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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
- Happy Birthday Edna St. Vincent Millay, You Timeless Beauty (onetrackmuse.com)
- “Bluebeard” – Edna St. Vincent Millay (biblioklept.org)
- Girl History – Happy Birthday Edna St. Vincent Millay (romancingthebee.com)
- Today, Remember Edna (rompoetry.com)
- edna (3quarksdaily.com)
- Riding with Edna St. Vincent Millay: A Love Story (theparisreview.org)
- Why Billy Collins and I Are Not on Speaking Terms Right Now (dadpoet.wordpress.com)
- Sexually Empowered Poetry (dish.andrewsullivan.com)