Archive for February 22nd, 2020

“We were very tired, we were very merry”: Happy birthday to Edna St. Vincent Millay!

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020
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Today is the 128th birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay But this year, I am the one who received the birthday present, courtesy a friend. She is still, I think, one of America’s most underrated poets.

The gift is connected with a story: before I left Ann Arbor for the charms of London, a longtime university friend, the poet Marnie Heyn, gave me a Greek drachma for safekeeping on my travels, with the owl of Minerva on it – a wish for wisdom for the years ahead. I needed it – and all the drachmas I could find. The drachma was kept in my wallet … and so stolen with it from my home in Islington during a break-in.

A few months ago, when Marnie asked me to sign her copy of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardI sent a drachma back to her, with the same owl. She said she was sending me a shekel in return – but it was much more than that.

To my surprise, she sent me a very early edition of A Few Figs from Thistles, the poet’s first 1920 collection, published by Frank Shay. It was the poet’s second collection of poems, famous for establishing her as the very essence of cool in the jazz baby era. I adored her in my misspent youth, and memorized her poems.

Here’s why I was puzzled, however: the copyright page simply lists a 1922 date, implying that this is a first edition. But a little digging around suggested that the 39-page edition I have, basically chapbook size, is actually an expanded edition. Goodness, how many pages could the earlier edition have been? World Cat doesn’t tell me.

Happy birthday to her.

Are you jealous yet? Don’t be! You, too, can celebrate the poet’s birthday. A quick visit to abebooks.com and even Amazon shows that some of these editions are going for a few dollars. So you, too, can own a small chunk of American literary history. And memorize a few poems, too, while you’re at it.

Anyway, below the most famous poem of the collection, in three stanzas of six lines each, couplets, rich with rhymes and assonance and recurring lines, in an unusual pattern of AA BB CC, AA DD EE, AA FF GG. Enjoy. Below that, you can listen to her reading the same poem in her plummy voice. And go here if you want to see her shoes, or here for a letter begging her publisher for cash, and here and here for previous posts.

Happy birthday, Edna!

Recuerdo

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on 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 a 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 pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.