Posts Tagged ‘Edna St. Vincent Millay’

It was a season of near disasters.   Two weeks before Christmas I lost my aunt’s pearls, a graduated strand of Mikimoto beauties which her husband had brought back from Japan after WWII.  Just as I was getting ready to confess, that same aunt had a fall and landed in the hospital.  She recovered, the pearls were found, and thus did the overcooked tenderloin on Christmas Eve and the overnighted presents which didn’t arrive by Christmas take their proper place in the ranks of what is not important.  (My advice to Hamlet:  readiness is not all.  Perspective is.)

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls

Aunt Joann, not wearing her recovered pearls


It was also a season of unexpected gifts.  Here’s one, from my daughter Lizzie:


Out of the overturned nest fall four eggs, and out of the eggs fly nine origami birds.  I didn’t get the symbolism at first, but with a little help I understood. An empty nest.  Re-birth.  Possibility.  Next fall, when the last of my four leaves for college, I’ll have my mobile to remind me to look at the situation with hopefulness.


The second unexpected gift was from my youngest little bird. On Christmas Eve after everyone had gone to bed, she stayed up for hours cleaning out my laundry room/office.  It was a big job.  Piles of laundry, stacks of books, framed prints, unframed prints, office supplies, loose papers, notebooks, textbooks, photo albums, boxes of pictures, and probably plain old trash had covered the floor, desk and bookcases.  When she presented the tidied room on Christmas day, I nearly fell over with joy on the empty floor.

my cleaning gal

my cleaning gal


The third gift I’ll mention is related to that room, before it was cleaned.  Truly I had despaired of ever organizing the mess there.  My husband, who usually delights in throwing out things I hoard, had refused to help me because I had un-done his past work.  So a week before Christmas I was ironing (unusual in itself) and looked at a pile of books stacked on a chair (not unusual at all) and decided that while I was waiting for the iron to heat up, I could at least put away a few books (highly unusual).  I picked up a book of Edna St. Vincent Millay poems belonging to my father that my mother had recently sent.


While I was thumbing through the book, I found a letter.  It was from my sister-in-law’s father, now deceased, to my father, also deceased.  Des was writing to thank Don for loaning a book, and ended with this:

“I think one could meditate forever on Francis Thompson’s lines in his final stanza:

‘Is my gloom, after all, shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?’


I re-read the letter a few times.  I forgot about the iron, forgot about shelving the book.  I was overwhelmed by the humanity of it, there in my hand, this intimate record of two old men trying to understand themselves, their lives, their emotions. Des’ handwriting as elegant as his expressions.


Here’s the gift part of the story:  I emailed my sister-in-law to ask if she wanted the letter.  She wrote back immediately.  Turns out she had just been thinking of it.  Long ago, shortly after her father died, my father had read her the letter.  She didn’t ask for the letter, although she wanted it, and had wondered over the years what had happened to it.  By chance, it re-appeared in her life, just a day after the anniversary of her father’s death.


Make of that what you will.


I also found this in the book:


look closely for the golden crumb

A crumb of food.  It’s a little disgusting, but also touches me somehow, this image of my father reading a poem-play and, maybe bored or maybe just sloppy, eating a cookie and dropping his crumbs in the pages.  Hardened now and preserved in a closed book, evidence of his constant reading, his yearning for things beautiful, his love of sweets.


Happy New Year!  Thanks to all you wonderful readers!




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poem is on narrow tree just above the white arrow


by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The first task I set myself when trying to penetrate this poem (oh dear—a disturbing image–sounds like I keep a sex toy by my bookshelf) was to Google “blue iris.”  Did it have a symbolic meaning or cultural significance that I was unaware of? No, but I discovered it sure is a popular name for spas, paint colors and cafes.  The significance of the blue iris in this poem is simply that it’s a spectacular, Grand-Canyon-kind of flower, and looking at it could lead to an awe-filled experience of the Sublime such as the Romantic poets were fond of.


That kind of lofty emotion, Oliver says, does not have to be the starting point of prayer.   It’s interesting that her own starting point is a negative statement.  Sometimes it’s easier to define a complex idea by stating what it’s not: love is not jealous, or love is not all, as Edna St. Vincent Millay would say (who is relevant to this discussion, as you’ll see shortly).


In the second stanza Oliver employs two more negatives:  “don’t try” and “this isn’t.”  A pattern emerges underneath the seeming loose construction of the poem.  The three negative statements fall in the first two stanzas of the poem; the third holds only positive statements. The negative sets a tone of unease, of struggle. To enter in a prayerful state, the stillness and divine presence described in the third stanza, requires letting go, whittling away extraneous experience such as feelings of inadequacy or competition.  Oliver whittles away in a very mathematical fashion:  the first stanza has five lines, the second three, and the third, two.  A tidy little subtraction problem for the work of beginning a prayer.


The invisible structure of the poem is evident too in the last words of each of the first two stanzas. (I know from reading Oliver’s very helpful book on poetry that last words of lines have special import.) The word “patch” bridges the first two stanzas and recalls, even as it’s used as a verb, the weeds she studies.  And the word “doorway” is just that—a doorway into the gratitude of the third stanza, into prayer itself.


Gratitude is at the root of all major religions, and so it’s no wonder this poem can be found on blogs by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews.  And Unitarians, of course.  The importance of gratitude may be today’s version of Kumbaya or have-a-nice-day-namaste, easy to dismiss as overused hokum, but, really, do you know any happy people who don’t radiate a spirit of gratitude, of wonderment?   Oliver seems to be a happy lady herself as is clear in her poem, “When Death Comes”:


When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.


Mary Oliver was born in Ohio in 1935.  As a teenager she made a pilgrimage to the upstate New York home of Edna St. Vincent Millay.  She ended up living on Millay’s estate with Millay’s sister on and off for years. Millay was an early influence on Oliver (and you can read Oliver’s tribute to her predecessor here).  When I began writing this post, I would never have connected the two poets:  one is so formal, the other unpretentious and conversational.  (Listen here to Oliver’s plain-speaking recitation of a poem and compare it to Millay’s affected delivery.)  But now I see connections abound:  both are passionate lovers of nature, winners of Pulitzer Prizes, and are more popular with the public than with literary critics.


At the Millay house Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who was to become her partner of 40 years. (Six degrees of separation moment:  Cook was a close friend of filmmaker John Waters, who is the cousin of a good friend of my husband’s in high school, a boy I once kissed and who later told my husband he shouldn’t date me because I was too quiet.  Down, bitter girl, down.)


On a hike with some friends, feeling very grateful indeed for November sunshine and temps in the 60s, I taped the poem to a tree for the next hiker to find. I felt a little like a mother hiding holy cards in her grown children’s luggage.




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poem is on paper towel dispenser

Love Is Not All

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink

Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;

Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink

And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,

Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

Yet many a man is making friends with death

Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,

Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,

Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,

I might be driven to sell your love for peace,

Or trade the memory of this night for food.

It well may be. I do not think I would.

One of life’s unlooked-for pleasures is being wrong about someone we’ve written off. How often I’ve dismissed someone because of hearsay or an initial impression, perhaps avoiding a party guest rumored to be asinine, or assuming that someone overly attached to hairspray and a lint brush is superficial, or that the woman in the sweater set and mom jeans is uncool.  And then once in a wonderful while I’ve gotten to know that person, and all the pre-judgments I had formed, had built up so carefully into a dividing wall, fall down on my feet.

So it is with Edna St. Vincent Millay. Somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that liking her poetry was akin to owning a Thomas Kinkade painting.  Clever she was, a great rhymer, heavily anthologized, hugely popular in her time, a good writer but not a great one. Or so I thought.  Her reputation with critics seems to fluctuate, and the last time I checked she was out of favor, considered one of the lesser literary lights.

And speaking of lights, her most famous poem, “First Fig,” the rallying cry for the Jazz Age–

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!

always bugged me.  The tone struck me as self-congratulatory and the rhyme heavy-handed.  My attitude towards it is the same as fashionistas would have towards a matchy-matchy outfit.

My aversion deepened when I listened to a recording of her reading “Love is Not All.” Her voice (you can listen here) is so affected I thought at first it was a joke. Those rounded tones! That patrician pomposity! Reminded me of Lina Lamont’s voice coach in Singin in the RainTah, tae, tee, toe, two. I cahn’t stahnd him.

Then there’s the poem itself. Stuck in a coffee shop for hours waiting to pick up my daughter from dance, I had a file of poems and a Poem Elf mission to complete.  I chose “Love is Not All” more from laziness than any particular feeling for it. I taped it to the towel dispenser in the bathroom because I didn’t want to be seen putting up a fusty old Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet on the message board full of ads for massage therapy, yoga studios and guitar lessons.  (I exaggerate, but there was indeed a silly element of snobbery to my site selection.)

But now that I’ve read the poem over and over, I’m surprised that I like it. I really like it! I like her other poetry, too, in fact I’m pretty much loving her other poetry and I’ll go so far as to say that (remember, I’m not an academic) she’s underrated and under-read. Read “Wild Swans” and “Bluebeard” if you get a chance.  They’re both brief but pack heat.

Back to the poem.  At first it seems old-fashioned and overwrought. The form and the diction are formal, not what you’d expect from a woman who flouted convention in every way, the Bohemian queen of Greenwich Village. All those nor’s—nor this nor that–and masculine end rhymes (one-syllable true rhymes like sink/drink, bone/alone) and the fact that it’s a sonnet for Pete’s sake, pull the poem out of the modern age.  The poem is so structured and self-consciously literary that she makes even Robert Frost sound like he’s improvising.

A sonnet, in case you’ve forgotten from high school English, is a 14-line poem, usually a love poem, following a specific rhyming pattern. This one is a Shakespearian sonnet and so the poem rhymes in alternating lines until the last rhyming couplet. Those last two lines are what brought me to really liking this poem.  The rhyme changes from true rhyme to what’s called “slant rhyme” (food/would), a subtle type of rhyme, more modern. The very last line, It well may be. I do not think I would, is suddenly more casual, conversational and looser than the previous lines.  And also more honest and human. It’s perfect.

The message too surprises. Up to the very end, she’s had a grand time making her pronouncements about love.  Love can’t save you from drowning, love can’t feed you, oxygenate you, heal you.  But then she turns from Down With Love to admitting that she’s written a love sonnet, pure and simple.  Love is all to her: she wouldn’t save herself from starvation or mental torment by losing the memory of this one night with her lover.

Edna St. Vincent Millay grew up poor but well-educated thanks to her single mother’s scrappy efforts and the charisma Vincent, as she called herself, worked on people who could help her and pay for her education at Barnard and Vassar. A tiny red-haired beauty, she seemed to attract every man and woman who breathed in her air. She turned down a multitude of marriage proposals because she wanted to be free in love and art. She only married when it best suited her artistic pursuits.  She found the perfect man for her, a Dutch businessman (the widow of feminist Inez Milholland), who cooked and cleaned and fussed over her as she grew more self-destructive in her addiction to alcohol and pain killers. She was an openly bisexual, socialist-leaning writer of poems and plays who was surprisingly popular with middle America.  She drew large crowds on her reading tours, got her face on a postage stamp, and won the Pulitzer prize for poetry.  She died at age 58 after falling down the stairs from a heart attack.

I still can’t claim her as a favorite.  I have an image of her as the trembling girl from the drama club who takes herself too seriously.  But my resistance is futile in the face of poems as beautiful as this one.

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