I’m a latecomer to Millay. In the summer of 2001, I contacted Inside New York to write a review of the Millay bio, Savage Beauty, that came out that season. Then I went to Mexico. I brought the book with me and read it as I did what I did in Mexico, and after a while, Inside NY got pissed with me. Where was the review? So I did it fast, and I wrote way over the word limit, and the editor, justly, said you have screwed the pooch, son.
So I dint make the easy on that, did I? But the bio turned me onto the work. And I fell for Edna. This was unexpected. See, I’d been suckled, or not exactly suckled, more like inducted into poetry in high school through reading the modernist masters. Admittedly, I did not understand Wallace Stevens – but I lapped up Eliot and Pound. When I played tennis with my best friend K. – glorious autumns at the Dekalb County Junior College tennis courts – I used to amuse him by spouting off bits of Gerontion. Patched and peeled in London. I am an old man in an old house. Waiting for rain. I’m not going to look and see if that is right, but it was right back then. Used to amuse the cross country team – I was a sporty little fuck – with the first ten lines of the Wasteland. Etc. My mom had more sentimental tastes in poetry. O captain my captain our fearful trip is done. Sort of thing. Funny thing, I’m her age now, and I, too, get tearful about o captain my captain.
So this wasn’t the kind of upbringing in which Edna st. Vincent Millay would figure as anything but a figure of fun, an uncool leftover. The sexist bias has slowly sloughed off over the years. Now, mind you, I’m not blaming the modernists. I understand how, buried beneath the vesuvius of marmelade out in the sticks, one kicks out – however, I do expect a little retrospective wisdom. I picked up the Library of America edition of Hart Crane, poetry and letters, today, and turned to the index, wondering what he’d say about Millay. Just one notice, in a letter to a friend back where he came from, Ohio. It was disappointing, but not surprising:
“I can come half way with you about Edna Millay – but I fear not much further. She really has genius in a limited sense, and is much better than Sara Teasdale, Marguerite Wilkinson, Lady Speyer, etc. to mention a few drops in the bucket of feminine lushness that form a kind of milky way in the poets firmament of the time (likewise all times), indeed I think she is every bit as good as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. … I can only say that I do not care for Mme Browning. And on top of my dislike for this lady, Tennyson, Thompson, Chatterton, Byron Moore Milton and several more, I have the brassiness to call myself a person of rather catholic admirations.”
Remember, you needed dynamite to become modern, or so it seemed, in 1921. Alas, the purge of poets was less excusable when all the cold war broody critics of the 50scontinued in H.C.’s vein., all those men and women with hornrims and a pessimistic view of human nature and going on portentously about the Great Tradition,
There is a certain funny turn here, since Crane, proclaiming his “esoteric’ taste for Donne, misses the fact that Millay’s street ballad style reaches back to John Tyler the Water Poet and the songs of the levelers and the diggers. Take Recuerdo, for instance. Millay effortlessly does something that Crane strives for in The Bridge:
We were very tired, we were very merry--
We had gone back and forth all night upon the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable--
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on the hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
We were very tired, we were very merry--
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
I am only a little baffled by the line about the sun – it seems too easy. But otherwise, how completely elbows out is this poem? And we gave her all our money but the subway fares is so goddam perfect that, I hope, I don’t have to point out its perfection.
Alas, blinded by the need to kick out, Crane couldn’t see this. Plus of course he is the classic Midwestern type who comes to NYC and begins to judge among the quick and the unsophisticated. It is his way of getting an edge.