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This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Wednesday
May232012

In Which We Dance To The Music Of Your Mother

My Only Advice

In every relationship, romantic or otherwise, one of the two people feels slightly closer to the other, if only by a matter of degrees. So it was with Gustave Flaubert and his hypochrondriac, flaky friend Ivan Turgenev. These two barnacles met when Flaubert was 40 and Turgenev was three years older. From the tenor of their conversations, which Flaubert seemed to treasure above all else, we can deduce that their spirits remained substantially youthful. Flaubert's self-professed love of literature was so all-encompassing it almost crowded out other parts of himself; Turgenev shared his friend's basic interest but saw the underlying reality for what it was. (Turgenev called his friend, "the only man in existence really devoted to literature.")

Turgenev would visit Flaubert at his retreat in Croisset in the summer, or in Paris during the winter season. Many of the hours they passed together consisted of Flaubert reading his novels or plays aloud, a difficult task even for one of his most central admirers. The written correspondence between the two in the 1860s leaves the mortal plane behind; it can be classified as the first bubbles of modernity to enter the universe.

March 1863

My dear Turgenev,

Your letter was most kind and you are too modest. For I have just read your latest book. I found your essential qualities in it, and more intense, more rarified than ever.

What I admire above all is the distinguished quality of your art — a wonderful thing. You manage to ring true yet avoid banality, to be sentimental without morbidity, and comic without being at all low. Without looking for high drama, you achieve it none the less by the sheer professionalism of your tragic effects. You seem very casual, but you have great skill, 'the skin of the fox combined with that of the lion', as Montaigne said.

Elena's is a fine story. I like this character, as well as Shubin and all the others. While reading you one says to oneself 'I've experienced that'. Thus I believe that page 51 will be felt with greater intensity by no one than by me. What a psychologist! But I'd need many lines to express all my thoughts on that.

As for your First Love, I understand it all the better for its being the story of one of my closest friends. All old romantics (and I who slept with a dagger under my pillow am one) should be grateful to you for this little story that has so much to say about their youth! What a real live girl Zinochka is.

The creation of women is one of your strong points. They are both ideal and real. They have the attraction of saintliness. But what dominates this work, indeed the whole collection, is the two lines: "I had no bad feelings towards my father. On the contrary he had, so to speak, increased in stature in my eyes." That strikes me as being startlingly profound. Will people pick it up? I don't know. But for me, it is sublime.

Yes, dear colleague, I hope that our relationship will not stand still, and that our mutual sympathy will tum into friendship.

In the meantime, one thousand handshakes from your

Gustave Flaubert

April 1863

My dear colleague,

I don't need, I hope, to tell you how much pleasure your second letter gave me — and more than pleasure! If I didn't reply straightaway, it was because I had to extricate myself from a host of disagreeable little matters that made me ill-humoured and lazy at the same time. These miseries continue, but my conscience will not permit me to delay any longer. I have been counting, and still do, on your indulgence — and above all I want to thank you and shake you by the hand.

I am very glad to have your approval and you should be convinced of it: I well know that an artist and man of goodwill such as yourself reads a host of things between the lines of a book, for which he generously appreciates the author's effort: but it doesn't make any difference. Praise coming from you is worth gold — and I pocket it with pride and gratitude.

Shall we not see each other during the summer? An hour of good, frank conversation is worth a hundred letters. I'm leaving Paris in a week's time to go and settle in Baden. Will you not come there? There are trees there such as I've seen nowhere else — and right on the tops of the mountains. The atmosphere is young and vigorous and it's poetic and gracious at the same time. It does a power of good to your eyes and to your soul. When you sit at the foot of one of these giants, it seems as if you take in some of its sap - and it's good and beneficial. Really, come to Baden, even if it were only for a few days. You will take away with you some wonderful colours for your palette.

Before I leave, you will receive a book by me which has just been published. I am cramming you full — but you are partly to blame.

A thousand friendly greetings, keep well, work well, and come to Baden.

Yours

I. Turgenev

Turgenev,

Cram me full then, dear colleague! I await your book impatiently and I shall read it with delight, I am sure.

I also have had a number of little aggravations just lately. The affinity between us is complete, you see.

I don't think I shall be able to go to Baden, because I shall have several obligations that will disturb my routine this summer. When will you be back? And send me your address.

I shall spend the whole of June or the whole of August in Paris. In any case, we shall see each other next winter.

A thousand very long and very vigorous handshakes from your

Gustave Flaubert

May 1868

My dear friend,

I'm very grateful to you for thinking of writing to me. Your letter gave me much pleasure — for it re-established relations between us and because it showed that you liked my book.

These days every single artist has something of the critic in him.

The artist is very great in you — and you know how much I love and admire it; but I also have a high opinion of the critic and I am very happy to have his approval. I well know that your friendship for me counts for something in all this: but I have the feeling that a master has stood in front of my picture, has looked at it and has nodded his head with an air of satisfaction. Well, I'll say again that this has given me great pleasure.

I was very sorry not to have seen you in Paris — I only stayed there three days, and I regret even more that you are not coming to Baden this year. Your novel has you in harness — that's good — I await it with the greatest impatience — but could you not take a few days rest, to the profit of your friends here? Since the first time I saw you (you know, in a sort of inn on the other bank of the Seine) I have felt a great liking for you — there are few men, particularly French men, with whom I feel so relaxed and at ease and yet at the same time so stimulated. It seems to me that I could talk to you for weeks on end, but then we are a pair of moles burrowing away in the same direction.

All this means that I should be very glad to see you. I'm leaving for Russia in a fortnight's time, but I shan't stay there long, and I shall be back by the end of July — and I shall go to Paris to see my daughter who will probably have made me a grandfather by then. I shall be game enough to come and chase after you even at home — if you are there. Or will you come to Paris? But I must see you.

In the meantime I wish you good fortune. The living, human truth that you pursue indefatigably can only be captured on good days. You have had some - you will have more — and many of them.

Keep well; I also embrace you — and with true friendship.

I. Turgenev

July 1868

My dear Turgenev,

This is simply to remind you of your promise. You were supposed to be in Paris at the end of July or the beginning of August. As for me, I am here, and I await you.

So as to avoid your making unnecessary arrangements, here is my programme: from 30 July (next Thursday) until August I shall be at Saint-Gratien at the Princess Mathilde's. Then I shall return to Paris for two days. I shall then spend another two days at Dieppe at one of my nieces. Then I shall return to Croisset, to get on with my book.

We must spend a few good hours together.

I embrace you wishing you cooler weather than we're having in Paris, and I remain yours

G. Flaubert

August 1868

My dear friend,

I have waited until now to reply to your kind little note, because Iwas still hoping to be able to announce my arrival; but my devilish gout is obstinately refusing to leave me, and I cannot yet contemplate any kind of long journey. It's annoying — but what can I do about it? I shall come as soon as I can; and in the meantime I embrace you and beg you to present my respects to your mother, whom I shall be very happy to meet.

Work hard in the meantime.

I. Turgenev

November 1868

My dear friend,

The cheese has just arrived; I shall take it to Baden with me, and with every mouthful we shall think of Croisset and of the delightful day I spent there. Decidedly I feel that there is a real affinity between the two of us.

If all of your novel is as good as the extracts you read to me, you will have written a masterpiece, I'm telling you.

I don't know if you've read the book I'm sending you; in any case, put it on one of the shelves of your library. 

Present my respects to your mother — and let me embrace you.

Your

I. Turgenev

P. S. My address is: Carlsruhe, poste restante. It would be very kind if you were to send me a photograph of yourself. Here is one of me that looks very forbidding.

P.P.S. Find another title. Sentimental Education is wrong.

January 1869

But I must have news of you, my dear friend. Let's see now — in two words: where are you — and how is the novel going? I am writing to you at Croisset, and perhaps you are in Paris, sniffing out what's new.

In any case, I don't think you'll stay there long.

I have not yet thanked you for the photograph, which makes you look very military and well groomed — but it's you all right — and it's always good to look at it. Why don't you have some good ones taken?

I have often thought of Croisset, and I think to myself that it's a nest to fledge songbirds in. As for me, I have done almost nothing. I have embarked on a task that I find repugnant and I am floundering about sadly in it. There's no going back, but when it's finished, I shall give a great sigh of relief! It's a sort of anthology of literary reminiscences that I promised my publisher; I have never worked in that field and it's not at all amusing. Oh! Two hours of being Sainte-Beuve! I'd like to know if he enjoys it very much.

My best greetings to your honourable mother, who seems to me the best possible of mamas one could imagine, and a good vigorous handshake to you.

Your

I. Turgenev

P. S. I am here for the whole winter because my friends the Viardotl are here. It's not very gay, Carlsruhe, but it's better than its reputation. I shall come to Paris towards the end of March.

My dear friend,

Yes, people have certainly been unfair to you, but this is the time to brace yourself and hurl a masterpiece at the reading public. Your Anthony could be such a projectile. Don't tarry too long over it, that's my refrain. Don't forget that people judge you according to the standards that you yourself have established, and you're bearing the weight of your past. You have energy; el hombre debe ser feroz as the Spanish proverb says — and artists especially. Even if your book has only gripped a dozen people of any worth — then that is enough. You understand I'm saying all this not to console you, but to spur you on.

I have been here for about ten days — and my sole preoccupation is keeping warm. The houses are badly built here, and the iron stoves are useless. You'll see a very little thing by me in the March edition of the Revue des 2 Mondes. It's nothing very much. I'm working on something more 'solid', that is, I'm getting ready to work.

I shall go to Paris before returning to Russia; that will be towards the end of April. I shall stay a good ten days — we shall see each other often.

If you see Mme Sand, give her my regards. Greetings to Du Camp and the Husson family.

I embrace you and wish you courage! You are Flaubert after all.

Your I.T.

April 1870

I was very sorry to hear in your last letter that we shan't see each other this summer, my dear friend. I had counted on a good chance to let myself go with you, before your departure for Russia. But how difficult everything in this life is!

The great sadness I've had this winter has been the death of my closest friend after Bouilhet, a good lad called Jules Duplan who was devoted to me. These two deaths, coming one on top of the other, have overwhelmed me. Add to that the pitiful state of two other friends (not such close friends, it's true, but none the less they were part of my immediate circle). I'm referring to Feydeau's paralysis and the madness of Jules de Goncourt. The loss of Sainte-Beuve, money worries, my novel's lack of success etc., etc. even down to my manservant's rheumatism (the one who looks like Lassouche), everything, as you can see, has conspired to aggravate me. And to do so to no mean extent.

I can easily say that the only good thing to happen to me for a long time was your last visit, which was too short. Why do we live so far away from one another? You are (I think) the only man I enjoy talking to. I can't see that anybody else bothers about art and poetry! The plebiscite, socialism, the International and other such garbage are cluttering up everybody's brains.

I fear I shan't be able to accept your invitation this summer. Here's why. In four or five days' time I shall return to Croisset, where I'm going to write the preface to the volume of Bouilhet's verse straightaway. It will take me two or three months — after which, I shall tackle St Anthony which will be interrupted in October by the rehearsals for Aisse. They will rob me of a good two months. So between now and next New Year I shall have barely six weeks to devote to the good hermit. I would like to spend not more than two years on that fellow. So you see how pressed for time I am. I must get on with that work, as quickly as possible, as I'm already starting to feel I've had enough of it. I have consumed too many books, one on top of the other — but it was in order to make myself numb to my personal sorrows.

Send me your news when you're at home in Russia — and think of me often, because I often think of you, and I embrace you, ex imo

G. Flaubert

My mother was, as they say, very touched by your kind regards.

"Tic Tac Tic" - Elli et Jacno (mp3)

"Bien Plus Fort" - Elli et Jacno (mp3)

Tuesday
May222012

In Which Nothing Protects Us From Moving On

This Is

by SARAH WAMBOLD

I asked three different friends to join me on a trip to Marfa, TX and none of them found the matter as urgent as I did. They said they would look into it but then decided to wait until something was going on out there. I could see that they would go to Marfa only when nothing was keeping them from it. I wrote about my first experience in Marfa in a hurry. I was full of ideas the moment I got there. Later on, I heard those same ideas come out of the mouths of my friends who eventually did go to Marfa. The words had disappeared from where I originally wrote them, but left a space for me to return. I went to Marfa alone for nothing.

I drove to Marfa in seven hours, going 85 the whole way. I felt rushed by the empty road, surprised by how quickly I could become a cliché. It is true that thousands of tourists have traveled the same route I took, but they had all disappeared before I got there. Eventually, we would come upon each other, staring into the distance beyond us rather than make eye contact. Out there, we could pretend we were following our own lead.

photo by the author

I want to crawl inside Paul Valery’s quote, “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through,” and see if I can still write about it. He wrote that line a quarter of a century after he spent twenty years learning how to write invisibly. Periods of silence and space are associated with crisis but sometimes language has simply taken another form.

I arrived in Marfa presciently inspired; it’s a town with an aura only seen by cattle ranchers and artists. It has the same provincial train tracks, sunlight and rusted gates that hold back the West Texas desert as any town in its vicinity, but Marfa is tastefully flaking away. Rust has become the design element for the hotels and gallery owners who have set up there since the town became a destination in the 1970s. A quick look around is like a close reading of hipster ipsum:

Farm-to-table leggings, fanny pack mustache
Tattooed dreamcatcher readymade gluten-
free skateboard art party Austin jean shorts
keytarscenester, bicycle rights vegan.

I take a drive west out of Marfa and see a sign that warns of no services for the next 74 miles. It recalls where I grew up; in the Midwest surrounded by inescapable farmland framed by signage with the same dismal promise of the future. Without those words, I would not have known how to get outside of them. As I drive, Prada Marfa appears like a shapely leg poised on the side of Highway 90, one that reveals itself to be just a prosthetic.

photo by the author

Outside that installation, I take a picture of my reflection on the glass window with my phone. It feels like I am helping in the destruction of the piece, contributing to its purpose of weathering into the desert with pastiche. Marfa is home to some of the most inspired Minimalist art and seduces tourists into becoming artists in its space. The results are like images from a flipbook, all part of the same story where the slightest shift in perspective keeps it moving towards the end.

photo by Elaine Litzau

On my final night alone in Marfa, I went to the Chinati Foundation at sunset. Open that evening was Donald Judd’s works in concrete and mill steel. The air was brisk as we waited by another rusted gate to be let into the area which had been a military compound used through World War II. In the distance, what looked like a construction site in flux awaited our arrival. The fifteen concrete block installations that make up Judd’s outdoor piece appeared as burial vaults. The same concrete structures which could hold our precious remains were now uprooted and tipped over, empty of the sludge that will become of us.

As I walked past, the desert sunset cast my shadows through them. I thought about my grandfather’s vault, emblazoned with his military symbol from the war. I thought about his body, fast disappearing inside that box.

photo by the author

Many of Judd’s structures have only one end open, forcing you to focus on their corners and shadows. If you turn halfway around, you are met with open space. After a full revolution, the box is open and empty and space. In Marfa, Judd can say “The public has no idea of art other than something portable that can be bought.” Outside it, burial vaults are sold as protection from the elements, eventually becoming all that is left of the person it once held. In Marfa, there is no funeral home. The desert town’s residents are close to their deterioration. Nothing is protecting them from time moving on.

The day I left Marfa, I got up before sunrise to look for the Marfa Lights. I sat alone on the viewing platform and watched three glowing orbs float above the horizon. They moved across the desert toward me and I could see how people viewed them as only the headlights of cars passing along some distant road. Beyond that, I couldn’t see anything at all.

Sarah Wambold is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Austin. You can find her twitter here. She last wrote in these pages about synchronized swimming.

"Ocean Eyes" - The Medics (mp3)

"Griffin" - The Medics (mp3)

The new album from The Medics is called Foundations, and it was released on May 18th.


Monday
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.