POETS Day! Edna St. Vincent Millay

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

Happy New Year and welcome to the first POETS Day of 2023. It’s not a prime numbered year, but that’s okay. If every year were prime we wouldn’t look forward to them the way we do. I don’t know what new challenges and joys may arise this trip around the sun but I do know that old challenges have a habit of carrying over. Work still takes time away from better uses and you still feel the loss of time most acutely as the miniscule bit of it that is yours to use freely approaches. The weekend is coming. Stop waiting. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization. Nearly all means are justified by the urge to prematurely escape the bonds of employment and settle in at a friendly neighborhood joint a few hours before even happy hour begins, find a park bench and a guitar and busk, put on your two-tone shoes and play the ponies, or God forbid, go for a light jog. It’s your weekend. Do with it as you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.

I knew little to nothing of Edna St. Vincent Millay until the beginning of this week. I’ve come across her work before and read a few poems here and there, but she was a name on a long list of names I resigned to never find the time to get to know as much as I wished. Her name came up in reference to a crossword puzzle. The clue was “Poet _____ Wylie” and I had “EL_NOR” but if I was right about the across word the name would be “ELINOR.” I’d never seen it spelled that way so I checked Google. There she was. Elinor Wylie. I downloaded one of Wylie’s collections and while some was really good most was structurally impressive with little content or vice versa. It was a small sampling and she was well though of during her time so I’m not passing judgement yet, but I did notice that among those who admired her was Millay, several volumes of who’s work a quick search showed was available at the library down the road. I checked her out.

I started with “Renascence,” the first poem from Millay’s first published collection. It’s twenty plus stanzas and I was bored after the first three so I put it down. It came across as childish. I’m glad I found a reference to the poem as her grand entrance to the literary world because that guilted me into giving it another shot. It was childish, in the beginning. The pace picks up and she draws the reader in to with a sustained immediacy. You don’t notice the build in intensity until she wants you to and by then you are swept up. That early childish narrator has been reborn as a creature of frightening vision. “Renascence” is wonderful if you aren’t stupid enough to give up on it early.

Her most famous poem is “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver.” In 1923 it was prominent among the works that earned her the second ever Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I didn’t care for the beginning of this poem at first either, but after my “Renascence” misjudgment guilt pressed me forward to find that I didn’t really like the middle or end either. It was a fantastical account of the heartwarming sacrifices her mother made in real life for her children but one of the dangers of writing about heartwarming sacrifices is wallowing in saccharine.

Her sonnets are incredible. Richard Wilbur said of Millay that she “wrote some of the best sonnets of the century.” I started with the intent of reading a few here and there while I watched Bologna v AC Roma. The game was on, but I didn’t see anything other than the final score and one questionable yellow card. I didn’t want to put the book down. My favorite sonnets were the ones published in 1921 with other works in the collection Second April. Those are realized works of structure and empathy. She wrote them about her affair with the poet Arthur Davison Ficke, an affair she felt was doomed as love will not endure. They are untitled in the collection I read and referred to by the first line in the table of contents, so it’s from the one known as “Let you not say of me when I am old” that I quote this magnificent line: “I am the booth where folly holds her fair;”. I wish I knew this woman.

Or at least I think I do. She was passionate about the world and justice. I don’t know that I would agree with her on very many things, but she was passionate. In a sense she was what Hollywood “issues” assistants are supposed to help their clients appear to be, but she took public stands back when doing so was a risk rather than a business expense. She was a proud socialist but not, she said, a communist. And then I read that she said this: “The only people I really hate are servants. They are not really human beings at all.” That quote is from At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. I’ve never read it and I don’t plan on doing so in the future so if context may leaven her comment, I’ll never know.

Millay and her husband moved to Steepletop, a seven-hundred acre property outside of Austerlitz, New York, in 1925. I’m assuming it was near heaven to her. Among the non-sonnet entries in Second April are wistful pastorals written before, when they lived in New York City. She writes as a person out of proper place so that her longings are for something lost rather than an aspiration. Her wants are familiar and sensual. It’s impressive.

I’m breaking with tradition and featuring multiple poems. I wrote above that that Steepletop may have been near heaven. I included the “near” because it was inland, giving her an answer to one of the poetic questions posed below but leaving her away from the sea she dreamed of. She spent the last years of her life in and out of surgeries and on drug regimens intended, but ineffective by reports, to stay chronic pain resulting from being tossed from a moving car. I hope the country gave her some solace despite the inhuman servants no doubt needed to keep the estate up.

Enjoy the bonus tracks.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

City Trees

The trees along this city street,
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.

And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.

Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come, –
I know what sound is there.

Inland

People that build their houses inland,
People that buy a plot of ground
Shaped like a house, and build a house there,
Far from the sea-board, far from the sound

Of water sucking the hollow ledges,
Tons of water striking the shore, –
What do they long for, as I long for
One salt smell of the sea once more?

People the waves have not awakened,
Spanking the boats at the harbour’s head,
What do they long for, as I long for, –
Starting up in my inland bed,

Beating the narrow walls, and finding
Neither a window nor a door,
Screaming to God for death by drowning, –
One salt taste of the sea once more?

Exiled

Searching my heart for its true sorrow,
This is the thing I find to be:
That I am weary of words and people,
Sick of the city, wanting the sea;

Wanting the sticky, salty sweetness
Of the strong wind and shattered spray;
Wanting the loud sound and the soft sound
Of the big surf that breaks all day.

Always before about my dooryard,
Marking the reach of the winter sea,
Rooted in sand and dragging drift-wood,
Straggled the purple wild sweet-pea;

Always I climbed the wave at morning,
Shook the sand from my shoes at night,
That now am caught beneath great buildings,
Stricken with noise, confused with light.

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