Okay, okay, I admit it. I was absolutely smitten with Edna St. Vincent Millay as a young teenage girl. I would wander a quarter-mile down Lone Pine Road in the isolated outskirts our tony neighborhood, head into the woods and loudly recite Millay’s sonnets of disillusioned love to the cattails, red-winged blackbirds, and the frozen pond. And it made me feel grand.
Well, perhaps I shouldn’t feel too embarrassed. No less than an eminent authority than Richard Wilbur wrote, “She wrote some of the best sonnets of the century.”
Too bad I didn’t have a recording of her voice. I didn’t know about “her resonant voice with its clipped consonants and plummy vowels” – that might have intimidated me into a little more sense and silence.
Kate Bolick writes about the pin-up poet of the 1920s in “Working Girl” over at poetryfoundation.org. Bollick informs me that I was not the first. As a young woman at Vassar, Millay “threw herself into campus cultural life, starring in plays, publishing poems, and cultivating her already magnetic personality into a persona that proved irresistible to a captive pool of young women ripe for seduction.”
Here’s one secret they didn’t know: She was named after a hospital. Her mother, who raised three daughters alone, was a sort of itinerant nurse, and had some reason to be grateful to St. Vincent Hospital. Voila! So all you have to do to get a classy sounding name is head for the nearest emergency room. (Wouldn’t work for me. Nearest hospital is Stanford University Hospital. Cynthia Stanford University Haven doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.)
The Millay girls grew up poor, and the plucky girls were alone for days and had to look after each other. One day in winter, I recall reading, the pipes broke, flooded the floors, and froze. The girls ice-skated throughout the house.
There certainly wasn’t any money for college, so after Millay graduated from Camden High School in 1909, she stayed home writing poems and confiding her dissatisfactions to her journal. It was during this period that she drafted the epic, 214-line “Renascence,” which uses the topography of that little coastal burg—the mountains and bay islands and apple trees—to dramatize one woman’s spiritual oppression and mystical rebirth. Maine can get forbiddingly grim in winter, and it’s tempting to imagine the young poet sick with thinking she’ll never leave that godforsaken place, desperate to get out of the house at least, heroically pulling on her boots, trudging through the freezing slush, and eventually winding up at the local five and dime, idly flipping through a movie magazine. The year is 1912. There’s a big spread on the latest hit, The New York Hat, starring “America’s Sweetheart” (actually Canadian) Mary Pickford. It’s a silly film, about a girl and a hat. But what Millay sees is her more-or-less reflection. She and Pickford were born the same year. Like Millay, Pickford was barely over five feet tall and rarely exceeded 100 pounds, with a winsome face and masses of hair—“luminous tenderness in a steel band of gutter ferocity,” as one film critic put it. Millay pays for her hot cocoa and hurries back home, seed planted; soon enough, she’ll send that fetching portrait to the editor of the Lyric Year poetry contest.
That little scene is an invention, of course—I made it up. But there’s something potent in the idea of Edna St. Vincent Millay and Mary Pickford shining at opposite reaches of the same celestial firmament. In the 1910s, women were entering the public sphere in greater numbers just as the publishing and entertainment industries were gaining momentum, to mutually beneficial effect. Pickford, too, was raised in poverty by a single mother, and used her beauty and acting talents as her ticket out, inaugurating one of modern America’s most enduring fairy tales.
Millay is commonly thought to be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (in 1923). Not so, says Bolick. “In fact, she was the third. But who beyond poetry scholars remembers Sara Teasdale and Margaret Widdemer?”
I do sometimes. Sara Teasdale, anyway …
It is not heaven: bitter seed
Leavens its entrails with despair
It is a star where dragons breed:
Devils have a footing there.
The sky has bent it out of shape;
The sun has strapped it to his wheel;
Its course is crooked to escape
Traps and gins of stone and steel.
It balances on air, and spins
Snared by strong transparent space;
I forgive it all its sins;
I kiss the scars upon its face.
Whoops. That’s Elinor Wylie, the third in the troika of American lyric poets of the period, with Millay and Teasdale. Somehow Wylie and Teasdale have a tendency to blur in my mind, and sometimes Millay joins them.
Read the rest of Bolick’s piece here.
And listen to the pronunciation of “merry” and “ferry” in the poet’s reading of “Recuerdo” below. Wow.