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Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
"No, really!"

My Favorite Bit of Paper Cup Philosophy

The Way I See It #76

The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating - in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Between the Covers

I'm reading a book I own for, I believe, the fourth time: Savage Beauty, The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Nancy Milford. It is an extremely well-researched and beautifully written record of the very complex and difficult alcoholic, bisexual, repeatedly aborted, first female to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. (Side note: Milford's biography of Zelda [Mrs. F. Scott] Fitzgerald is an equally wonderful read. One feels that Milford brings these women to life before our eyes.) So what, right? Well the quirks are these: when one recommends a writer to me, what I really want to know is about the writer, not necessarily what s/he wrote. And I am a sheepish poetry ignoramus due to failure of teachers to prod me and lack of sufficient interest to dig out poetry on my own until about the past year and I'm doing nicely, thank you. Oh, and I do not, do not, appreciate most of Millay's poetry. But I love reading her life story. Though much celebrated, she suffered many harsh cruelties and few of life's truly beautiful things. I wonder if, after earliest childhood, she ever had a moment free of worry except when she drank.

My friend loves poetry perhaps above anything else because she considers the beauty of the desert and of light through glass and of flowers purchased at the farmers' market poetry, not to mention what she finds in print. She sought out lyric in school and has a minor scandal in her past relating to her tremendous desire to own a particular volume of rhyme. We'd only known each other a short time and she'd been sending me favorite poems frequently. "What are your favorite poems?" she asked.  I had to confess I was ignorant and a little bit prickly about being ignorant and not, after all, starving for the relief that only verse can bring. I was doing OK without poetry. She persisted in sending me sonnets and quatrains and then began to assign me the task of interpreting certain of them. WTF? I'm not a schoolgirl. But my friend is an oldest child and I think her sister and brother probably jumped when she said "jump".

I reluctantly began to scratch the surface and learned that I did know Charles Bukowski's writings quite well and who wouldn't consider Bob Dylan a poet? I can recite volumes of his words. I have been fortunate to read and enjoy the offerings of unpublished everyman kinds of poets, so perhaps I wasn't quite as benighted as I feared. I actually like Emily Dickinson and Robert Service and I've happily read some Sara Teasdale after being exposed to her in the book about Vincent Millay. My friend and I got into a  discussion - perhaps a spirited debate - about Millay after I began the book this time and after she confessed she'd never finished reading her copy even once. I commented that I skipped right over her poems when they were printed in full in the body of my book. "What?" exclaimed Friend. I admitted I just didn't like Millay's poems for the most part. Friend immediately began to shoot me some of her favorite Millay pieces. "No," said I. "Don't care for it at all."  Friend couldn't understand me at all.

Our discussion rolled on and Friend e-mailed me Recuerdo (don't Google it, Reader, you're about to have it from the source). I wrote back that though I am the woman who likes Victoriana, I find Millay's language stiff and dated. I did, however, describe to my friend the spirit of the poem as I believed it to be, and the sun broke through the clouds. "Yes!" she cheered, "You've got it exactly." Well, yes, Friend - I'm not soulless or stupid. And I do understand that Renascence rocked the world 100 years ago and rocks the world now, expounding on beautiful, lofty concepts, but I don't care for the words presented to relate the concepts. My friend commented that she likes old-fashioned language and does not care for today's overused hip, slick and cool talk. I agreed that I like good, descriptive language that people from many generations would understand ("rock the world", notwithstanding), but I'm unlikely to say that I am "merry" about anything. We congratulated one another for making a good case for our respective beliefs and I imagine she grinned as widely as I did.

The next morning I dawdled at the computer nursing coffee more slowly than usual. My friend is a night owl and often drops e-mails late at night to greet me on my virtual breakfast tray. I wanted to send her something, and on a hunch I Googled. Oh, yeah!  There it was! YouTube, of course. Millay reciting her own Recuerdo. I played it for myself and nearly toppled over. I'd been reading about Vincent's beautiful voice and speech patterns. I'm not sure who highjacked her and gave this reading, but it was a mean, mean trick. Had I paid a quarter or half-dollar in 1940s money to attend a reading, I'd have demanded my money back, I'm afraid. I just sent it to my friend without comment and said "Let me know what you think."  Even my poetry loving cohort had to admit the rendering has lost something across the decades. We shared a laugh and she quickly sent me another poem. Edna St. Vincent Millay was from Maine. I know Maine. My father lives in Maine. I have never heard another human being speak in Millay's manner. Not from Maine or anywhere else. I still absolutely love her story.

Something that charmed me:  I have found one of Millay's works I like, read beautifully by a man who sounds like perhaps he is from Maine. Have I mentioned I love learning new things?


  1. I feel the same way about that old-fashioned, flowerly lingo. Frankenstein freaking drove me nuts. Merry? Who's ever merry anymore? :-P

  2. @ CramCake ~ I thank you for that, so much. I don't want to be frivolous and soulless. Really. But I struggle with "metty/merry" and "fetty/ferry" as Millay recites. I know a lot of my put-off is the recording technology of the day (the beautiful Jean Harlow, filmed and recorded at about the same, time also sounds hideous, as if one would want to silence her and only employ the eyes to enjoy her). Anyway, I appreciate your common thoughts. And I still am deeply pulled by Millay's life story.

  3. Maybe it's because I've seen so many old movies(including those starring Jean Harlow) but I enjoyed it, enjoyed it as in, I'm a member of the audience. Now, if I was sitting across from her in a restaurant and she started talking in such a dramatic/eccentric manner, I might find it annoying. But on stage it's different. Her voice didn't remind me of Harlow (who specialized in playing comical sluts) so much as another New Englander, Katherine Hepburn. Did her husband talk like Spencer Tracy?

    As for the actual poetry, to be honest, I couldn't remember any of that poem she recited the moment it ended. The second poem? I like the way she rhymed "seeking" with "biologically speaking", though I suspect I'm supposed to get more out of the poem than merely that.

  4. @ Kirk ~ Her husband was Dutch, so I'm thinking "does not sound like Tracy". ;~} I know that you would more appreciate those more dramatic presentations because of your admiration for the old films. And you hit on something I didn't say particularly well. It's not that Millay sounds like Harlow. It's more that the voices are so exaggerated (theirs and Hepburn's and many more we could name) that I immediately go to thinking, "Come on, Girlfriend, I want to hear what you actually sound like with your makeup and costume hung up and just sitting with friends." I guess I like the artifice removed.

    The reason I liked "I Shall Forget You" is that it's Millay talking about herself exactly as she is - fickle, temporary, engaged with lovers but not to remain. She had the guts to say "Here it is unvarnished, dearest." It is said she loved only one person wholly and permanently - her mother. Her life looks that way to me. Yes, she was distracted by others, including her husband, but could not or would not commit lastingly.

  5. I just listened to "I Shall Forget You" a second time, and immediately picked up on the sardonic humor that for some reason I missed the first time around. Now, I wonder if that's because the actor read it in a kind of straight forward way? Or is it because the first time I read it, I was still thinking about the other poem, the one Millay spoke herself? Hard to say, but, if possible, it's probably best to read a poem twice. All this makes me rather curious about Millay. I might just pick up a book of her poetry.

  6. @ Kirk ~ I have to read a poem way more than once, believe me! An if I wrote one word that made you want to seek poetry - oh! Girlfriend will be so proud. If you take Savage Beauty out at the library, it contains many of her poems and tells what was going on when she wrote it, etc. I find it a good read as well as a good guide.

  7. I don't think everyone can/has to read or enjoy poetry. really poetry can be anything from a song to a haiku.
    For some reason most of the people I follow are writers that either have published novels or are writing one and they all seem to write poetry. I am treader water here.
    I enjoy reading their poems but I never really got in the whole poetry form. I would rather like you read about the poets/writers lives. I read just about anything.
    Even my blog is set up for big photo small amount of type. I am more comfortable with paper and paint, than the written word.
    But I do write haiku which I enjoy.

    I guess what I am saying what ever anyone reads I hope they just enjoy !

    cheers, parsnip

  8. My friend loves poetry perhaps above anything else because she considers the beauty of the desert and of light through glass and of flowers purchased at the farmers' market poetry,

    and you say your not a poet.
    This book you mention sounds like a good read.

    Both readings charmed me that nice baritone and the quirkyness of Millay's reading. We were veddy meddy and we were very tired. And I can't sleep for the rocking of the feddy.
    But this Time I'm serious Good Night!

  9. @ Parsnip ~ It's really nice to see you here. Thank you for coming by. I think you and I might be in agreement that poetry isn't ever going to be our first choice. But I'm glad I opened my mind to it and I've even dashed off a couple of amateurish attempts that fulfilled me just a little.

    I echo your thoughts about "enjoy what you read". Actually, today, it just pleases me to remember that some people still DO read.

  10. @ Tag ~ you've been a very busy man today for one operating out of his hospital bed. I hope you're finally resting. I'm glad you enjoyed the readings and my romantic little draw on what makes my friend tick. I hope she reads the post and enjoys it.

    And for now if the rocking feddy keeps you from sleep, you may eat from the apples or pears before we give the remainder of them to the old crone under the shawl.