“A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory”: Millay’s journals

Champagne for breakfast!–no, I’m only kidding, but that’s what Edna St. Vincent Millay had on her birthday in 1933. I was asked to blurb an edition of her diaries, Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay, edited by Daniel Mark Epstein and forthcoming from Yale University Press. I’ve been reading the galleys for days. My head is full of her voice, which IS rapturous and melancholy sometimes, but also hilarious and chatty and occasionally wonderfully snarky. “The weather is frightful!” “Got the curse.” “I’ve just had my first gin-fizz. And it’s not going to be my last.” Millay records some mundane details–letters received, college grades, her weight when she was ill–and lots of meticulous observations about social and natural worlds, especially the flowers and birds at her Steepletop estate, where she gardened her heart out (sometimes in the buff) and occasionally hosted visitors, plenty of them distinguished.

Millay kept diaries on and off from the age of 15 forward, with big gaps. Some diaries could have been destroyed by family to conceal evidence of her wild adventures, but it’s just as likely that her diarizing was sporadic. She needed the money publication brought. Millay grew up in painful poverty, but even after she became famous, with funds for housecleaners and travel and scenic properties, she depended on her income from publishing and performances. I’m glad she wrote privately about asters and green snakes and bobolinks, but it wasn’t a practical way to spend her limited energy.

I don’t rely on income from my writing and a good thing, too. Yet her journals make me think about the calculus of blogging about poetry. There are plenty of people who can’t afford to give any writing away or who, at least, choose not to. I see the sense in that and sometimes wonder if diverting writing energy to this blog has dented my rusting jalopy of a career.

Blogging isn’t the same as keeping a diary, of course. Millay shared her journals with friends once in a while, and her husband even contributed occasional updates. She also constructed imaginary readerships, especially when younger, addressing entries to mother-substitutes and future lovers. But they were essentially private undertakings. Teenaged Millay gets quite fierce on the subject:

Resolved.
Firstly. That, henceforth, no one reads my diary.
Secondly. That whosoever, by stealth or any other underhand means, 
opens these pages to read, shall be subject to the rack, the guillotine, the
axe, the scaffold, or any other form of torture I may see fit to administer.

Blogs can be diary-like in their episodic reflections and informal voice, but even when the tone is intimate, they’re meant to be read. Further, they can be instruments for increasing an author’s visibility, and very occasionally they generate revenue. This platform has probably raised my profile a tiny bit, but not in proportion to the amount of effort it requires. In how they aim at small audiences, literary blogs seem more like letters–bids for connection among friends in the ether–but they do resemble private diaries in cultivating habits of attention that nourish a writer’s practice. They’re also zones of experiment for constructing a public self.

I like blogging because I like writing but publication is slow. It’s nice to have an immediate outlet for thoughts I’m not ready to cast as essays or poems. I’m not about to stop in favor of more strategic writing behavior, although one day I might. But I do regret a little having channeled time away from truly private writing. What’s really on my mind is often not mine to share–this week, “worrying about a friend in trouble” doesn’t even remotely cover it–so I end up misrepresenting aspects of my life in my blog, probably most often by projecting coherence I certainly do not feel. I don’t know if any entry is really better than a verbal selfie, in which I “show” my writing, reading self at a deceptively flattering angle. As Millay said at one of the many moments she castigates herself for not writing, “A diary of this kind is neither authentic nor satisfactory.”

Well, poets are experts at the simulacrum of presence, creating an illusion of voice through dry printed words. Millay certainly was. “What kind of beast would turn its life into words?” Adrienne Rich once wrote. Me, I guess, over and over again, trying to be authentic enough to satisfy myself.

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

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How intense it was this week to be alternately following and averting my eyes from the Senate hearings as I taught Sylvia Plath to seventeen stingingly sharp students–trying to open up space to talk about anger, violence, gender, and race in powerful but often disturbing poems. Plath’s handling of metaphors related to the Holocaust, slavery, and Civil Rights always seemed problematic to me–it was a big topic in the early nineties, when I attended grad school–but I am now wondering how defensible it is even to keep the poem “Ariel” in particular on an undergraduate syllabus. While Plath’s use of terrible slurs wears worse and worse over the years, however, her bee poems–explorations of rage and other dark drives, sometimes encoded in racial metaphors–also feel more and more fundamental. Plus last year’s news about her abusive marriage , especially as captured in Emily Van Duyne’s “Why are we so unwilling to take Plath at her word?”, is crucial right now. We need to do a way better job at respecting survivors and understanding the costs they suffer.

I assign Plath in part to discuss the complex layering of selves even in apparently confessional work, and how she constructs identity as a performance. I believe Christine Blasey Ford utterly, but I also found myself thinking hard about what it meant for Dr. Ford to perform trauma, especially on a such a public stage. She was wise to play it so calmly, because many people, as she must well know, detest and fear angry women. In contrast, as others have pointed out, a woman candidate for the Supreme Court could never have ranted the way Brett Kavanaugh did, although among some constituencies, his emotional performance probably went over well. And of course their projected selves are inflected by race and class stereotypes, too, as were those of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas decades ago. My class is about sincerity and authenticity in mid-century poetry, during the Civil Rights movement and women’s lib and increasingly open discussions of sexuality, mental illness, and many other vividly embodied identities and experiences–and what a lesson this week was.

It was a lesson, however, I did not particularly need. I’m overloaded with work, struggling to tick down the lists and not get too anxious about tasks I cannot yet get to, and harsh reminders of assaults I suffered–and guilt about men I did not report–brought a level of stress into the equation that I’m just barely able to manage. I suspect I’d be a terrible beekeeper, unable enough to suppress whatever pheromones anxiety gives off, although I seem to keep myself together well enough that most humans don’t smell my fear.

“They have got rid of the men, // The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors,” Plath writes about the bees in “Wintering.” I keep wondering what the world would be like if every unremorseful assaulter–every person who has abused privilege in such a serious way without admitting and trying for atone for that abuse–were swept out of power, so that better people could rise up into those positions of money and prestige. It would be nice to find out, one day. But I can’t say I’m tasting the spring, just yet.

Poetry and fake news

I don’t think a poem can be true. I also recognize that when a writer works through something risky and important to her in a poem–when the stakes feel personal and significant, and language is used craftily to convey that cost–the end result is a more powerful poem.

That paradox is at the heart of a seminar I’m teaching now on mid-century U.S. poetry (starting with Olsen and Ginsberg and going up to spoken word in the 80s). I’m pressed for time in this busy September, but I thought I’d put down a few ideas here with the hope of coming back to them, as the students in my class will, reading a variety of poets and critics from those decades.

In conjunction with Ginsberg’s immensely powerful, high-stakes early poems, we just read the 1966 essay “Sincerity and Poetry,” in which Donald Davie tries, with obvious chagrin, to come to terms with a big turn in poetic priorities, apparently away from skill and towards something like authenticity, truth, or prophecy.  “Among the hoary fallacies which the new confessional poetry has brought to life among us,” he argues with an audible wince, “is the notion that we know sincerity by its dishevelment: that to be elegant is to be insincere.” He concedes that Beat and Confessional poetry challenge the very grounds of New Criticism, then the dominant approach in literature classrooms and literary scholarship; ambiguity, irony, and self-enclosed symmetry can no longer be the terms of value. He suggests, however–because we can’t simply ask a poet “hey, did you mean it?” and take his word for it–that we must find sincerity somehow within the poem and measure it by the artist’s control: “We must learn, I daresay, to give more weight to other features, notably to the tone in which the speaker addresses us, and to the fall and pause and run of spoken American or spoken English as the poet plays it off against his stanza-breaks and line-division. In short a poet can control his poem in many more ways, or his control of it manifests in more ways, than until lately we were aware of. Nevertheless we were right all along to think a poem is valuable according as the poet has control over it; now we must learn to call that control ‘sincerity.'”

My students found Ginsberg’s art sincere by Davie’s terms (Ginsberg’s portrays an out-of-control world in his lines, but does so with exquisite skill) but also despite Davie’s terms, because control isn’t exactly the feature that manifests a real person behind “Howl” or “Sunflower Sutra” or “Mugging.” In a strong poem read with attention, there’s a sense of presence exceeding the words–a secondary experience that comes from someone once representing some triggering experience in a highly artificial medium.

So is all news, all poetry, fake to some degree? Sure. It’s not the experience it represents, but a selected, shaped version of it. Is what’s important, then, the reporter-poet’s intent to get things right, as far as a brief snippet of language allows, vs. an intent to deceive? Hmm. Poet-Thing’s going to make more tea and keep thinking about it.

poet-thing tea