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Old 09-10-2001, 03:11 AM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: Athens, Greece
Posts: 3,206

Millay seems to be in the news again, with the two new biographies that have just come out (neither of which I have laid hands on yet). Has anyone out there read them? Here's a review: New York Times Review

Apparently neither book does much to rescue her poetic reputation (which I think is probably pretty high here, but still depressed in the poetry world at large).

Anyway, I think we are agreed on the fineness of the sonnets. Her lyrics are much more uneven--some might be pale imitations of Dorothy Parker. But there are a number I like a lot. This is one I enjoy--though I'm not saying it is of the same level as the sonnets. What I like is the rocking, loose nursery-rhyme dimeter and rimes in contrast to the subject matter, and the mix of quotidian concrete images and abstraction. (Though it might have stood for a little pruning... I'm afraid this looks awfully long on the screen!)

The odd lines should be indented, but, well, you know...


If I could have
Two things in one:
The peace of the grave,
And the light of the sun;

My hands across
My thin breast-bone,
But aware of the moss
Invading the stone,

Aware of the flight
Of the golden flicker
With his wing to the light;
To hear him nicker

And drum with his bill
On the rotted willow;
Snug and still
On a grey pillow

Deep in the clay
Where digging is hard,
Out of the way,--
The blue shard

Of a broken platter--
If I might be
Insensate matter
With sensate me

Sitting within,
Harking and prying,
I might begin
To dicker with dying.

For the body at best
Is a bundle of aches,
Longing for rest;
It cries when it wakes

"Alas, 'tis light!"
At set of sun
"Alas, 'tis night,
And nothing done!"

Death, however,
Is a spongy wall,
Is a sticky river,
Is nothing at all.

Summon the weeper,
Wail and sing;
Call him Reaper,
Angel, King;

Call him Evil
Drunk to the lees,
Monster, Devil,--
He is less than these.

Call him Thief,
The Maggot in the Cheese,
The Canker in the Leaf,--
He is less than these.

Dusk without sound,
Where the spirit by pain
Uncoiled, is wound
To spring again;

The mind enmeshed
Laid straight in repose,
And the body refreshed
By feeding the rose,--

These are but visions;
These would be
The grave's derisions,
Could the grave see.

Here is the wish
Of one that died
Like a beached fish
On the ebb of the tide:

That he might wait
Till the tide came back,
To see if a crate,
Or a bottle, or a black

Boot, or an oar,
Or an orange peel
Be washed ashore. . . .
About his heel

The sand slips,
The last he hears
From the world's lips
Is the sand in his ears.

What thing is little?--
The aphis hid
In a house of spittle?
The hinge of the lid

Of a spider's eye
At the spider's birth?
"Greater am I
By the earth's girth

Than Might Death!"
All creatures cry
That can summon breath;--
And speak no lie.

For He is nothing;
He is less
Than Echo answering

Less than the heat
Of the furthest star
To the ripening wheat;
Less by far,

When all the lipping
Is said and sung,
Than the sweat dripping
From the dog's tongue.

This being so,
And I being such,
I would liever go
On a cripple's crutch,

Lopped and felled;
Liever be dependent
On a chair propelled
By a surly attendant

With a foul breath,
And be spooned my food,
Than go with Death
Where nothing good,

Not even the thrust
Of the summer gnat,
Consoles the dust
For being that.

Needy, lonely,
Stitched by pain,
Left with only
The drip of the rain

Out of all I had;
The books of the wise
Badly read
By other eyes,

Lewdly bawled
At my closing ear;
Hated, called
A lingerer here;--

Withstanding Death
Till Life be gone,
I shall treasure my breath,
I shall linger on.

I shall bolt my door
With a bolt and a cable;
I shall block my door
With a bureau and a table;

With all my might
My door shall be barred.
I shall put up a fight,
I shall take it hard.

With his hand on my mouth
He shall drag me forth,
Shrieking to the south
And clutching at the north.

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Old 09-10-2001, 03:49 PM
Caleb Murdock Caleb Murdock is offline
Join Date: Sep 2000
Location: New York City
Posts: 800


I was wondering if you would comment on Millay's reputation. Mostly I know her by her sonnets, which are very good. You seem to be suggesting that she was derivative. My only complaint with Millay is that she used too much artifically poetic language, such as "I would that love were longer lived" and "'Tis", etc.

I like this poem, but think it's too long.
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Old 09-10-2001, 07:15 PM
Tom Tom is offline
Join Date: Feb 2001
Posts: 168


[This message has been edited by Tom (edited January 30, 2005).]
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Old 09-10-2001, 08:03 PM
Caleb Murdock Caleb Murdock is offline
Join Date: Sep 2000
Location: New York City
Posts: 800

Tom, the staunch right wing on this board (metrically speaking) wouldn't consider me qualified to help you with the metrics of your poem, but I'll do my best. On Tuesday I'm taking a 3-4 day trip, and when I return I will e-mail you.
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Old 09-11-2001, 07:03 AM
Len Krisak Len Krisak is offline
Join Date: Aug 2000
Posts: 539

Hi, guys, Caleb, Alicia, and all.

There is a terrific review of the two bios
by X. J. Kennedy in this month's (30th anniversary)
issue of the New Criterion. Joe is great here, and
lo and behold, the first poem he quotes is her
wonderful sonnet about learning of a lover's death
on the subway, etc. (my favorite--even been moved
to parody it). Check it out and I think you'll
like it. Epstein, by the way, is a sometime Western
Chestern and a very good poet, capable of some lovely
lyrics and some varied sonnets (I've never read a complete
book of his work). Since I'm heading over to Borders
today to see if I can find the Epstein volume, I'll
try to let you guys know how I react. Deal?

Cheers to all,

P.S.--the lyric Alicia posted is a little variable
in quality, but only a little. That quatrain,

Not even the thrust
Of the summer gnat,
Consoles the dust
For being that.

I would kill to have written. The dust for being that.
What apackage in that little monosyllable!
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Old 09-15-2001, 01:23 PM
robert mezey robert mezey is offline
Master of Memory
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Claremont CA USA
Posts: 573

Glad to see some attention being paid to Millay.
If not a master, she is still very good and wrote
quite a few poems that deserve to last. Did you
know that Hardy admired her work and thought her
one of the best poets of the time?
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Old 09-17-2001, 04:11 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
Join Date: Jun 2001
Location: New York
Posts: 14,120

In the 1970's, I went to a James Wright poetry reading. Among other things, Wright recited Millay's "Renaissance" from memory after saying a few words defending her reputation. It was an impressive performance.

Millay has been read more or less constantly for decades now, yet it seems people are always debating her worth. I think a poet must be pretty good if people years after her death take the time to argue that she wasn't really very good at all. To me it's obvious she's no Robert Frost, and she doesn't hold a both-ends-burning candle to Emily Dickinson, but her appeal is nonetheless enduring.

I also remember seeing Dick Cavett interview an aging Henry Miller, who movingly quoted the lines: "I only know that summer sang in me/ A little while, that in me sings no more." This has to be one of the great concluding couplets of any sonnet I know.
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Old 09-17-2001, 05:25 PM
nyctom nyctom is offline
Join Date: Aug 2001
Location: New York, NY USA
Posts: 3,699

Thanks for posting the poem Alicia. My friends in college and I used to refer to her as Edna I'm Stuck in a Plie or Edna St.Vincent's Mental Hospital. She was a convenient figure to mock, all in the service of showing how hip and cool we were. Secretly, though, I always loved "Renascence." It is just so naively wonderful. I used to compete in public speaking tournaments and that was a favorite of many people to perform. Even bad readers couldn't hack it (well not that badly). I wanted to do "The Murder of Lidice," but it is too long to perform in 7-8 minutes. I don't know much of her work, really just those two poems, but luckily she is in the anthologies I have, so I will start checking out her work.
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Old 09-18-2001, 02:40 AM
A. E. Stallings A. E. Stallings is offline
Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: Athens, Greece
Posts: 3,206

If you are not familiar with Millay's work, and it has been a while since you have revisited, I'd suggest looking at the sonnets, which are her real claim to posterity. Here is one. We often say in these pages that metaphor is largely preferable to simile. That is not, of course, always true. The (almost epic) simile here is precise and devastating, at its points of correspondence and departure. She takes advantage of an old variation--drawing out the last line (usually an alexandrine, or hexameter)--a slow realization.

Gazing upon him now, severe and dead,
It seemed a curious thing that she had lain
Beside him many a night in that cold bed,
And that had been which would not be again.
From his desirous body the great heat
Was gone at last, it seemed, and the taut nerves
Loosened forever. Formally the sheet
Set forth for her to-day those heavy curves
And lengths familiar as the bedroom door.
She was as one that enters, sly, and proud,
To where her husband speaks before a crowd,
And sees a man she never saw before--
The man who eats his victuals at her side,
Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers, unclassified.
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Old 09-18-2001, 02:49 PM
David Anthony David Anthony is offline
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Join Date: Feb 2000
Location: Stoke Poges, Bucks, UK
Posts: 5,005

Here's a very different Millay sonnet that, strangely, nobody seems to know, although it's very fine, I believe:

For this your mother sweated in the cold,
For this you bled upon the bitter tree:
A yard of tinsel ribbon bought and sold;
A paper wreath; a day at home for me.
The merry bells ring out, the people kneel;
Up goes the man of God before the crowd;
With voice of honey and with eyes of steel
He drones your humble gospel to the proud.
Nobody listens. Less than the wind that blows
Are all your words to us you died to save.
O Prince of Peace! O Sharon’s dewy rose!
How mute you lie within your vaulted grave.
The stone the angel rolled away with tears
Is back upon your mouth these thousand years.

Interesting comment, Roger, about Edna being inferior to Dickinson. To broaden my education I bought a book of Emily's poems recently and read them through, twice, but couldn't relate to them at all. Subjectively I'd put Edna up there with Frost, and far prefer her to Emily.
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