Saturday, April 10, 2010
Falling in Love with Edna St. Vincent Millay
It’s National Poetry month and St. Vincent’s hospital in Greenwich Village is closing, a suitably gloomy metaphor for the decline of its namesake’s reputation. Edna St. Vincent Millay (her middle name – which she preferred – came from the hospital where she was born) has been sliding in stature for decades. She can’t seem to get any respect these days. Even two biographies, released months apart in 2002, didn’t do much to rehabilitate her status among the cultural elite. The general feeling seems to be, she was kind of a proto-rock star, pretty and flamboyant, with a knack for dramatic reading: a performance artist whose stage presence concealed the trite, outdated sentimentality of her verse. Snobs love to refer to poetry they don’t like as “verse”, or most damningly “light verse”, which is how they dismiss her most prominent apprentice, Dorothy Parker.
Millay’s poems seem old fashioned because they fly in the face of a trend in poetry that has been gaining legitimacy since well before her death in 1950. Like the twelve tone, non-melodic music that was gaining popularity at mid-century, and expressionist painting, poetry has long been moving toward the abstract. The poetry in vogue then, by writers otherwise as diverse as W.S. Merwin, John Ashberry and Wallace Stevens, concerned itself with ideas not feelings. And this fashionable obscurity persists – check any poem published in the New Yorker magazine in the last twenty years. The new flamboyance is that of superior intellect and erudition. Maybe it began with Ezra Pound, bragging in some poem that only three people in the world could understand it, and you weren’t one of them.
Edna wrote about feelings. She had other archaic vices: she often wrote in rhyme, she wrote sonnets and other traditional verse forms. She addressed the subjects of her poems by quaint locutions like “thou” and “thy”. Technically, her work could have been composed in the nineteenth century. She would have been perfectly at home drinking tea in some salon with Thomas Hardy and Matthew Arnold. She was no innovator, but innovation, at least when performed for its own sake, like an elaborate magic trick (See: the syntax disappears; watch as I pull the Latin quotation from my hat), is often overrated, particularly by academics who can’t do anything else.
Edna St Vincent Millay did something very special: she wrote about her own feelings with a pellucid clarity that helped you understand your own. This puts her in rare and extraordinary company, among the likes of Cummings and Yeats and Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost and T.S Eliot … as well as singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Edna’s true modern avatar.
Her complete poems can be found in a single volume; I found that volume in my junior year at college, on a friend’s dorm-room desk. I picked it up glanced at the table of contents and wound up reading it straight through it, as if it were a novel – or an auto-biography – in verse. I was struck and am still sustained by the unsentimental rigor of her poems. A great friend of mine died this week, and nothing could have expressed my feelings better than Millay’s unbowed, sorrowful “Dirge without Music”:
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
And just today, walking out into the early spring sunshine, I thought of Millay’s hard won bitter dismissal of the fine weather:
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
And who could fail to be moved by the clear-eyed honesty of this quatrain, this fine distinction, from one of her late sonnets:
If I had loved you less or played you slyly,
I could have held you for a summer more,
But at the cost of words I value highly;
And no such summer as the one before.
There is an unadorned, plain-spoken truth to these words – it’s almost prosaic at times, despite the careful rhyme-schemes and impeccable scansion. Yet both poetry and beauty reside in the reality she faces up to so bravely, and presents with such humble, merciless precision.
I guess this is a type of greatness we don’t cherish so much any more: the tribute of a big heart and a generous spirit, speaking for us when our own words fail. But it means a lot to me. I suspect I would have fallen in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay if I had been lucky enough to meet her. I’m half in love with her, anyway, sixty years too late. And at this moment in time, at this turn in our American story, when the text message and the e-card, the twitter tweet and the sound bite divide and conquer our ever-decreasing capacity for attention; when ironic distance is the currency of cool, there couldn’t be a better time or a better month, to make Vincent’s acquaintance.
Trust me: it’s going to be love at first sight.