“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.
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.