Friday, 18 March 2016

POET OF THE MONTH #35: Edna St Vincent Millay

c 1920


Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Nobody that matters, that is.  Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die.  They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it’s much too small, because she won’t curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
— mothers and fathers don’t die.

And if you have said, 'For heaven’s sake, must you always be kissing a person?'
Or, 'I do wish to gracious you’d stop tapping on the window with your thimble!'
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you’re busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, 'I’m sorry, mother.'

To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,
who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.

Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries;
they are not tempted.

Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly
That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;
They are not taken in.
Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,
Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake
them and yell at them;

They are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide 
back into their chairs.

Your tea is cold now.
You drink it standing up,
And leave the house.

1931 (reprinted in Collected Poems, 1958)

The Poet:  The following biographical statement appears on the website  [It is re-posted here for information purposes only and, like the material posted above, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.]

Poet and playwright Edna St Vincent Millay was born in Rockland, Maine, on February 22, 1892.  Her mother, Cora, raised her three daughters on her own after asking her husband to leave the family home in 1899.  Cora encouraged her girls to be ambitious and self-sufficient, teaching them an appreciation of music and literature from an early age.  In 1912, at her mother’s urging, Millay entered her poem Renascence into a contest: she won fourth place and publication in The Lyric Year, bringing her immediate acclaim and a scholarship to Vassar College.  There, she continued to write poetry and became involved in the theater.  She also developed intimate relationships with several women while in school, including the English actress Wynne Matthison.  In 1917, the year of her graduation, Millay published her first book, Renascence and Other Poems.  At the request of Vassar’s drama department, she also wrote her first verse play, The Lamp and the Bell (1921), a work about love between women.

After graduating from Vassar, Millay, whose friends called her 'Vincent,' moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where she led a Bohemian life.  She lived in a nine foot wide attic and wrote anything she could find an editor willing to accept. She and the other writers of Greenwich Village were, according to Millay herself, 'very, very poor and very, very merry.'  She joined the Provincetown Players in its early days and befriended writers such as Witter Bynner, Edmund Wilson, Susan Glaspell, and Floyd Dell, who asked Millay to marry him.  Millay, who was openly bisexual, refused, despite Dell’s attempts to persuade her otherwise.  That same year Millay published A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), a volume of poetry which drew much attention for its controversial descriptions of female sexuality and feminism.  In 1923 her fourth volume of poems, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  In addition to publishing three plays in verse, Millay also wrote the libretto of one of the few American grand operas, The King’s Henchman (1927).

Millay married Eugen Boissevain, a self-proclaimed feminist and widower of Inez Milholland, in 1923.  Boissevain gave up his own pursuits to manage Millay’s literary career, setting up the readings and public appearances for which Millay grew quite famous.  According to Millay’s own accounts, the couple acted liked two bachelors, remaining 'sexually open' throughout their twenty-six year marriage, which ended with Boissevain’s death in 1949.  Edna St Vincent Millay died in 1950. 

Click HERE to read more poems by EDNA ST VINCENT MILLAY at the website.

You might also enjoy:
POET OF THE MONTH #25: Josephine Miles
POET OF THE MONTH #2: Marianne Moore
DORIS GRUMBACH The Missing Person (1981)

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