1923: Edna St. Vincent Millay

millayI have always had a certain fondness for Edna St. Vincent Millay, as she spent part of her youth in the town where I grew up; indeed, that is where she wrote “Renascence.” So it is interesting to come back to her poetry as part of this project at a point when I have also just finished an essay about Millay by Mary Oliver, and my girlfriend just finished a biography of Millay.

But let us for a moment focus on the work for which she won the Pulitzer Prize: The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver: A Few Figs from Thistles: Eight Sonnets in American Poetry, 1922. A Miscellany. Let’s set aside the fact that this is a confusing title given that it actually conflates two separate volumes of poetry (according to her Collected Poems at least): A Few Figs from Thistles and The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, both of which contain sonnets, none of which seem to be a ballad about a harp-weaver, unless it is referring to a single poem “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver” but I find it hard to believe that a pulitzer would be awarded to a single poem. Not knowing precisely which of her work was actually recognized in the awarding of the Pulitzer, I chose to read the two volumes (including the sonnets from each) whose titles seem to be represented.

While there are many poems by Millay that I hold dear, most of them come from other volumes–“Dirge without Music” from The Buck in the Snow, Conscientious Objector” from Wine from these Grapes, and “Renascence” from the volume of the same title.

I do love the opening poems “First Fig” and “Second Fig” from A Few Figs from Thistles, and a few other poems scattered throughout these two volumes:

and from The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems:

By and large, however, I found Millay’s verse to be a bit too syrupy, sentimental, possessed of sing-song rhythm. I often find the syntax of her verse to be jarring and overly complex–especially in her sonnets–as if she had to put language into a half-nelson to get it to fit the form and pattern of the sonnet. I can appreciate the strictures of form, but like it most when it is the least obvious that the poem is in fact conforming to a form; in other words, it should feel effortless, natural. I appreciate that she often uses very plain language and imagery in her poetry, which makes it accessible to the masses (she was sort of a poetic pop star in her day after all), and find at times that she does great things with very simple language (as evidenced in the excerpts below).

Some of her lines that really stick out:

  • “Cut if you will, with Sleep’s dull knife” from “Midnight Oil”
  • “But the rose remembers/ the dust from which it came.” from “Autumn Chant”
  • “Why do I remember you/ as a singing bird?” from “Souvenir
  • “He laughed at all I dared to praise, / and broke my heart, in little ways.” and “‘Tis not love’s going hurts my days, / but how it went in little ways.” from “The Spring and the Fall”
  • “Oh, lay my ashes on the wind” from “The Curse
  • “And she was shocked to see how life goes on,/even after death, in irritating ways;” from Sonnet “lxi
  • “I know I am but summer to your heat,/ And not the full four season of the year;” from Sonnet “xxvii”

One thought on “1923: Edna St. Vincent Millay

  1. “as if she had to put language into a half-nelson to get it to fit the form and pattern of the sonnet” …ha! That’s a great image.

    I’m pretty sure she won the Pulitzer for Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (the book, which includes that title poem) and also for “various other contributions to poetry,” including other stuff she had published in 1922. So yeah, kind of confusing. I guess the Pulitzer committee that year was drinking too much bootleg alcohol. Or else they were just really indecisive. Not like anyone I know… ;o)

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