Did You Know Marilyn Monroe Was a Poet?

MM statue bendigo 2016.jpg

It’s day six of NaPoWriMo 2016, and as one of those who has ‘fallen behind’ in the challenge I hope to catch up over the weekend. Today, I’m revisiting Day Three when I substituted a different poem for the challenge to:

write a poem in the form of a fan letter to a celebrity. Now, this could be a celebrity from long ago, and needn’t be an actor or singer (though it could be). You could write to George Washington or Dorothy Dandridge, Marie Curie or The Weeknd. Happy writing!

I wanted to write a poem tribute about Marilyn Monroe after visiting the special exhibition Marilyn at Bendigo Art Gallery. This comprehensive display comprises of authentic artefacts, clothing and other memorabilia belonging to, or worn by Marilyn.

There are more than 20 original costumes from some of her greatest films with clips from the movies and interviews with Marilyn playing alongside. She is stunning in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, Love Nest and of course the infamous moment when she sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr President‘ to JFK.

MM entrance to art gallery

There are also numerous dresses and accessories from Marilyn’s personal wardrobe and dresses by her favourite designer Emilio Pucci. She preferred understated style away from the screen and it’s strange to see the grey skirt, plain salmon pink blouse and beige sweater – such a contrast to that revealing white dress adorning the eight-metre-high sculpture, and the white fox fur muffs and gold lamé dress she wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

There is a lot in this exhibition to introduce us to a Marilyn most of us don’t know.

Among the many diaries uncovered after she died, there were journals of poetry and long entries retelling her dreams and thoughts and observations about people and events. She kept a writer’s notebook and used her poet’s eye.

There are original scripts with personal notes scrawled in pencil about directions and performance: ‘reveal electricity in dancing’ ‘sparkling face’ ‘didn’t expect success every time’

Monroe was a complex figure, full of paradoxes and contradictions. Her roles seem to define a limited, highly regulated vision of female power and desire, but her performances often subverted and tested these definitions. Shrewd, ambitious, intelligent, vulnerable, politically aware, she wanted to extend herself. She was often anxious and insecure about her abilities, but also determined to do more with them, to take her talents and use the celebrity she understood so well to different ends.

welcome to bendigo sign with MM

In 1953, the year I was born, Marilyn was presented with the 20th Century Fox Award for Sweetest Girl in Motion Pictures, and along with Jane Russell she preserved her hands, footprints and name in wet concrete outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Hollywood.

Marilyn was 27 years old and for seven years was portrayed as a superficial blonde bombshell by Fox Studios. In 1954 after a life-changing trip to Korea to perform for the troops she recognised her worth and popularity, demanded a pay rise and better working conditions. Rebelling against the dumb blonde image, she even started her own production company, Marilyn Monroe productions.

She was ahead of her time because not many actresses were successful businesswomen or liberated enough to establish their own company and renegotiate contracts.

But, in 1962 (the year I was 9 years old and my family emigrated to Australia), Marilyn Monroe was found dead from a drug overdose. Was it accidental? Suicide? Murder? The jury is still out and conspiracy theories abound.

How shocking, married at 16 and dead at 36.

The tragedy and legend of Norma Jeane Baker who became Marilyn Monroe was part of my childhood. In the 1960s, popular and gossip magazines proliferated, celebrity news items tumbled out of Hollywood, television brought the big cinematic stars into lounge rooms.

The shops and cafes in Bendigo have caught the Marilyn bug and are milking her popularity:

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I want to be an artist, not an erotic freak. I don’t want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac.

Marilyn Monroe

In the exhibition you see the books on her bedside table when she died: Of Stars And men, Oh, Careless Love, Man’s Supreme Inheritance and Human response to Our Expanding Universe. She had a personal library of over 400 books and prided herself on lifelong learning and enjoying intellectual conversations.

[about reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet] I was never told what to read, and nobody ever gave me anything to read. You know — the way there are certain books that everybody reads while they’re growing up? . . . So what I do is — nights when I’ve got nothing else to do I go to the Pickwick bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard. And I just open books at random — or when I come to a page or a paragraph I like, I buy that book. So last night I bought this one. Is that wrong?
… Arthur Miller wouldn’t have married me if I had been nothing but a dumb blonde.

A prized possession was an autographed photograph of Einstein ‘To Marilyn with respect and love.’

Of course, Gossip magazines are there too:
Motion Picture, Screen Guide, Modern Screen, Foto Parade, 3D Movie, Photoplay and many of the headlines and articles are about Marilyn. Her professional and personal life often in turmoil with a string of unsuccessful marriages and affairs.

1960: The very private life of Marilyn Monroe you’ve waited ten years for...
1961: Can Marilyn live down her past?
Marilyn Monroe Life as a Divorcee… Marilyn Monroe Secret Marriage Plans

Overwhelmed at seeing her name in lights and being famous, she stopped the car one day to take a photograph from a distance saying, ‘Somebody made a mistake.’

You-Dont-Need_outline-300x300.jpgShe suffered chronic insecurity regarding her acting ability and performance anxiety made her physically ill. Add the pain of endometriosis and insomnia. She was often late on set and this tardiness infuriated co-stars and crew.

An actor is not a machine, no matter how much they want to say you are. Creativity has got to start with humanity and when you’re a human being, you feel, you suffer, you’re gay, you’re sick, you’re nervous or whatever.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn overcame a difficult childhood. She never knew her father and her schizophrenic mother paid others to look after  little ‘Norma Jeane’ who spent years in care. Shunted from orphanage to foster homes, Marilyn remembered being sexually assaulted and raped.

No wonder she married a neighbour at 16 when her religious fundamentalist foster parents abandoned her by moving interstate. They said they couldn’t afford to take her, but perhaps they were glad to pass the responsibility for their attractive, busty, determined, ambitious charge to someone else.

Visit the exhibition, immerse yourself in the information, objects and atmosphere. Let your imagination loose.

An authentic object that once belonged to an enigmatic star is sure to prompt a frisson of excitement in even the most detached viewer.

Yes, indeed! It prompted me to write a poem.


I decided to experiment with the pantoum form because I had so much information. There were certain facts about Marilyn’s life that repeated like a motif, plus her story and legacy can’t be captured in a few words.

The poem will need more work but if I don’t post now, another day in the poetry challenge is lost. For those who don’t know, or have forgotten what a pantoum is here are the basic attributes:

• A pantoum is a poetry form originally from Malaysia, invented around fifteenth century, using repetition and rhyme woven like a braid. In a traditional pantoum, each line is repeated twice in a specific pattern.
• English-language pantoums often follow the traditional form loosely, “bending” the rules.
• A pantoum may consist of a few stanzas or go on forever! Using four line stanzas, repetition and braiding it works similar to the villanelle.
• Frequently, in a pantoum, the same line or phrase has a different meaning the second time it appears in a poem, either because of slight changes in the punctuation or wording or because of what’s around it.
• The poet may vary the repeating lines so they are not exactly the same – this is the art of writing in a fixed form to avoid an already repetitive form from becoming boring.
• Variety is the key to writing well in form. Tweak the form a bit, play with repetition, line length, metre and rhythm.
• Pantoums are composed of quatrains, groups of four lines.
• The first line of a quatrain repeats the second line of the quatrain before it.
• The third line of a quatrain repeats the fourth line of the quatrain before it.
• A pantoum thus has an interlocking pattern.


Will The Real Marilyn Please Stand Up
Mairi Neil

Dressed in that white dress you set the world on fire
‘The Marilyn Monroe’ – a legacy larger than your life
The personification of womanhood all men desire
Popular pin-up girl, sex symbol, and beautiful wife.

The Marilyn Monroe’ – a legacy larger than your life
What makes you an enduring sex goddess men adore?
Popular pin-up girl ,sex symbol, and beautiful wife
The untarnished ‘girl next door’ archetype no more.

What makes you an enduring symbol for women to adore?
Oozing sensuality, wooing audiences, a photographer’s delight
The untarnished ‘girl next door’ gone, Norma Jeane no more
The childhood sexual abuse, mother’s rejection hidden from sight.

Oozing sensuality, wooing audiences, a photographer’s delight
Glamorous gowns sculpted around a classic hourglass frame
Your childhood sexual abuse and rejection hidden from sight
Privately, you abandoned celebrity fashion; anguished over fame

Glamorous gowns sculpted around your classic hourglass frame
Silks, satins, bugle beads, sequins, sunburst pleats aswirl
Privately celebrity fashion abandoned, you anguished over fame
Marilyn, no calendar girl but an Aphrodite transforming at will.

Silks, satins, bugle beads, sequins, sunburst pleats aswirl
Hiding the scars of endometriosis, surgery, and miscarriage
Marilyn, no calendar girl but an Aphrodite transforming at will
Smouldering siren under floodlights glaring on your marriages

Hiding the scars of endometriosis, surgery, and miscarriage
Unguarded moments reveal your anxieties and desperate aloneness
No smouldering siren when focus on divorces, affairs, and marriages
The singing and dancing blonde bombshell rejected as meaningless

Unguarded moments reveal your anxieties and desperate aloneness
Yet, beneath fragility and addiction, your strong independent mind
Rejecting the singing and dancing blonde bombshell as meaningless
If alive today in a changed world perhaps a sense of self you’d find.

People chose to mock and undervalue your strong independent mind
Marilyn, the educated reader who loved writing poetry and prose
If alive today in a changed world perhaps a sense of self you’d find.
Male power and their fantasies would be declared the real foes

We will not let die the Marilyn you, so wanted to be
Not just the breathy, brainless sex symbol some men desire
But a serious, dedicated actor, seeking to be happy and free
With your talent, as well as beauty, you set the world on fire!

In the early days, struggling to transition from model to actress, Marilyn posed nude for $50. The image in the Avendon calendar was bought for $500 by Hugh Heffner who used it as the centrefold for the first issue of Playboy Magazine in 1953. He sold 54,000 copies!

However, Eve Arnold, another photographer, and a friend captured Marilyn’s unguarded moments…

The legend of Marilyn blossomed like a blast of heady perfume but the smouldering siren was only a pose, a part she played for the very public Marilyn Monroe but couldn’t live…

Reflecting on 2014: Joy, Sadness, Love and Laughter – Mindfulness!

Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognise a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.

Thich Nhat Han

There is a lot of joy in our house at the moment with Anne’s return, although there are days when she misses the travelling life and all the dear friends she made overseas. Joy too because Mary Jane has completed a great year of studies and is embarking on a career in 2015 doing something she likes, but hopefully still allowing time for her creative juices to flow. For me, thank goodness my established classes and links with the three community houses where I work have been confirmed for another year.

There will be bumps along the way for us all, however, the old adage ‘count your blessings’ is a reminder of what is important in life and to nurture relationships and to keep looking forward to adding to those blessings.

When reflecting on my writing year I’m grateful to work with students keen to learn because through preparing the classes and workshopping, I learn too – and I write. I don’t always have the opportunity to edit and polish my work, but the words are there, scrawled in an increasingly large pile of notebooks. Perhaps the pieces I don’t return to are better left as rough drafts, or are waiting to be discovered months, or years down the track and improved upon with the distance of time and increased skill!

Each year I do try to increase my writing and teaching skillset, and with the generosity of the worldwide web, this is easy to do. This year I took more free courses with Open University Australia, Coursera, and an Easy Journalling Challenge as well as reading widely and attending talks by other writers. This year hearing Paddy O’Reilly (The Wonders, AFFIRMpress), Nicole Hayes (Woolshed Press) and Catherine Harris (Black Inc) in conversation with Lisa Hill, a definite highlight.

Nicole, Lisa, Paddy, Catherine and Yours truly

I’m grateful to Poetica Christi Press for being included in their two anthologies published this year and to Melaleuca Blue Life Writing, which will publish my story Broth and Trouble, in their anthology February 2015. I have to thank my writing buddies and dear friends, Maureen Hanna and Glenice Whitting for always being encouraging and honest when reading my drafts. Thanks too must go to writer and friend, Lisa Hill who writes an amazing award winning blog and has encouraged me to publish book reviews and increase my online presence. And then there is the Mordialloc Writers’ Group meeting every fortnight to share and listen to each other’s words. These workshop nights have been running almost 20 years and have helped many writers to be published as well as form lifelong friendships. Along with the monthly Readings By The Bay where we can also share our work and practise reading to an audience, the writing group is invaluable.

Another site I visit often to learn about memoir and life writing is Women’s Memoirs  established by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett. After winning one of their competitions, in 2010, I now correspond with Matilda and when Mary Jane and I visited America we spent a wonderful day with Matilda and husband Bill, in Portland, Oregon. Writing has given me so much pleasure as well as new friends – and even a bar of Mindfulness Soap!

Kendra and I are pleased to announce the winner of last month’s Women’s Memoir Contest. This woman created an exceptional story complete with recipe and photos for our KitchenScraps feature.
Once we published it, she got out the word to friends, family, and sister writers. When they responded to her story, she promptly added her own comments. She motivated several readers to prepare her mother’s scones and got rave reviews. In other words, she began creating a community around her story.

Of course, when we announced our contest, we didn’t realize that our February winner would live in Australia. So, as I write this blog, Mairi’s bar of Mindfulness Soap is making its way across the ocean. She promises a photo of her once the prize arrives and we’ll post it here.


This year I pushed myself to learn new forms of poetry and a site I love to explore is The Poetry Foundation because you can hear poets recite their poems in their own voice and there is a broad range of articles and examples of poems from all over the world.

This year too, I encouraged my classes to write pantoums – poems especially suited for memoir:

The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, and Western writers altered and adapted the form, the importance of rhyming and brevity diminished. The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The last line of a pantoum is often the same as the first… One exciting aspect of the pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that can occur as repeated phrases are revised with different punctuation and thereby given a new context.

Mum’s Wisdom

Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respect
Especially when ill-feeling grips

A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife

We all face hard choices in life
Dignity retained when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift

Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.

Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!

Mairi Neil 2014.

Springtime Sorrow

I remember that spring of sorrow
When sadness shadowed every hour
I dreaded facing the morrow
Stopping time not within my power

When sadness shadowed every hour
Minutes smouldering like a claro
Stopping time not within my power
I prayed for courage to borrow

Minutes smouldering like a claro
Facing your death made me cower
I prayed for courage to borrow –
The bitterness of loss oh, so sour

Facing your death made me cower
Dread facing every future morrow
The bitterness of loss still tastes sour
When I remember that spring of sorrow.

Mairi Neil 2014

Mirror to the Past

I could be looking in a mirror
When my daughter smiles at me
Her hair is dark, eyes hazel too
A younger me, I see.

When my daughter smiles at me
Tilts her head and laughs aloud
A younger me I see
No shadow of ageing’s cloud

She tilts her head and laughs aloud
With a chuckle so infectious
No shadow of ageing’s cloud
Her expression purely joyous.

Mary Jane’s chuckle is infectious
Dark hair shines; hazel eyes sparkle
Youthful expression purely joyous
I wish I was looking in a mirror!

Mairi Neil 2014

Seeking Serenity

A stroll by the sea at the close of day
When life’s busyness needs to go
I watch the sun sink and always say
Sunsets give the world its glow

When life’s busyness needs to go
Worries crumble and be blown away
Fears tossed with one easy throw
At waves lapping or roaring at play

Worries must crumble and blow away
Their power not allowed to grow
Waves lapping and roaring at play
Nature’s balm a constant flow

Troubles not allowed to grow
As I watch the sun sink, and say
Nature’s balm is a constant flow
With a seaside stroll at the end of day.

Mairi Neil 2014