We Were Very Merry

To the Modern Reader, Edna St Vincent Millay’s poetry is-- in a word-- unfashionable. Certainly, he may be acquainted with a work or two of hers; likely he has seen a cute rhyme of hers somewhere. Most ubiquitous, perhaps, the “First Fig”:

           

            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!

 

This, our jaded Modern Reader well knows, is the stuff of epigraphs and “inspirational quotes”. Millay’s fleeting fancies of the Jazz Age are now unfathomably distant; she is captive to ossified conventions of form and rhyme that no one has used in aeons. The Modern Reader, contemplating Millay with a certain distaste, gives thanks to his Modernist Pantheon-- Eliot, Pound, Yeats-- for sweeping all that romantical junk out of the collective consciousness, for Making Poetry Serious Again. The Modern Reader appreciates Eliot’s formally experimental pastiches and Pound’s clean Imagism and impersonal, Symbolist Yeats. Edna St Vincent Millay, however, is representative of a poetic world stuffed with sentimental fluff, a set of aged traditions that lingered unfortunately into the beginning of the twentieth century, till Eliot & Co. cleared her overwrought romanticism out of poetry.

 

Or that is one version of the story. Certainly, Millay adhered to traditional forms and valued meter and rhyme. But the story of Edna St Vincent Millay isn’t just that of a poetic dinosaur who couldn’t realise that 1920 was time to stop writing sonnets. It’s a more complicated story of misrepresentation and wilful ignorance—for, leaving aside the question of form, Edna St Vincent Millay was a radical. There's a radically modern engagement with female agency and sexuality and emotional subjectivity in her work that is nowhere in the Modern Reader’s Modernist Pantheon. Consider the unapologetic disregard for convention on view in her “Sonnet XLI”-- leaving aside, for a moment, the fact of its sonnetness.

 

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, —let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

Which is to say: just because I slept with you doesn’t mean I like you.

Back to form: the sonnet has always been about love, and so the sonnet has always been about sex, but the traditional form of the sonnet is as a vehicle of desire that the male subject inhabits to seduce some typically-female object. Shakespeare queered the sonnet tradition when he wrote to his Fair Youth, and thus we can all concede that the sonnet need not represent strictly prescriptive male-female desire, but the canonical sonnet-voice was always male. At least, that is to say, until Millay, who left us the best sonnets of her century in her wake, and the most feminist (or proto-feminist) of the canon. It is a radical act to take a cultural form that descends to you but does not represent you, and remake it in your image.

When Millay wasn’t writing sonnets about the one-night-stands she never wanted to see again, she wrote about love, and nostalgia, and mourning: all intuitive and emotional topics that a certain formulation of literary establishment treats with condescension at best. Which is not to say that she met with only condescension: people loved her at the time! She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. But the critics who wrote about her in the 1920s and 30s seemed to agree on two points: that, firstly, Millay was undoubtedly one of the finest woman poets to date, and secondly that the entire accumulated body of “women’s poetry”, Millay included, was worth very, very little. Aggressively trivialized by her male contemporaries and ignored by her descendants was her transformation of the genre-ghetto of “women’s poetry”: she was flipping a gendered poetic canon on its head, redefining the love poem in the woman’s voice in a free and radical world of shifting lovers and desire un-prescribed by any social norm.

 

In the decades to follow, while the Modernists rose up in prominence and swept Millay’s poetics out to sea, an onslaught of explicitly gendered critical attacks framed her work as feminine and thus lacking in nature, inherently inferior to the “rigorous”, “intellectual”, “masculine” poetics that those same Modernists represent. To this day her poetry remains dusty and outdated to our venerable Modern Reader; certainly we don’t attach the label radical to Millay, however ahead-of-her-time her project. The radicals, we have decided, were the ponderous men who decided to dismantle poetry and pass judgment on Western civilization in the process (though never nearly as critically as one might hope); at least, until the next wave of radicals displaced them. Millay lies in the canon’s attic, dusty, motionless symbol of what could have been: a reclamation of canonical poetry by the unbound female voice that never got to progress further.

 

One story of Millay’s poetics ends there. Another, unexpectedly to all, has picked up in recent decades: in it her aesthetics and preoccupations and lyricism and rhyme-and-meter linger, adding up to a modern movement she foreshadowed and never foresaw. This new Millay story? It’s indie pop. Sweet-ish, iconoclastic-ish, rhymed-and-rhythmed indie pop music, preserving so much of the formally constrained emotionality of Millay now unfashionable in our poetry. For comparison, consider Nitsuh Abebe’s description of 90s indie pop subculture in the Pitchfork article “Twee as Fuck”: “Happy pop geeks in love with all things pretty, listening to seven-inch singles released on tiny labels, writing songs about crushes, and taking a good deal of pride in the fact that everyone else found their music disgustingly cute and amateurish and girly.” Now apply that descriptor to Millay’s happiest brief rhymes: this first stanza of “Afternoon on a Hill”, for instance.

 

I will be the gladdest thing

            Under the sun!

I will touch a hundred flowers

            And not pick one.

 

It doesn’t matter to Millay whether Serious Critics think her appreciation of an afternoon’s flowered hill has any consequence. The point is the joy of the moment, and the alignment of rhyme that discovers that joy in language; the larger political project is elevation of the emotional experience as topic for art. Fundamentally, it is the closeness of her poetics and these lyrics—the centering of the emotional moment— that make her the distant fairy godmother of indie pop. Transplant Millay to the modern age, and all she needs are some sparkly guitars and a sleepy vocalist to play her songs as though they were by, say, The Magnetic Fields. Don’t believe me? Here are Recuerdo and Tied to a Stone, one by Millay, one by indie band The Math and Physics Club. Each set in a “we were”, in a companionate remembrance, implicitly romantic, sincerely sentimental, carefully rhymed, separated by the better part of a century, each bending towards the same nostalgic mean.

 

 

Recuerdo

We were very tired, we were very merry—

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—

But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,

We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;

And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

 

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 pears,

And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.