Fears find us.
Many wear watches
And pass out the time
Like poisoned candies
In a waiting room.
Not with sharp knives
In the dark places,
And never silently.
They notice you
On a bench
Or standing in line deciding
What to have for lunch.
They walk right up,
Hold out a hand
And introduce themselves,
And we always grab it and shake.
I was born again
From kite strings
And the blood of lumberjacks' lust for trees.
I stood before the faceless orchestra,
Sinister and divine,
The trumpets shining, the brass and brazen,
Cast a light into my eyes
And I was not a man
or a god
or a girl
or a swan
I was the conductor
Of a thousand reasons
To rain and to love
To catch fire the world
With sounds that had cowered in my soul
light lights burning light
! ! !
She loved Judas before he left
To serve our only Lord, Jesus.
She kissed the eyes closed, cried a tear
For each, cradled an unspoken fear
Among the ruins of their song,
Loved him before his great wrong,
Before he fell, fell to that sin
That God’s great goodness wished to win,
Although the shepherd bore him best,
That wretch who most needed blest.
She loved, with heart, heat, stone, the coarse
Caress of holy human force
Despite his constant woundedness.
Lord, how came again forgiveness?
But she loved as a human would,
With wicked want, a limping good,
And before Iscariot hanged
Himself she sang, and sang, and sang,
A mortal who revealed and laid
Her body where his body stayed.
And God watched as each Disciple stole
Their weeping from His demanding Goal,
For Jesus too loved Judas most
And from his Failure revealed The Holy Ghost.
The long golden garden party afternoon before the news arrives,
The actual appropriate dynamics of everything we compromise
With our delirious longing, all this is just the way of words
When they huddle, affecting happiness in herds.
Let them soften to the fact of the flow of your hair
And love’s favorite lie—“I’ll always be there”.
I always misspell separation when she’s near.
Tonight I’ll get it right, I fear.
Listen, I’m confused.
Did our souls just kiss?
And really, what is all this,
This endless talk of the All?
I know, I know.
I only accidentally call.
And accidents, like loves, are always over fast.
But look, have I shown you
The baubles in my little bauble bag?
In them we might last a life,
Share a pretty thing or two,
Delight in our favorite this or that
We arranged for you to show you you
And me, the I I secretly knew.
The black crow caws as the white raven sighs
Hello blue eyes! hello! over here!
Revealing one simple solid truth,
And a thousand perfect singing lies.
I’m not confused! I love us…but must go
Into the bauble you threw
In my little bauble bag,
The ever-growing bauble bag
Of me, and you.
Existence is a marvelous trap, and you know it,
In the back of the back of the line, feeling vaguely unsure.
Gosh, you think, I could really throw back a few,
When someone steals you by the arm and says, Sir,
You haven’t paid for your ticket, is that true?
And you wonder, for a moment, is that true?
And in the next moment she appears at your side, her,
Like rain on the perfect day for rain, after making love,
And you are both escorted to the double doors now, quietly, and you shove.
I grieved with an angelic hangover
O don't worry I won't believe the lies
I know you'll come back soon
I shrieked our secret names
To the drunks
Beneath the Arc Sans Triomphe
I wear your red scarf like a bullet to the neck
They threw me out of every boutique in Paris
Each mirror I embraced swore I'd found you
You won't be proud of what I said
About how a person can do good things
And still wish herself away
Dad and the gendarme know merde
I cut my bread again like back home
Remember the summer we named all the turtles?
How mom called us her queens of the creek?
I wish you had told me
Where you were going
“I shall forget you presently, my dear,
Please, behave yourself, Ms. Millay.
One can imagine a few of her elders pulling her aside to gently chastise the young poet as she began to wade her way through the literary swamps of the early 20th century. Later in her career, when not being openly attacked, she was largely ignored by the ascendant modernist literati for having the gall to be romantic.
But early on Millay was one of the last of a now extinct species: the popular American poet.
Beautiful. Bisexual. Feminist. Razor-sharp. Self-destructive. Millay was that. And if you can forgive a smidge of morbidity, she was a well-staged suicide away from landing a Hollywood biopic. But should we not attempt to get beyond our current culture of personality worship, this rotating pantheon of drug-addled, self-obsessed celebrities? Should any of this soap opera nonsense really matter to art, to life?
Ha ha ha!
Should is not the issue! These things do matter and they will always matter. Our obsession with other people’s behavior has its hooks deep in you and me, it's hardwired, whether we admit to it or not. Yes, the artist’s primary responsibility is to their work, but for us, that reprehensible band of chumps, The Public, any attempt to permanently divorce the artist’s work from their life is a futile attempt to divorce life itself. And although life is a bloody mess, we love to watch the blood fly…from a safe distance, of course.
The public started losing interest in poetry when the poets started becoming professors. Professors wear sweaters and can’t remember where they put that umbrella. Professors have read more books than you and definitely won't lord it over anyone. Professors explain the current and historical contexts. Professors will help you become a thought-full citizen. Booooooring. You can’t breed poet with professor and keep the booooooring out, no matter how much talent and eccentricity you throw in the mix. There’s simply not enough risk or blood in higher education to interest anyone for very long.
Millay wasn’t a professor. She wrote for a living, and left a slew of lovers in her wake while smoldering through the years, as reflected in her poems. Here's “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
Accessible and evocative, there’s little room for the “I don’t get it!” of those poor unfortunates who never received a degree in English Lit. This isn’t to say difficulty is bad. Obscurity in art is bad (yes, there are always exceptions); difficulty in art is only bad when there is nothing behind it.
Throughout her work Millay’s voice is powerful and independent, often overwhelming with its wit and a self-aware, subversive knowledge. Even when she dips into melancholy, as above, she maintains her power. Woman as player: all those “unremembered lads”, the degeneracy!
Here, the worldly context, our poet as prolific lover, in no way takes away from the glory of the poem. Of course, if the poem does not deliver then the poet would have a problem. As our critic says, “good poetry hides”. We can forgive the artist or entertainer who elevates or entertains us. Failure to do so…well, you’re just another reprobate nudging civilization towards total collapse!
Millay unabashedly embodied a poetics that explored the terribly old-fashioned themes of love, death, and nature while remaining modern. Yes, even today one can be modern and write sonnets. To be modern at any time is simply to be very very good.
For Edna, no problem.
She had that rare combination of glamor and substance. If we live in an entertainment age (we do) then one can either moan and moan about the lack of substance, or put in the effort to dress up the substantial in an alluring costume.
In “The Fitting”, the speaker is being fitted by a “hardworking woman with a familiar and unknown face” who remarks that she has lost weight. All the better, the speaker replies (“tant mieux”). Soon the saleswoman comes in, repeating the remark:
Ah, que madame a maigri!” cried the vendeuse, coming in
Millay bites in many of her poems, but with artisty. And here her blend of bite and fine-tuned feeling is not aimed at the tailor or the saleswoman exactly, but takes in and then transcends the superficiality of the situation: stood there, being measured, chatted up, touched, all the while blissfully daydreaming as the world rambles on around her, we’re invited to take part in the superiority of the imaginative world.
Speaking of superiority…
T.S. Eliot, by most if not all accounts the most talented English-language poet of the 20th century, was never a popular poet in the way Millay was. He became an poetic institution of sorts, sure. But hordes of hormone ravaged neophytes won’t be clamoring to read “Prufrock and Other Obersvations” anytime soon, as crushingly brilliant as it is.
He was and always will be popular with poets (damn the man could write) as well as that small subset of the population who pride themselves on their hard-won “good taste”. But for Eliot, a poem like “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” is too sentimental, too adolescent. Old Possum, they called him. Possums aren’t renowned for their sentimentality or sex appeal, as their wives can attest.
People need to be seduced into poetry. Eliot is nine months into the relationship when the lovers start to reveal their respective monsters. Poetry-wise, he’s essential, but you don’t want him on the ground floor attempting to woo prospective clients.
We want Lord Byron on a Greek ship sailing into battle, we want a young Plath biting her future husband on the cheek, we want Ginsberg holding a “POT IS FUN” sign with flowers in his hair. As questionable as these wants are, we want, we want, we want.
No, these gestures, these poses, do not enhance the poem, but yes, they certainly enhance the story and glamor surrounding poetry. The modern insistence on separating the text from its author, while a perfectly fine tool for criticism, sucks all the joy and vigor from the pose of the poet.
It’s difficult to imagine a professor today attempting, let alone pulling off, the pose taken in Millay’s “Dirge Without Music”:
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
O Edna! where are your sons and daughters now?
We're not living in the wasteland yet. The battle to elevate American Poetry above academic chattering or cringy social media dross may very well be a foolish and losing one. I know. But I do not approve…
Nathan Woods, editor/overlord