Friday, May 20, 2011

Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Lovely Light

The second poet on my list—and the second person from Maine. Coincidence? Before you start trying to recall the one poem you know by Edna St. Vincent Millay that you probably learned when you were, like, ten, let me help you out so we can get it out of the way.

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!

There. Much better. I wanted to approach what I’d been taught about Edna St. Vincent Millay with some skepticism. Though I read many similar accounts of her life, she was a much more nuanced person than her life-loving, sexually free, frank, feminist reputation allows us to believe. Biography turns out to be a mishmash of a person’s most-often cited characteristics. Of course, we also find Millay’s qualities in her poems. That’s right, I’m reading biography into the work. Take that, poetry teachers! I mean, she lived in Greenwich Village when it was pretty much the coolest its ever been. How could I not see that in her poems?

Edna liked to be called Vincent, which she got from subtracting the “St.” from her middle name (duh). It seems sorta crazy to give your child the middle name “St. Vincent,” but her uncle’s life had been saved at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York just before her birth, and her parents were obviously grateful for that fact. Vincent knew about gender studies before they existed, and possibly inherited her independent, feminist attitudes from her mother, who divorced her father in something like 1904. I didn’t even know that was possible. And she was openly bisexual. Can you imagine how radical that seemed at the time? Or how threatening it must have been for the mostly male-dominated world of poetry?

Vincent won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her fourth book (yep, she was just 31), and got married the same year (to a man…the times weren’t that different, after all). Her husband, Eugen Boissevain, was a self-declared feminist, who, get this, did all of the domestic chores and quit his imports business to manage his wife’s career and plan all of her readings and book tours. They were married for 26 years and even according to Vinny herself, “acted like bachelors.” That part I’ll leave to your imagination.

She spent a lot of her life on her estate called Steepletop, which is just outside of Albany, NY, and once they finish renovating it, I’m planning a pilgrimage there. I’m getting a little caught up in biography…so let’s fast-forward a little. She died at Steepletop (a year after her hubby) from falling down the stairs after a heart attack. I think all of that burning-the-candle-at-both-ends thing finally caught up to her. By all accounts she was an intense and often nervous woman. You can read her NY Times obituary if your’e interested.

Oh…so, the poems! You may not want to read her long poem, the Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, which she dedicated to her mom (because you’re lazy), but did you know that you could listen to Johnny Cash reciting it? I can really see why he was drawn to it. It’s Vincent’s homage to her mother, who though they were poor and moved around a lot when she was growing up, instilled in her a love of reading and even lugged a trunk full of literature with them whenever they moved. You can also hear Vincent’s own voice reciting it.

If you’d like to read one of her bolder, feminist poems, try sonnet 18. She was known for being a master of the sonnet above all else.

Here are a few of my favorite nuggets from the poems I read:

From “Three Songs From ‘The Lamp and the Bell’” (part II):
“The heart grows weary after a little
Of what it loved for a little while.”

From “God’s World”:
“Oh World, I cannot hold thee close enough.”

From “The Wood Road”:
“Yes, though Grief should know me hers
While the world goes round,
It could not in truth be said
this was lost on me:
A rock-maple showing red,
Burrs beneath a tree.”

My only criticism of Vincent is that she can border a little bit on “light verse,” à la Dorothy Parker, but she has such a wide range of themes and so many differing styles that it’s impossible to dismiss her. On my Poetry Love Scale (biography aside), I give Edna St. Vincent Millay a 6 (just based on what I’ve read).

One of my favorite poems was on the lighter side of things, but really beautiful in its simplicity:

I drank at every vine.
The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine
So wonderful as thirst.

I gnawed at every root.
I ate of every plant.
I came upon no fruit
So wonderful as want.

Feed the grape and bean
To the vintner and monger:
I will lie down lean
With my thirst and my hunger.

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