Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Birthday Weekend

Portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1933-01-14)

Portrait of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1933-01-14) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, okay, so her birthday was actually Friday, the 22nd. But I imagine that as long as you don’t ask her age, or if you at least intimate that it must certainly be far younger than the actual number (121 to be exact, as she was born in 1892), I am sure that Millay would be quite happy to spend this entire weekend as the center of attention in a celebration that’s all about her.

I am sorry that I didn’t get this post out to you sooner, but aside from working this weekend, I’ve been spending a great deal of time soaking Vincent, as she liked to be called, all in,  reading more on her, and re-reading poems, including my 1922 hard copy of A Few Figs From Thistles.

It’s a lovely little read and if you click here, the whole text is online. I’ve also spent a great deal of time listening to others read her poems, like this young man on soundcloud who took the time,on what appears to be a college or public radio station in Philadelphia, to read the entire volume I just mentioned. It takes him about a half an hour, and his commentary is frankly kind of cute.

Beyond a few of her poems in her own voice and many other competent readers, the most exciting surprise was the discovery of several of Millay’s poems set to music, in styles from folk to classical, from rap to stage musical. Most were great to listen to, some were amazing, and others were, well, brave. I’ll include a few favorites below.

It was also lovely to find that there is an actress who has been doing a show on the road about Millay’s life, letters, poetry and plays. Sue McCormick was interviewed by BBC Radio 4 about her show “Wild as the White Waves,” and you can listen in by clicking here. 

Kate Bolick’s article, “Working Girl” on the Poetry Foundation website is a great read for more information about Millay. It’s where I learned that although she is usually credited, even today, as being the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the fact is that there were two lady poets before her to win that prize. “But who beyond poetry scholars remembers Sara Teasdale and Margaret Widdemer?” Kate also did a fetching little podcast with Curtis Fox of “Poetry Off the Shelf” for Valentine’s Day. “Poetry’s Adventurous Valentine,” is definitely well worth a listen.

If you’ve been reading here long you just might remember my video and post about her during April’s National Poetry Month, and my little poem “Of My Ego and the Muse” that seems to be inspired by her “Portrait by a Neighbor.”  I had commented then that I was a bit annoyed by a bookstore matron’s verbal dislike of Millay the day I purchased my old copy of  A Few Figs from Thistles.

But as much as her critics’ ire surprises me, I am even more puzzled by those who love her work but fail to see the depth of irony in it. One of the interviews I listened to quoted a man who said that Millay is not studied in college because her meaning is too clear and obvious. “She is not difficult enough.” Oh, and this, dear reader you may know is a pet peeve of mine. Accessible does not equal simplistic. How can someone read “Second Fig” and not realize that the poet is very much aware, not only of how much she is rebelling against certain societal values, but how precarious some such rebellions are.

SECOND FIG

SAFE upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Obviously the writer, or the speaker in the poem, is quite aware that what she has built will not remain standing for very long. How deftly in so few words she revels in the present glory whilst negatively critiquing its foundation. And the even more frequently quoted “First Fig” likewise has such an underlying irony and complexity to it.

FIRST FIG

MY candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

She knows that burning the candle at both ends, whether it be interpreted financially, romantically or otherwise, is quite a danger. Millay worked hard and played hard in those days. She knows the risk; “It will not last the night.” She is honest with herself, no sugar-coating the truth here, but she chooses, pardon the pun, to look on the bright side, as in the poem “The Penitent,” in which she says after a failed attempt at remorse, “But if I can’t be sorry, why, / I might as well be glad!”

THE PENITENT

I HAD a little Sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, “Little Sorrow, weep,” said I,
“And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I’ve been!”

Alas for pious planning–
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My little Sorrow would not weep,
My little Sin would go to sleep–
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!

So up I got in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad.
And, “One thing there’s no getting by–
I’ve been a wicked girl,” said I;
“But if I can’t be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!”

Do people really see this as simply glib rebellion? Certainly Vincent is having some fun here, but I think as in “Portrait by a Neighbor” she has this way of criticizing herself while simultaneously giving an honest shrug of those pretty little shoulders of hers. She leaves it up to you to decide how serious to take her, which is very shrewd of her because it allows Millay to be a social participant as well as a social commentator. A unique position that takes a smart artist to achieve. Catherine Keyser has a good grasp on this in her “American Periodicals” article “Edna St. Vincent Millay and the Very Clever Woman in Vanity Fair.”

Her adult engagement with midtown magazine culture as represented by Vanity Fair—the quipping style this magazine encouraged and the gendered types it employed to market a sophisticated lifestyle—explains in part her development of this comic aesthetic. Further, her periodical work provides an ironic commentary on the gender tensions found within intellectual and print culture in New York in the 1920s.

The implication, even in the title of the piece, is that the writer is not always the same person as the poet, and this persona can change from piece to piece. In this way she reminds me a bit of the old trickster, her contemporary, Robert Frost. Both of them put a fair amount of work into sculpting their public image.

And no matter how wild her personal life may have been, however many lovers, of either sex, how open her marriage relationship, the point is she was married and happily so for 26 years, most of that at “Steeple Top,” their home in upstate New York, before her husband Eugen Jan Boissevain passed away. One year later at the age of 58 she would follow him in death after a tumble down the stairs.

Say what you will, but there was honesty in the music of her verse, and clever modern content in her traditional forms. I have given you plenty of links here to research more if you wish to do so, and I hope you enjoy her presence as I have this weekend. Below I give  you a bit more of a sampling of words and sounds, including a few songs, like “The Penitent” above, by Katie Barbato from “The Edna St. Vincent Millay Tapes,” as well as a couple of poems in Vincent’s voice and one very casual reading by yours truly.

Thank you for making your birthday a happy time of remembrance for us, Vincent. I never knew you, but I am sure, like all the others, I would have loved you.

THE PHILOSOPHER

AND what are you that, missing you,
I should be kept awake
As many nights as there are days
With weeping for your sake?

And what are you that, missing you,
As many days as crawl
I should be listening to the wind
And looking at the wall?

I know a man that’s a braver man
And twenty men as kind,
And what are you, that you should be
The one man in my mind?

Yet women’s ways are witless ways,
As any sage will tell,–
And what am I, that I should love
So wisely and so well?

I love the way the reader finishes the poem, by the way. I’ve heard many attempt this, but I think this is the right way.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

This is Millay’s own reading, as is the following one of “Ricuerdo.”

IV

I SHALL forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far,–
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

RECUERDO

WE were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable–
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry–
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

And finally, this was my reading of Sonnet 2 from A Few Figs From Thistles. Pardon it’s casualness. It was late. I coughed. Vincent and I had been smoking and drinking. We were very tired. We were very merry. But she insisted I leave the cough in and not edit the audio. She said it sounded “intimate,” and “kinda sexy.”

II

I THINK I should have loved you presently,
And given in earnest words I flung in jest;
And lifted honest eyes for you to see,
And caught your hand against my cheek and breast;
And all my pretty follies flung aside
That won you to me, and beneath your gaze,
Naked of reticence and shorn of pride,
Spread like a chart my little wicked ways.
I, that had been to you, had you remained,
But one more waking from a recurrent dream,
Cherish no less the certain stakes I gained,
And walk your memory’s halls, austere, supreme,
A ghost in marble of a girl you knew
Who would have loved you in a day or two.

About these ads

26 thoughts on “Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Birthday Weekend

    • Oh, now that is sad. Again, perhaps it is because she was considered light verse by certain “academics?” She wrote some of the “greatest sonnets of her time,” according to poet Richard Wilbur. And I agree with him.

  1. David, David, David… why are you not teaching poetry?

    I have learned so much from your blog in the several months I’ve been hanging around here. The thing I appreciate most, has rekindled my interest in poetry, is your insistence that accessible does not equal simplistic. It seems to me that a poet would want someone to understand what it is they’re saying — I mean, maybe, back in the day, when books and poems were the main source of learning and entertainment, and life was simpler, people had more time to read a poem, to ponder, and reflect upon it’s meaning. In today’s bustling world, where often we can barely find time to sit and read, who’s going to want to read something that is going to take days to understand? Not that there’s anything wrong with writing poems with layers of meaning, because some people enjoy that.

    Once, people’s education was based on the classics, they knew the Greeks and Romans, and the myths and philosophies of old. And, when poets wrote about Casseopeia, readers knew the story, so could understand the poem. We don’t learn those things any longer, so poems that talk about Cassandra, and are metaphor for something else the poet is trying to imply, we don’t get the poem. And people walk away. I would suspect that the inaccessibility of many poets is what keeps people from exploring poetry further.

    So, thanks for always reminding us that there are poems full of understandable, accessible meaning.

    I also suspect, that like much other art, there will always be debates between various sides about what is acceptable, and what isn’t, and about what makes something brilliant, and what doesn’t.

    I don’t know if you have a smartphone, and are familiar with the app Poem Flow? Thursday and Friday’s poem were both Vincent’s: Time does not bring relief; you all have lied, and If I Should Learn, In Some Casual Way (which I simply love!), so Vincent has been on my mind the past few days — so, thanks for this post.

    And thanks for always making me feel a little smarter after each of your thoughtful posts.

    • I had to sit down and read this comment out loud to Brian, John. I just cannot tell you how rewarding responses like these are, better than hundreds of views, the knowledge that I had some part in nurturing someone’s love of poetry. And the teaching of poetry thing, well, we’re working on that. ;) Thank you, John. Truly.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful introduction to Edna St. Vincent Millay. I enjoyed experiencing her work, and feel I got to know not just some of her work, but a bit of her spirit by your post.
    Russ

    • Oh heavens yes. I guess I forget that theses days not everyone has the same literary references about common Bible stories as you and I do. I should have mentioned it and given short explication. If the wise man built his house upon the rock and the foolish man built his house upon the sand, well that makes the explanation of her palace even more clear. Of course in 1920 when this was written, everyone in America would probably have understood the reference, and so she’s being very in-your-face in this poem. Still, the fascinating thing to me is that she is obviously well aware of the danger, and so it seems to me that she feels she is at least being honest. :)

      I also like the Biblical reference in the title of the book, A Few Figs from Thistles. Jesus said that one doesn’t grow figs from thistles, and bad tree does not bear good fruit. She has this ironic response to that. Partly it argues against him, and yet. . . Yes, I should spend more time on that in a future essay.

    • Yes, indeed. I don’t know Vincent well enough to make the wider argument myself, but it does seem that she felt comfortable writing in a way that defies religious expectations, as Charlotte Bronte did in Jane Eyre seventy-five years earlier. I guess that since Bronte and Thackeray had been doing this, it was a little less shocking than we imagine it to have been? Must look up contemporary critical reception of her work.

    • Thank you, dear! I am so happy to hear you enjoyed it. It’s a little longer between posts this week, but I have some publication projects I am working on, and the next post will be my 300th, so I want to give it some serious attention. :)

  3. You’ve been rather quiet this week… I hope that it’s just because you’re busy, rather than because there’s anything wrong….. Hope you’re well.

    • Oh no! I’m sorry to have worried you, John. I’m fine. It just has been a busy week. I’ve been working on actually submitting to publications again. It’s been forever, and I really hate the drudge work of it, so I’ve been trying to buckle down and meet a few deadlines.

      That and the fact that my next post will be post number 300, which I want to be special, has kept me from sitting down to work on the blog this week. I have a huge block of time set aside tomorrow though, so you’ll see me posting again on Monday. xo Thanks for checking up on me!

    • John, you’ve been making some great poetry comments this week. I promise to respond soon. In the meantime, could you do me a favor? I’m having trouble playing back these embedded soundcloud clips on my page. They seem to play fine on Facebook, but any soundcloud clip embedded in a blog, even those outside of mine, will not play for me. My son, the monkey said it’s not working for him either. Could you try playing these again on this post and let me know if they work for you, and what browser you are using? I am in communication with soundcloud peeps about it. Won’t work for me in Chrome, Firefox or IE. Thanks!

    • I played back both of my clips .. but, I run on on an iMac computer. The Mary Oliver clip I made on my windows laptop, and it plays for me, the Bukowski clip on made on the make and plays fine. I run on Safari, the Mac browser.

      I just tried on my laptop also, which runs on Windows 7, using Firefox browser… both clips played their also.

  4. I added a post, asking for feedback, about the sound recording playback… check out the comments — seems that it’s played for several people with no issue….

    • Oh no! I’m sorry. I was unclear. I didn’t mean the sounds on your post. Your sound files play perfectly. I meant the souncloud files that I had embedded into my blog from soundcloud.com. Please forgive me for the confusion I caused. I must have worded that completely wrong. :(

    • I guess you worded it just fine.. I was just the one who didn’t read it properly. :-) I think I slept a bit too much last night, and my brain hasn’t been quite too functional today.

      The soundcloud clips are working ok for me… they sound just fine, play just fine. I tried on both my Mac, using Safari, and on my Windows laptop, using Firefox, and they play in both places…..

      Sorry for my slow brain :-)

    • Odd. . . not your brain, but that it played for you in Firefox. Now I am stumped. It doesn’t play for me or my son who lives and hour away. .. Thanks for checking! And sorry about the confusion. Glad you slept! :)

  5. Pingback: David Reads “Health Food Diner” by Maya Angelou | The Dad Poet
  6. Pingback: A Thursday Love Poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay | The Dad Poet
  7. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay | The Dad Poet

Talk to me:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s