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May212012

« In Which Edna St. Vincent Millay Comes Undone »

A Poet's Appetite

by SHAHIRAH MAJUMDAR

CHART 
MISS MILLAY 
Dec. 31, 1940 
 
Awoke 7:30, after untroubled night. Pain less than previous day. 
7:35- Urinated- no difficulty or distress 
7:40- 3/8 gr. M.S. {morphine shot} hypodermically, self-administered in left upper arm... 
7:45-8- smoked cigarette (Egyptian) mouth burns from excessive smoking 
8:15- Thirsty, went to the ice box for a glass of water, but no water there. Take can of beer instead which do not want. Headache, lassitude... 
8:20- cigarette (Egyptian) 
9:00- " 
9:30- Gin Rickey (cigarette) 
11:15- Gin Rickey 
12:15- Martini (4 cigarettes) 
12:45- 1/4 grain M.S. & cigarette 
1.- Pain bad and also in lumbar region. no relief from M.S.

At age 48 – looks fading, youth fading, genius (she thought) also fading — the extravagant American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay found herself staring blankly into the abyss that had moved with her all her life.

Once she had written ecstatically of that “conscious void” (her first encounter: a passage of poetry from Romeo & Juliet when she was five years old), of both “the tangible radiance in which I stood” and “the edge of nausea” that bordered it. Once it had left her thrilled, transcendent, outside herself; the “radiance” and the “nausea” had been intertwined. But, at 48, interred at the farmhouse she and her husband had converted near the Berkshires, worn out by her lifelong hungers, that abyss was now dark to her — and it took it took two gin rickeys, a martini, eight cigarettes and several morphine shots, all before 1 p.m., to be able to face it.

All her life Millay sought wild moments of ecstasy to which she could submit herself fully and come undone. Her childhood in turn-of-the-century Camden, Maine had been provincial, but Millay — called “Vincent” by her mother and two sisters — was the product of a clan of fiercely independent, literary women who nourished the wildness and the ambition within her. Her mother Cora was a woman who had “dazed all her people” by divorcing her charming loafer of a husband and taking work as a nurse to support her daughters.

Cora loved music, books, poetry and — despite the family’s constant, visible poverty — fed her girls on the riches of her organ and her attic library. “Vincent” herself wrote poetry from a young age, gifting her mother with a handwritten collection of 61 poems titled The Poetical Works of Vincent Millay when she was 16.

In school, she was similarly extravagant, always a performer. She acted in all the school plays, gave piano recitals, edited the school newspaper. She was larger than life but not very popular: the girls thought “she was the type… to make a lot of almost nothing” (yesterday’s high school parlance, I suppose, for, she’s so fake!), and the boys actively made fun of her. She longed for escape, and she longed for a bigger stage.

For a while, she thought it was a man who would provide it. Her limits of her world seemed so small, even while eternity gaped within her, and the only rescue she could conceive took the shape of a man.  In the end, however, she made her escape with her own hands.

At age 20, her poem “Renascence” (“The world stands out on either side/No wider than the heart is wide; Above the world is stretched the sky,—/No higher than the soul is high.”) was selected as a finalist in the The Lyric Year, a significant contest of American poetry. She became a star, a bit of a cause célèbre since — as many people said, even in the pages of the New York Times and the Chicago Evening Post — her poem was far superior to the poems that had actually won.

She had been flirting madly, purposefully (via post) with the editor of The Lyric Year for the months leading up to the announcement of the winners, and her own sense of injustice at having been denied the prize was confirmed and amplified by the reaction of the public. But, like an American Idol runner up, she discovered that the real first prize wasn’t the putative one; it was celebrity itself — adulation, recognition, an adoring public. This hunger, once awakened, was to stay with her the rest of her life.

Things moved quickly, gloriously after that. A coterie of wealthy ladies took “Vincent” in hand. Deciding that it would be a good thing to educate her, they removed her from the rambles of the Maine coast and off to New York. They gave her cash, gifts (including shopping trips to Lord & Taylor, but also boxes of cast-off clothing), lots of life advice to temper their praise, and sent her to Vassar. Her patrons adored her, but they also wanted a piece of her. Nancy Milford, author of the Millay biography Savage Beauty, writes: “They wanted to assist her in any way they could, perhaps because in the careful structure of their lives, they felt diminished. Her life would be grand, sweeping, urgent. Incapable of this themselves, they would help her.”

And her life was to be “grant, sweeping, urgent”: a life that one could dream upon, that she herself could dream and feed upon. At Vassar, Millay’s persona was as carefully constructed as her poetry. Her poverty — and the fact that she was there on charity — was known, but she was determined to be an entity.

Her years there were a performance, a practice for the wider stage that lay ahead. She dazzled her classmates, who fell in love with her, and her teachers, who allowed her unimaginable leniencies. She took regular trips to the city, and leisurely country weekends — which gave men, also, the chance to fall in love with her, and gave her the chance to play, at least, at falling in love with them.

For Millay, love (& lovers, both men and women) were as much a substance as food. She burst with hunger for love, just as she did for poetry, freedom, beauty, adoration… and, later drugs, sex and alcohol. Her desire gave shape and momentum to her life, and the “radiance” and the “nausea” that haunted her were two halves of the same whole. She was wild for the thrill of standing on the edge of the abyss and for the radiant colors moving within; it fed her sense of self and her creativity, and her poetry was to be the means and the remains.

Desire and the performance of desire are Millay’s subjects, particularly of the sonnets. Her work, as Mitchell Kennerley, publisher of her first book of poems (black binding, gold letters, creamy Japanese vellum paper), blurbed, dealt “as poetry should, primarily with emotion; with the sense of tears and of laughter, with mortal things; with beauty and passion; with having and losing.” Her themes were always what was personal to her: love, death, nature, longing, sex and self.

In terms of form, her meter is light, lilting, iambic; it hardly strays; and her rhymes are always clean and sweet, often sharp and witty. She writes in a voice that is direct, intimate, sometimes coy but never shy. Her imagery is infused with a sensuality that is both pure and coarse: the well from which it spring from is deep, irreducible, pure unto itself — but the substance itself has a thick grain, is fat with pathos and groans under its own gorgeous, aching weight.

When I encountered my first Millay sonnet (#41 from her 1923 Pulitzer Prize winning collection The Harp Weaver & Other Poems), I was 14. Years later, I can still recite it from memory:

I, being born a woman and distressed  
By all the needs and notions of my kind, 
Am urged by your propinquity to find 
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest 
To bear your body's weight upon my breast: 
So subtly is the fume of life designed, 
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind, 
And leave me once again undone, possessed. 
Think not for this, however, the poor treason 
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain, 
I shall remember you with love, or season 
My scorn with pity – let me make it plain: 
I find this frenzy insufficient reason 
For conversation when we meet again. 

It was such a fun sonnet, so not like Shakespeare, so unambiguous and good to read out loud. There were shades of it that I didn’t get until I was older and had been myself “undone, possessed,”  but I have come back to it again and again over the years and, though I no longer find the rhyme of “breast” and “possessed”  as inventive as I once did, it still arrests me with its play of high purity of form with unapologetic coarseness of sentiment. It’s a dirty poem fashioned with skill and grace, and to make the exalted sonnet disturb the way this sonnet does is in itself enough to give you pause. During Millay’s time, in the heat of a Jazz Age, for a woman to be writing sonnets of such rigorous craft and bold content made her a kind of literary rock star.

It didn’t hurt that Millay was one of those poets who used her life as practice for her art. The mythos that she invented — the starry-eyed creature of enormous appetite left incandescent (in all senses) by its own hungers — was both for her poetry and her daily bread. Her poems were always a portrait of herself: as she was or had been or wanted to be.

If the speakers in her sonnets come undone, they pose first; they vogue a little, they protest too much. Everything they do is mannered, meant to be observed. For Millay, the poem itself is a performance — a series of stylized acts — and the form itself carries meaning: every foot of iambic verse is a coy gesture, every rhyme a teasing glance, every image of birds and songs and lips and breasts a signal flag that says come hither, says love me, adore me, leave me dispossessed.

In a short scholarly piece in Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal, Stacy Hubbard Carson writes that Millay’s sonnets demonstrate how “sexed bodies attach themselves to poetic forms, tropes and narrative structures.” Read this way, Millay’s [sexed] body is the poem’s body, and that she shoves herself into such a series of conventions and constraints — like a person in drag — is the very point of the endeavor. The fun lies in witnessing how she throbs against them, how the sensual charge of her poetry is defined, finessed and magnified by the conservative prettiness of the tropes and narratives that cloak them. Thus Millay’s genius is exercised not in double vision, but in double play: the way she uses her skilled formalism to trick the mind — leave it dazzled, “undone” — while simultaneously flooding and exhausting the senses.

The contradictions in Millay are what people worry over. She adopts masculine and feminine masks, is masked and unmasked, is consumed and consuming. She is her own double: burning herself (“my candle”) from “both ends,” eating from the inside what she has begged others to eat. In life, she was a tiny creature, often described in terms of the startling intensity of her coloring: all pale limbs, bright eyes, fiery hair and lips. In imagination — her own of herself, her public’s of her — she was magical and godlike, an unquenchable Amazon who gave wholly of herself to everyone but remained undiminished.

She thrived in her own duality. Often, she managed to perform the imaginary into reality but even “Vincent” sometimes had her heart broken. As Milford writes, the headlong satiating of the senses in which she routinely indulged could leave her both “stunned by beauty” and “sickened by loss.” The sonnet that follows #41 in The Harp Weaver & Other Poems is this one:

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning, but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

The tone is different here, though the formal methods and manners recognizably the same. We observe the same hungers — perhaps even the same encounter — but through the lens of a quieter emotion. The speaker aches from the void within her and lacks distance from it; here, however, she also lacks the earlier sense of triumph or thrill. It’s a lovely poem, simple, as elegant as the one that came before, and also just as childlike in its helplessness before its own unknowable feelings. There is such sadness in the imagery, in the spareness of the language and its slow slide into memory, but the sentiment pools without deepening or expanding. It exists as an emotion bottled in time, wallowing in its own moodiness, dazzled by its own dignified, moody splendor. On the surface, sonnets #41 and #42 might appear to differ in terms of purpose, but the truth might be that they differ simply in terms of the way that they achieve a very similar purpose — which, in Millay, is nearly always to seduce us with the figure of her exquisitely unraveling self.

In her bohemian New York years, post-Vassar, Millay was a star. She gave readings, acted, published often and created a ferocious one-act anti-war play called Aria da Capo that was a runaway success. She became involved in both political and poetical causes, championing poets that she cared about who had less celebrity than she did, and loved and drank and partied to legendary lengths.

In 1923, the year of her Pulitzer, she married a man 12 years older whose only ambitions seemed to be to bask in her bright flame and to husband her writing. They bought a farmhouse in the mountains and began a town & country life. In 1931, she published Fatal Interview, her best and most popular volume of poetry, a collection of 52 sonnets written about a love affair with a much younger poet, a handsome but weak man about whom — after the affair went cold — the gossips said she had simply worn out, or that he had always been homosexual.

Millay’s husband Eugen gave her space to conduct the affair, letting her run about Paris with her lover on a Guggenheim she had helped secure for him while Eugen wrote her effusive, pining letters from home. Fatal Interview sold 50,000 copies in its first few months. This was the peak of her fame and her acclaim. Afterwards, she would be famous, even notorious, but something had begun to shift: her poetry, for all its skill and vigor, began to fall out of sync with the fashion of the age.

And the less control Millay had over others — her adoring public, whether near or far — the less control she had over herself. She began to drink more, take drugs, turn up naked in the rooms of female houseguests, asking them for “good old Elizabethan lovemaking.” Her hungers grew larger, and her ability to fulfill them less and less certain.

She was exhausted by her own performances, by the myths she made and played for herself and others. Millay — the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the most famous poet in the world for a while, a woman who thrilled adoring audiences by radio, who jam-packed readings across America, who was acclaimed as the lyric voice of the Jazz Age, whose voice was described as “the most beautiful voice in the world,” “the sound of the ax on fresh wood” – lacked the same thing her poetry lacked: distance, the ability to step away from the grand emotion, away from the “edge of the nausea,” to drop the act and undouble herself. She was unable see things plainly, without the dulling glaze of lyricism or romance, nor to accept that certain things were outside the make of her own hands and not be destroyed by that knowledge.

In 1949, Millay’s husband Eugen — a man who had loved her selflessly, nearly unconditionally since their first encounter — died and she immediately suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. She was to follow him just a year later, emblematically, epigrammatically, just as she had written, just as she had lived. One night, overcome with the “tangible radiance” of cigarettes, wine, Seconal and a new poem, she finally tumbled over the “edge of nausea” and down the length of her staircase. Her head, on its broken birdlike neck, came to rest on a pile of books and papers, including the draft of the new poem.

It’s funny how Millay, once adored as a luminary, has so definitely had her star fall. Though she is still ranked as a major American poet, she is no longer discussed as a great one. Millay is too much the whirling dervish, the Delphic oracle, too self-conscious and theatrical to suit our modern sensibility. Her poetry is the poetry of the young, the very romantic, those who long to make and remake their own innocence. We know too well what happens when you burn the candle at “both ends.” It may “give a lovely light” but, as anyone who has ever taken a drink before noon knows, nothing ends well when you come undone.

Shahirah Majumdar is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is assistant professor of writing at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

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.

References (3)

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Reader Comments (4)

Blown away by this article and all you have achieved. Had a dream about you last night. It was very nice. Wishing you all good things.

-Josh
September 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJosh
Sara Teasdale, not Edna St. Vincent Millay, was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
September 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter"A big nose who knows"
It was called the Columbia Poetry Prize at the time Sara Teasdale won it (1918). A fine distinction, I know, but still a legitimate one.

:)
October 2, 2012 | Unregistered Commentera bigger nose
The "distinction" is tedious and historically confusing. But worst of all, to assign Teasdale the Columbia Poetry Prize is to limit an important part of her legacy.

So, I'm going to punish you with a bawdy parody of your subject's verse:

My meal comes out at both ends;
I've been up half the night.
And if I held a lit match to my rear end,
It would make one hell of a light.
October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterA big nose who blows

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