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…
In the deep past we mislaid ourselves
and feared, adored these places of the lost.
the valleys shaped from many youths,
forests I summoned while wishing you, making twigs
into wands for spells to scatter the beasts,
collecting moss for the beds of passion.
we wandered, asking greater aid,
found nothing yet your hands in my hair
seemed most joyous, miracles even.
why this still seems such marveling imagining us
draped on moss, you touching a leaf to my lip,
another memory of our lost everything.
Fuck the prophets.
This earth seeming too much,
They hobble and sing.
As for those hoping to enlist
Our shelter's quiet heresy,
Let the wait stain their red robes.
Still, you and I have come too far from gentleness
To rave reputably of birds.
What nest we've helped build, let fall from the highest rafters.
Tonight we sound the bell.
To mix poisons. To trade apples for
No. Pour water. Wrap the baby in
The blurred remember. Forgery hoping
Ink red dawns. A tower leapt from.
The fall without wings. The siege of
Patrons of destiny, in this dream
only a traitor can save the kingdom.
Joseph taught us dreaming is not enough.
One must speak the dream, and damn, that shit's tough.
One must consult the King and not get killed,
One must love the Queen, and it must not seem willed.
And one's brothers, yes, them, you must forgive.
Though they wish you dead, you must wish them live.
And your sorrow must overflow the well
And water the wheat in the fields of Hell.
For Joseph showed dreams alone will not do
What a dream in the world can wake through you.
He overturned tables
For no apparent reason.
Why do you do that? they'd ask.
You don't want to know, he'd say.
He rolled the Sphinx on its head
Which made the Egyptians very angry.
He tipped idols onto sheet paper
To breed with mongrels
Which made people throw things.
Then he flipped over a large stone
Hurled it through a cloud
And made himself some tea.
Nathan Woods, editor/overlord