finds that walking alone on the 4thof July weekend is “the kind of wreck for which [she] feel[s] like the ideal narrator” (199). Myles is explicitly saying she is most capable of expressing herself as the “ideal narrator” when she is singular in a crowd. Even more, her subtle comment of New York being a “wreck” suggests that she enjoys the very imperfections of a crowd. In fact, Myles’ entire experience as a flaneur revolves around her purposeful solitude. While she adores New York for its crowds, she also paradoxically states that “empty abandoned culture where no one lives anymore which suits me just fine” (199). Here, Myles shows her attraction towards isolation, as she prefers the idea of being somewhere “no one lives anymore.” This idea of solitude in New York extends to her poetry. In her poem “Hot Night,” Myles’ poetic voice practically begs the city, to let her “be lost in the lonesome / place, the human / sea of no one” (53). In this line, Myles yearns for the opportunity to be singular amongst a “sea” of indistinguishable people. In both reality and her poetry, Myles gravitates towards isolation in the movement of a crowd.

While Myles claims to prefer her self-imposed solitude, her poetry paradoxically shows feelings of isolation, revealing an ambiguity in her differing views. As mentioned, Myles openly feels like the “ideal narrator” when alone in the crowd, but the inspiration she gets while alone in the crowd follows themes of unsettling sadness in her isolation. In “Mal Maison” she describes herself as having an “intolerable sad- / ness” while alone in her contemplation (130). Because she is alone, she thinks about how deeply “sad” she feels. The contradictory themes of both wanting solitude and suffering in solitude leads the reader to interpret Myles as unaware of her conflicting approach to isolation. Myles seems to write autobiographically, and yet not; thus, making it challenging to decipher what is her reality and what is her creation. The poetic voice in “Twentieth Century Dinosaur” refers to herself as “Eileen,” prompting the reader to interpret the voice as Myles herself (61). In addition, Myles explicitly states in “How I Write Certain of My Poems,” that she does not “get this fiction thing,” showing she writes from her reality (200). Yet, she named her book Not Me, creating a sense of detachment from the poems inside. While this ambiguity leaves it unclear as to whether Myles is explicitly suffering in her isolation, the fact that she even contemplates loneliness shows it is a topic on her mind, and thus, shows she does have an adverse reaction to her voluntary isolation.

In her self-imposed solitude, Myles’ poetry revolves around her isolated contemplation of death, while further revealing her direct connection to her poems. Death seems to absorb her thoughts in both her reality and in her poetry. In “How I Wrote Certain of my Poems,” Myles explicitly explains she “wasn’t necessarily ready to kill [herself], but everything [she] looked at made [her] think about death” (199). Here, she shows that when she is alone, she cannot help but think of death, and thus, place it in her poetry. In her poem, “The Sadness of Leaving,” Myles’ poetic voice sees death embodied in herself when she says, “my body / in perfect shape / for nothing but / death” (44). With this line, Myles reveals that her isolated contemplation of death causes her to include themes of death throughout her poetry. She even takes her poetic theme of death a step further by incorporating suicidal behaviors. In “Mal Maison,” she hint at the idea of death when she says she bought “marigolds / instead of slitting / my wrists tonight” (127). Once again, Myles is directly showing imagery of death by saying she almost cut herself, a common way to commit suicide. Because she has revealed her habit of writing about what she contemplates in reality, it can then be inferred that while she chooses to be alone, her solitude forces her to face her own loneliness, and possibly contemplate suicide. Her ability to be a singular flaneur allows her to write these poems, but causes her to enter an unhealthy mindset that explores death. Myles’ admittance of thinking about death and then writing about it, implies a possible proof that she feels lonely, as she actually writes about her constant aloneness, similar to how she writes about death.

Even when Myles is surrounded by people, she feels emotionally isolated because of her inability to connect with others. Myles is an atypical woman of her time; a lesbian with more masculine traits than feminine. A woman like Myles contradicts societal norms of the 1980s. Myles’ inability to connect with others occurs in both her personal life and in her poetry. In “How I Write Certain of My Poems,” Myles discusses the idea of getting an agent. This agent compares her to Jill Johnson, but makes sure to let Myles know she means no offence by this claim. However, Myles says she “love[s] Jill Johnson – that’s not an insult” (200). This response to the agent’s question reveals a clear disconnect between Myles and the people around her, as they even differ in their opinions of what good writing is. On the other hand, Myles’ poem “Twentieth Century Dinosaur” presents clear indications of people misunderstanding her. The poetic voice in the poem suspends herself on a crucifix as a performance art piece. Myles’ poetic voice then relays how the crowd responds to her work. These reactions are in no way positive, in fact, they are borderline abusive, and especially dismissive. The crowd laughs at her performance and “wish[es] she’d / get a job,” while “some women from / out-of-town throws / an empty bottle” at her (61). Here, Myles’ voice specifically describes the harsh brutalities of the spectators as they metaphorically rip her apart, exemplifying how people misunderstand her, and subsequently leave her dejected in solitude. In both her reality and her poetry, Myles deals with a sense of misunderstanding, and an inability to be understood. Considering this overlap of themes, Myles once again implies that she writes about issues she faces in her reality.

Further, Myles focuses on her loneliness in love, once again reflecting her mindset while writing these poems. In “How I Write Certain of my Poems,” she describes writing these poems in a time when her “‘love life was a mess” (199). However, even with a distraught love life, she has a sort of “romantic obsession” where “even as it rots and corrupts (Love) I still have to watch” (200). Here, Myles admits that even though she is suffering in love, she cannot help but ‘obsess’ over it. Myles’ contemplation of love is her own personal train wreck; there is clear devastation, but she is unable to look away. This theme of devastation in love is easily the most prevalent theme in her poetry. Numerous poems throughout Not Metackle Myles’ struggles in love, both with love loss in general and with explicit references to an ex-lover. In “Twentieth Century Dinosaur,” Myles views New York as “empty / of love” (59). Through this interpretation of a loveless New York, Myles reveals that she personally is without love, and projects that feeling onto the city. Further, in her poem “The Sadness of Leaving,” she explicitly says to her lover that she is “terrified / to go & you / won’t miss me” (43). Myles worries she is insignificant and unmissable, but yet feels “trapped by love” (44). Though she wants nothing more than to feel wanted and in love, she feels “trapped” in her obsession of it, to the point that it plagues her thoughts when wandering the streets of New York. Just as with death and being misunderstood, Myles writes poetry about the things she admits are on her mind in reality. Meaning, she was thinking about her troubles in love, and thus, wrote about it. Love and death are two sides of the same coin for Myles when she is the solitary walker, as she consistently contemplates both themes in her poetry, implying that they also plague her reality. It seems that when she takes the time to be alone she is drowning in the idea of wanting love, but paradoxically, realizes that it would remove her from the solitude that she artistically thrives in.

In fact, when she eventually finds love, Myles is unable to creatively be a flaneur because she is no longer emotionally alone. Myles’ poem “Peanut Butter” is notably one of her only poems with a positive, or hopeful tone. This poem also happens to be one of the only ones where her poetic voice is “immoderately / in love” (71). By discussing happiness in love, Myles reveals to the reader that the happy tone throughout the poem connects to her lack of loneliness, further implying the joy she feels when not isolated. In the poem, she ponders happily about her time with her lover, but makes a point to say she “write[s] behind [her] back” (70). Myles is admitting that in order to be the “ideal narrator” she must separate herself from the woman she loves. Not because she does not love her, or because her thoughts are secrets, but because she says “with / you I know how / to relax. & / so I work / behind your / back” (71). Here, Myles recognizes she needs solitude in order to create art. Even more, Myles in unable to write her usual poetry laced with loneliness when she is with this lover. While this is Myles’ poetic voice, and not actually her, one can interpret it as her views because she has admitted to this connection with her contemplation of death, her inability to connect with others, and her mess of a love life. If she openly writes about these themes, this poem discussing her happiness in love can be directly related to her life as well. Thus, this poem shows that Myles needs solitude to happily write and be a flaneur, but it also means to write, she must be in a state of unhappy isolation. In love she is not alone, she is a part of a collective, and thus, cannot be self-deprecating. She needs the inspiration she got when watching love “rot” in order to write.

Similar to Myles, photographer Vivian Maier put herself in solitude, but exhibited clear signs of utter loneliness. Maier never directly expressed her feelings about death or heartbreak, but did purposefully distance herself from others to create her art. While Maier never discussed her life publicly, the film Finding Vivian Maierinterviewed people she once knew. One individual noted that Vivian “was kind of a loner” (Maloof). In fact, all of her previous employers described her as a mysterious woman, including one who said Maier “was eccentric, … and intensely private” (Maloof). Through these comments, it is clear Maier kept to herself, remaining emotionally separate from the families she nannied for. To take pictures, Maier perused the streets of Chicago, searching for her next subject. Just like Myles, Maier had to wander the streets of a crowded city alone. Maier did have children with her, but she mentally lived in her own world, one in which these children, at the time, could never understand. However, she still yearned for some kind of human connection. One woman, Carole, describes running into Vivian 30 years after working together. In that encounter, Vivian begs this woman to “please don't leave” (Maloof). When she finally tells Vivian she has to go, Carole recalls the “despair in [Vivian’s] voice” (Maloof). By begging this woman to stay, Maier reveals her desire for a connection with another human. The fact that Maier clearly wanted a friend shows that being singular in the multitude can lead to loneliness, further supporting the claim that Myles too suffered from her seclusion. Both Myles and Maier created their own solitude to work creatively, but in doing so, also created an environment for abject isolation.

Similar to Myles, Maier’s atypicality causes people to misunderstand her. Maier does not fit stereotypical female gender norms, especially not in the 1950s.The people who knew her say she wore “army boots,” and “men’s shirts,” and was extremely tall, maybe even “seven feet!” (Maloof). While not actually this tall, Maier clearly was different than the norm. Even more, this exaggerated description of her being “seven feet” tall, shows that people interpreted Maier as almost an oddity, just as the crowd heckling Myles did. Through her appearance and voluntary seclusion, Maier confused those around her, leading them to not understand or interact with her. While she liked being alone, being misunderstood is not the ideal, especially for someone who did seem to desperately want friends. She even had feminist traits before it was in style. In the film, Maier says in an old audio tape that “women are supposed to be opinionated, I hope” (Maloof). Maier pushed the feminist idea that women have a voice too. Even as a flaneur, Maier and Myles are different, as women would not normally wander the streets of a big city, alone. All of these peculiarities make others not understand, or connect with, Maier.

When considering her isolation and her similarities to Myles, Maier’s photography includes themes of solitude, and quite possibly, loneliness. In some of her photos, Maier focus on individuals and their faces, revealing an emotional tension that is sometimes unhappy. Paralleling Myles, Maier used her life as inspiration for her photography, as her website points out her photos “betray an affinity for the poor, arguably because of an emotional kinship she felt with those struggling to get by” (Maloof). If Maier used her own poverty as inspiration, then she more than likely also used her isolation as inspiration. One of the more obvious examples comes from her photo “Weary Willie,” which depicts a man, frowning with clown makeup on (see fig. 1). This man is the focal point of the photograph. His singularity forces the viewer to focus on his emotional state. With a frown, drooping eyes, and slumped shoulders, this man is both alone, and portraying a devastatingly sad expression. Maier photographed this man specifically in this way, which allows the reader to draw comparisons to Myles’ poetic themes of loneliness. Both Myles and Maier portray a sense of sadness while in solitude.

Fig. 1 Vivian Maier. Emmett Kelly as the clown figure “Weary Willie.”VivianMaier.com

Even when an individual was not necessarily alone, Maier’s photos still seems to revolve around a single individual and their experience through facial expressions. Another picture, undated and untitled, includes two individuals, and yet the woman is the clear focus of the photo (see fig. 2). She is mostly centered with her expression visible to the camera. She too portrays a sad, practically defeated, expression. This picture can be interpreted as a representation of love in a negative connotation. The two are standing next to each other while she holds balloons, a usual sign for celebration, but yet they unhappily face away from each other. While it is up for debate what these pictures represent, they can easily convey a sense of solitude, even in love. Similar to Myles, Maier is drawing inspiration from her own struggles of aloneness, and using it in her endeavors to create art while being singular in the crowd.

Fig. 2. Vivian Maier. A photograph of a man and woman. Undated. VivianMaier.com

For the flaneur, being alone in the crowd is vital. Both Myles and Maier exemplify the flaneur-esque yearning for solitude. Unfortunately, while they excel at creating art in their isolation, they also both exhibit signs of struggling with their inability to connect with others, forcing them to always be alone, even in times when they need human connections. Eileen Myles enjoys solitude, but when she is alone she writes poetry drowning in a sea of lost love and suicidal contemplation. While her ambiguity makes it hard to decipher if she is directly referring to herself in her poetry, it is still clear when she is alone, she writes about these themes. She even shows in the poem “Peanut Butter” the possibility that once she is not alone, she cannot create. To Myles, she must create, subsequently making her always alone and contemplating that aloneness. Maier’s work and biography support this claim that solitude is necessary for art, yet detrimental for the soul, as she wanted privacy, but also friendship. These two atypical women follow patterns of voluntary isolation in order to artistically create, but this same isolation is detrimental to their own well-being, as they are unable to experience real human connections.

Works Cited

Finding Vivian Maier. Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, Ravine Pictures, 2013.

Maloof, John.Vivian Maier. Maloof Collection, http://www.vivianmaier.com, Assessed 22Apr. 2019.

Myles, Eileen. Not Me. Semiotext, 1991.