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Perspectives on a poet

I first came into contact with the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in 2002, when I bought a copy of Nancy Milford's 600-page biography, Savage Beauty, shortly after it was released in paperback. I have to confess that up until that point I had never heard of her; I had never heard of any poets, really, except for the standard ones you study in school, your Plaths and your Shakespeares and your John Donnes, etc. Nor was I what you might call a "fan" of poetry, lumping it under the same category in my head as abstract art: Things I Don't Understand.

But I guess I can be excused for not knowing Millay, since before Milford's comprehensive life study, and David Mark Epstein's shorter sexual biography of Millay that came out a year or so earlier, she had been pretty much forgotten for well over half a century. A contemporary of Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Hardy, Millay was publishing poetry to great critical applause since she was a young girl--"Renascence," considered by many to be one of her finest poems, was written when she was only nineteen. While the modernist poetic movement surged around her, Millay was--and remained throughout her career--a steadfast neo-Romantic, writting sonnets and villanelles and ballads, a collection of which, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, won her the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923.

To be honest, Milford's biography is a completely fascinating read, and I totally bought into the pronouncements it made of Millay's brilliance. As someone who doesn't "get" poetry as often as I would like, but who is drawn to traditional poetic formats--lyrical poetry, basically--and finds modern poetry too obtuse to really enjoy, Millay was exactly my kind of gal. She eschewed the Pound-centered mode of the day and chose for herself a more retro path, at which she obviously excelled. But the truth was that Millay wrote to please others--editors, mostly--and she could be bought, which explains the downturn her reputation suffered when she started writing political propoganda poems in support of the Allied effort in World War II.

I've been reading Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire by Judith Thurman, which has a great cover but about which I knew nothing when plucking it down from the shelf. It turned out to be a collection of essays Thurman wrote for The New Yorker between 1987 and 1997. I actually really love essays, and Thurman's are...well, let's just go with "odd", shall we? They're not the warm cup of cocoa thrust lovingly into your hands like the essays of Anne Fadiman. They're cold and judgemental, but sharp and beautifully written. The subjects of the essays that I've read so far have been incredibly interesting, and it turns out several of them are book reviews in disguise.

Such is "Siren Songs," which is a review, I believe, of Savage Beauty. Thurman is obviously far more intellectual than I, and she finds the very idea that anyone would put Millay's enormous fame (back in the day) down to her poetry laughable, if indeed you were able to imagine Thurman laughing, which I cannot. Thurman in fact blatantly states that it was Millay's scandalous, licentious life that brought her popularity, and that that popularity conveyed upon her poetry a somewhat undeserved critical sheen. "Millay's poetry, wrote her old flame Edmund Wilson, 'will always be there to make the casualties of her life seem unimportant,' but he was wrong. It is as a resplendent casualty of sex, drugs, and fame that she lives on," Thurman writes as her last sentence in the essay.

I never really considered that before, but it makes sense, because the older (and, one would imagine, less sexually desireable) Millay was, the more depressed and less famous she became. Her life of affairs with both men and women trickled off after George Dillon, an editor and poet fourteen years her junior, who was the only person ever to break her heart, as Millay was the classic "compulsive seducer...often a man or woman who suffers from a morbid fear of being abandoned and takes pleasure in inflicting abandonment." I had taken at face value Milford's assertion that Millay was a great poetic mind (which she probably was, all things considered) and worshipped at her feet as a master of form, but my favorite Millay poems (outside of "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver", which is probably the only poem to ever make me cry) are dismissed by Thurman as "impious little jingles":

"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!

"Second Fig"
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

Thurman considers these "advertisements for wantoness," not reflections on the fleeting nature of mortal lives, as I'd always taken them. I'm sorry to say that even "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver," a truly sad poem about maternal sacrifice that cannot escape comparison to Millay's own mother, Cora, looks schmaltzy and sentimental through Thurman's doubting gaze. Still, I find myself compelled to find my copy of Savage Beauty and read it again, but why? If it isn't her poetry that stands up against the test of time, then what about Millay is still so fascinating? Perhaps Thurman is right. Perhaps Millay's sexual impishness, her infinite rounds of affairs, her strangely interesting codependent relationship with her husband who used to shot her up with narcotics during her worst years of drug dependence, her fortunate arrival both in Greenwich Village and in Paris during the height of creative and social fashion, have all combined to make her larger than life as a person who dabbled in poetry, rather than a poet who lived for her art. In a way, Millay reminds me a lot of Angelina Jolie: someone who may very well have been a great artist, but whose personal life will always eclipse her art no matter what.

In her final moments, however, it seems that the person Millay was finally merged with the sort of poetry Millay wrote. Late one night, alone in her house at Steepletop, the widowed Millay (her husband had died the previous year from lung cancer), drunk and working hard on a new poem, pitched down a flight of stairs and broke her neck. When she was found the next day by a servant, beside her head was a notebook open to a draft of a poem. Its last line?

Handsome, this day: no matter who has died

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  1. Blogger Adam | 9:50 AM |  

    Great post, but depressing!

  2. Blogger chris | 5:52 PM |  

    Oh man, poetry's awesome. I need to get back into it. Haven't read Millay, but that last line of hers that you ended with is haunting and gorgeous. Totally could be the name of a pretentious instrumental post-rock song (and it just may be in the future...).

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