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edna st. vincent millay and hart crane

The Werepoet has been glorifying Edna St. Vincent Millay lately .

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.


northanger said…
vesuvius of marmelade?
northanger said…
voulez vous
Roger Gathmann said…
sticky and sweet. Don't you know they have marmelade volcanoes in the Midwest? Ohio is full of them.
Anonymous said…
OMG. This needs to be set to music. I see a Montreal post-rock ensemble taking on the project! They could hire a sombre character actor. It would be cool.
northanger said…
All was quiet in Grummington, the stars twinkled in the moonlit sky and the trees swayed gently providing a much needed breeze during the summer evenings. Mitzy Motsy Moo along with her sister Milky Moo were fast asleep under the moon and the stars, in fact almost everyone in the little community was fast asleep. Farmer AlSpud and his wife Suzie Sprout where sleeping peacefully in Cherry Truffle cottage which was situated at the bottom of Buttercup Meadow. Corky the Scarecrow was also asleep although if AlSpud ever found out he would not be too pleased as Corky was supposed to be looking after his crop, ensuring that those nasty crows which had been persecuting AlSpud throughout the summer stayed well clear of his newly laid crop.

from, Mitzy Motsy Moo and the Marmalde Volcano
Dick Durata said…
Wasteland? I would have thought Prufrock, especially for the CC team.
Thanks for the Millay.
Roger Gathmann said…
North, that was incredible googling. I would never have dreamt that the marmelade volcanoes of Ohio made it to the children's section. But I'm sorry, Mitzy moo is the fuckin' problem. Too much mitzy moo in Hart Crane's life drove him nuts. He wanted sailor boys, in ways that they don't talk about in children's books.
Brian - yeah. You are right.
Mr. Durata, I could do Prufrock. But the guys really liked the part when I got all dramatic about I will show you fear in a handful of dust. Put a gothic tremolo into it. It was generally considered awesome.
northanger said…
Roger, i was fully prepared to screech, NO MARMELADE VOLCANOES! (coz Ms Google said so). but, since i'm not the classic Midwestern type, decided to check first. what a google taser. did you know Hart's dad invented life savers? how do you say, would you like a marmelade life saver in french?

Tom of Finland. (i'm trying not to say anything beyond ... Tom of Finland) (well, actually, you mentioned sailor boys & fuckin' separately & i'm really trying not to ... oh fuck it all!)
Anonymous said…
''We're gonna go to Chicago./And we're gonna have fun./We're gonna live in a tower/ Stretching up to the sun.''

This is from John laChiusa's 2000 show 'Marie Christine', and I had just listened to it, noticing this lyric, then found Anthony Tommassini complaining about it too. So noticed that sometimes too much talk of 'sun' may not work, especially when one is just trying to avoid 'sky'. Well, D.H. Lawrence could sometimes do it. This was an Audra McDonald show, lasted a couple of months. 'Good Mornin', Starshine' may be fortunate because there had already been 'Let the Sunshine In' earlier in the show, especially since it is daytime sun, not nighttime starlight, the 'Hair' kids are singing too-inspired there.

Thought also of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' and 'marmalade skies'. Some of the 60s period of 'pretty images' were strange to me, but 'marmalade skies' is better than 'ice cream castles in the air', which immediately reminds me of nothing for a long time, then finally Disney World, where I've never been.

Ms. Millay is interesting, because her voice is very recognizable, even if you've read only a few of the poems.
Anonymous said…
'And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.'

In the Rainbow, Lawrence at one point wrote about how the first woman chronicled (I forget the name) saw 'an incredible cupful of sunshine.' That sounds even easier, but it had been built up too, so that the problem here, which would have seemed more to be 'incredible', so stupidly used, works. She's written about a long time in the first 100 or so pages, and when she dies, it's not even a whole line. Very powerful as I remember. Peculiar I'd be getting into discussions about uses of 'sun' and 'sunshine' overuse, etc., when I'm struggling to find the gaudiest names possible for old foods in New Tokyo restaurants for a burlesque song I'm writing in 'show-time' rhythm. I think I have lost interest in polishing things, and have to force myself to sweep up dust even.
Roger Gathmann said…
I stumble over the line a bit - although I like the contrast of the water and the sun and the sub rosa notion of the well and the bucket and the very seen thing that it is, no rarer comparison searched for, on a ferry, as the lark of it begins to cool. And there is the contrast that runs through the entire poem of work vs. love and the life of Millay and the Greenwich crowd - for ferries are certainly not built for lovers, but to convey the human product to the factories and back. There is not a lot of public expenditure committed to making erotic love more glorious or gorgeous.

Hey, speaking of burlesque songs, I have been reading Aubrey's lives this morning. There was a very funny song he reprints about a british schoolmaster named Gill whose whipping mania became too great - so that he started whipping adults as well as kids. In fact, this Gill seemed to have become a terror in the village, as he'd instruct his schoolboys to sally out and surround one of his selected adult victims and then he detrousse him and lay on with the switch.
Roger Gathmann said…
North, you should check out Marmelade skies if you are on a witch's trip through google.It is a site that is dedicated, as in obsessed, with Swingin' london and all things britishly psychedelic. It has some very fun pics.

The sixties happened on another planet.
Here's the link:
northanger said…
swimming in synchronicities. i have Black Widow Featuring Patti Labelle And The Bluebells - What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
Anonymous said…
LI, i'm ashamed to say that i do not know Edna's poetry, but am going to make a point to read some.
i love the vesuvius marmalade comment, the poetry that is sticky and sweet. i'm reminded of Bataille railing against the gluante (sticky, slimy, etc.) essence of a certain poetry...
funny that you should mention Eliot. lotsa leftie (echo, echo)'friends' who couldn't - wouldn't - read Eliot!
even though there's the Hollow Men:

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us -- if at all -- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams


there's a very beautiful film/installation by Chris Marker which is called The Owl's Legacy that 'quotes' The Hollow Men. if it shows up near you, i'd recommend it.
Roger Gathmann said…
Amie, you are singlehandedly making me a film sophisticate!

Although at the moment, I am busy thinking of the similarities between Maggie Cheung and, of all people, Barbara Stanwyck, re a previous thread about compulsive vs. calculating acting styles. So I've been watching M.C.'s movies. I love how she does so little.

And wow ... if you are going to just read politically sympathetic poets, just don't bother with before, say, 1900. That is so ... not understanding of what happens in poetry, of the dread and inhuman freedom at the heart of it, which is where all politics melts into fate.
I'm feeling oracular tonight!
Anonymous said…
wow LI, Maggie Cheung and Barbara Stanwyck, the compulsive and the calculating actor, great question!
say, have you seen the Sam Fuller flick called The Naked Kiss with Barbara Stanwyck. i hope i have the title right.
Roger Gathmann said…
I've seen the Naked Kiss, but B.Stanwyck, I am pretty sure, wasn't the star. I don't think there was a name star for that. We are talking about the fuller film that begins with the prostitute getting her wig pulled off? Hmmm, by the late fifties I think Stanwyck was already drifting into t.v.

I love Stanwyck, but - as with anything else, I guess - there is talent, even genius, and then there is fascination. In my pantheon, Gloria Grahame ranks almost as high as Stanwyck, for her immortal lines in The Big Heat, 'we are the same, you and I, beneath the fur' - she, of course, playing the prostitute role, wearing a stole, facing a bourgeois housefrau wearing a stole, the latter having the heart of a Balzac villainess. I Hope I haven't screwed up the quote! Let me check... Damn, it was: We're sisters under the mink. Everything becomes an alexandrine in memory!
Anonymous said…
LI, now I'm all confused about The Naked Kiss, but forget Barbs for a sec, since you've just mentioned one my fave actresses - Gloria Grahame! She pretty much makes that movie - The Big Heat - for me!
Have you seen Nick Ray's In a Lonely Place. If not, RUN to the store for a copy, you'll not be disappointed!