Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Discovering Millay

Writer's Almanac ran one of Edna St. Vincent Millay's love sonnets today (Millay sonnet), and it got me thinking about her.  Again.  Millay (1892-1950) was extraordinarily popular until World War II.  She won a Pulitzer Prize.  Her public readings were crowded; her fans, ecstatic.  (She made a recording later--still available--but her voice, after years of cigarette smoking and drinking, had gone husky, shredded.)  During the War, she wrote a lot of doggerel, and she toppled from favor in academe--and soon pretty much disappeared from anthologies.  When I was in high school and college, we did not read her--or much of her.  And I always thought her name sounded as if she were some stuffy old pedant--some cliched character from a literary satire who brayed about poetry like an ass in distress.

I was wrong.

But I didn't know I was wrong until 2001 when Kirkus sent me a new galley to review--Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty, a biography of Millay that Milford had taken decades to research and write.  And there I learned about a much different Millay from the caricature braying in my imagination.  She grew up in a Maine home that made me think of Little Women (talented sisters--oddities in town--putting on skits and plays--loving literature and drama and ... Life).  She got a surprise scholarship to Vassar (a wealthy woman had liked a poem Millay had written! Imagine! Now it would be a YouTube video). After Vassar, it was off to NYC and struggle and fame and struggle and, at age 58, a topple down her farmhouse stairs (drugs? alcohol?), discovered dead the next morning.

I loved Savage Beauty, and because of that book, Millay has been enjoying a resurrection.  Her poems are back in print.  Other biographies have appeared.  Steepletop, her home in Austerlitz, New York (where she died--her grave is nearby), is now open to the public. (Info re: Steepletop)  Her birthplace in Rockland, Maine, still stands (in private hands--no marker), and in nearby Camden, where she grew up, is a statue of her near the local library. Not far away, in the Whitehall Inn, is a Millay room--with objects, photographs. And just outside of town--Mt. Battie, the spot she had in mind as she composed the poem "Renascence," which won her first literary prize--and which she recited at the Whitehall Inn.  (Millay's "Renascence")

She's back.

Over the years I had my students memorize some of her poems ("What Lips My Lips Have Kissed" and "Only until This Cigarette Is Ended" and "I Shall Forget You Presently, My Dear," and those little "figs," as she called them: "My Candle Burns at Both Ends" and "Safe Upon the Solid Rock").  And a former student directed me to her lovely poem "Dirge Without Music" ("I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the cold ground ...").

And, of course, I started reading everything, collecting her works (I've got a few autographed copies--they came cheaply, before the resurgence), traveling to all the sites, standing by her grave in the woods near her home (her mother is there, too--her husband and her sister, as well).  (And by the way, poet Mary Oliver's fine book Blue Pastures includes a terrific essay, "Steepletop," about her long affection for Millay's poems, her friendship with the poet's sister Norma, and her experiences actually living in Steepletop for a time.)

I haven't mentioned yet that Millay was ... hot.  But she was.  Critic Edmund Wilson fell all over himself around her.  So did lots of other men and women.  And I'll end with a moment from one of the other biographies of Millay--and with a story about the hair of Edna St. Vincent Millay--from Daniel Mark Epstein's What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (2001):

And then there was the crimson flame of her hair--not carrot-colored, let no one call it that--indoors the hair was a deep red, and in the sunshine a dazzling strawberry blond.  (Owing to her mother's profession as a hair-weaver, there is a beautiful switch of the poet's hair still kept in her bureau drawer in tissue, eerily as fresh and vivid as the day it was harvested.  I have seen this relic in the half-light of the bedroom at her estate Steepletop, and in the direct morning light as it poured through a window.  I have heard that a man before me fainted at the sight of it.) (83-84)

I've not seen the hair--not yet been inside the house (the times we visited the property, the building was not yet open).  But I can imagine fainting at the sight of her hair, for her words alone, at times, have taken away my breath.

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