Poetry by the Sea, Pt. 1: Edna Rules

“Edna rules!” a woman declared to me in the hotel hallway, waving a vigorous fist. “I mean, Vincent!”

I organized a panel  on Edna St. Vincent Millay for Poetry by the Sea, an annual writing conference in Madison, Connecticut. The other speakers were Anna Lena Phillips Bell speaking about Millay as an ecopoet; January Gill O’Neill discussing the Millay colony at Steepletop; and A.E. Stallings considering Millay as a formalist. Waves were lapping the shore in the big windows behind us. Millay (who preferred to be called Vincent, not Edna) would love the location. I’m already considering whether I can get back here next year. It’s a lovely setting and there’s a lovely vibe here, too, among friendly and talented writers and readers. I’m hoping to post again after the conference ends, reflecting on some conversations I’ve had.

pbs2

Some loot (but I’m afraid I will buy more today)

But in the meantime, I’ll just say how interesting I found that Millay panel. My co-panelists were great and offered perspectives I really wanted to hear–of course they did, I chose them!–but I was also impressed by how lively and engaged the (packed) audience was. And more than a dozen people have come up to me since to tell me about their relationship to her work and their intention to read it again. I’m moved and excited by the enthusiasm.

Many readers of my generation, at least, have mixed feelings about the formalist femme fatale. In my two decades-plus of schooling, right through a PhD in modernist poetry, I never, ever encountered Millay on a syllabus. My teachers generally classed her with the “songbirds”–not innovative, not difficult, not male, not worth reading. And my copy of her Collected Poems was a gift from my mother-in-law, which was another kiss of death; Judy identified with Millay as a sexually liberated woman, and I really, really did not want to hear any more on that score. It wasn’t until the wonderful biography Savage Beauty that I went back to the poetry itself and found it quite different than how it had been billed to me: smart, adventurous, crafty, formally various, and often intensely moving, witty, beautiful. There’s a chapter on Millay’s radio broadcasts, and her other experiments with poetry’s various media, in my book Voicing American Poetry. I also treat her work in an essay called “Formalist Modernism” in the new Cambridge History of American Poetry, but I find myself still returning to those poems with more to think about, more to say. As I’ve written in a previous post, I recently became fascinated with her reproductive history, particularly the pregnancy she terminated in Dorset, England, in 1922, via a regimen of long walks and herbal concoctions administered by her mother. The passages of girlhood, pregnancy, middle age–I am endlessly fascinated by how other women poets have negotiated them.

I’ll leave off for now with a poem from Millay’s 1928 collection The Buck in the Snow. While clearly referring to her stay in Shillingstone, Dorset, she also alludes to an unnamed loss–maybe the pregnancy itself, a vanished lover, or, more generally, the poetic and sexual freedom she felt before 1922 (Millay married soon after and started banking on her popularity by undertaking exhausting reading tours). Her life was charmed in some ways, very difficult in others–like many of us, I suppose. Whatever her sorrow, I agree: Vincent rules.

West Country Song

Sun came up, bigger than all my sorrow;
Lark in air so high, and his song clean through me,
Now comes night, hushing the lark in's furrow,
   And the rain falls fine.
What have I done with what was dearest to me?

Thatch and wick, fagot, and tea on trivet,--
These and more it was; it was all my cheer.
Now comes night, smelling of box and privet,
    And the rain falls fine.
Have I left it out in the rain? - It is not here.
pbs1

Can you name that poet-editor, walking by the sound?

 

 

5 thoughts on “Poetry by the Sea, Pt. 1: Edna Rules

  1. It’s an interesting Millay poem you posted. I was reminded to look again at James Wright’s Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota where his last line is “I have wasted my life.” Both of these remarkable poets came at us in these poems with nature as the waving backdrop, as if to soothe us (or perhaps them) and then giving us a harsh dose of reality with two powerful lines. Both could write about extreme loss, not casual loss, but life-changing loss. And while they were not confessional poets, didn’t they have a way of giving us something very personal? “Doubt not I know the letters of my doom:” (from sonnet lxxxvii)

    Like

    • That’s right. I find “confessional” less and less useful as a label because the so-called confessionals are often pretty oblique, and then a poem like this, while private in some ways, conveys such a deeply personal ache. Nice connection, Sara.

      Like

  2. “Lark in air so high, and his song clean through me,”

    How I love that line!

    “Now comes night, hushing the lark in’s furrow,”

    Interesting, the elision–something few poets today would venture to do. I hope I can get to Poetry by the Sea someday.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s