The Poets’ Niche
By Mark Sconce
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
I hold in my hands, and reverently too, a First Edition of Conversation at Midnight (1937)* by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her small, tight, controlled signature attaches to the title page. I reflect that some poets just have classier names than others. There’s Mexico’s own Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the diminutive e.e. cummings, and of course the inimitable Lord Byron (nobody called him George).
In Edna’s case, it was a stroke of luck, for her middle name derives from St. Vincent hospital in Rockland, Maine where she was born in 1892. Family and friends called her Vincent. But does a classy name imply a classy lady—a name one lives up to, so to speak, like Jesús? You be the judge…
By the age of thirty-one, Vincent had already attained a reputation as one of the great poets of the Jazz Age. Through her countrywide recital tours and live radio broadcasts she reached millions of listeners “with a mouth like a valentine.” They wanted to hear a very different kind of voice, and she was the “It girl” of Poetry.
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain is full of ghosts tonight that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply, and in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree, nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more.
A graduate from Vassar (paid for by admirers), a star among Greenwich Village writers, artists, and sundry bohemians, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (first woman to receive the honor), Edna loved the limelight and performed on cue as her candle burned at both ends. The party was extravagant! Mad gaiety!
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends –
It gives a lovely light.
The party ended with her car accident in 1936 that led to a morphine addiction. That, along with cigarettes (Egyptian), alcohol (Gin Rickeys) and sex (men and women, single or married) helped dull her excruciating back pain. On top of that, like food, she needed adulation, recognition, and an adoring public, but her popularity waned as modernism in poetry gained strength and her manicured sonnets no longer sang so true. She turned her attention to human rights issues and international politics, vilifying European fascism. But she still cherished her amorous memories:
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.
*Thank you Malcolm Otis Delano of Ajijic for gifting me your treasure.
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