(Sorting out poetry books on the mistaken assumption that they can be fitted into the space available in such a way that the ones I want will always be at the front. . .but no Millay in any case)
‘I have just finished two volumes of letters—’, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Kit and Ilse Barker in the autumn of 1953, ‘Hart Crane’s and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and I don’t know which is more depressing. I suppose his is, it was all over quicker—but she isn’t quite so narcissistic and has some sense of humour, at least.’ A couple of months later, writing to Robert Lowell, Bishop agreed with Elizabeth Hardwick about ‘poor E St. V Millay’, in Hardwick’s review of letters by Millay, Hart Crane and Sherwood Anderson in the Partisan Review, ‘Heavens she suffered. But I also suffered reading Hart Crane’.
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). I suspect that, while her name may be widely familiar to readers of poetry, she’s not actually read all that much now; maybe more so in the United States, where she used to be extremely popular. Perhaps the name conjures up a particular kind of poetry; or appeals to a particular kind of reader.
(That name: seven syllables, with a saint thrown in. I thought at one point I remembered her name being shoehorned into the lyrics of a song I’d heard but now suspect that I’m thinking of an old song lyric of my own, which managed to incorporate the name of blues and boogie-woogie pianist Champion Jack Dupree, the nickname derived from his boxing days when he fought more than a hundred bouts.)
In her long letter to Lowell of 4-5 April 1962, Bishop wrote: ‘I remember reciting that parody on E St. V Millay to you—“I want to be drowned in the deep sea water (?) I want my body to bump the pier. / Neptune is calling his wayward daughter: / ‘Edna, come over here!’” I asked Dwight Macdonald [Parodies, 1960] why he hadn’t put it in his parody book and he thought it was “dated”, I think he said.’
The question mark is justified since Bishop was quoting from memory and didn’t have the first and last lines of Samuel Hoffenstein’s ‘Miss Millay Says Something Too’ exactly right:
I want to drown in good-salt water,
I want my body to bump the pier;
Neptune is calling his wayward daughter,
Crying ‘Edna, come over here!’
A good many histories and surveys of the period bypass Millay altogether, though Cary Nelson sets her beside Claude McKay when claiming that the ‘centrality of revolutionary change in traditional forms’ is ‘especially clear in the transformation’ that the two poets ‘worked in the sonnet.’
The sonnet, yes. Here’s ‘Sonnet xlii’:
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Millay has eight poems in F. O. Matthiessen’s The Oxford Book of American Verse (1950); in David Lehman’s 2006 The Oxford Book of American Poetry, she has six. In Geoffrey Moore’s The Penguin Book of American Verse (revised edition, 1983), she’s down to just two, the 1923 sonnet just quoted and ‘Sonnet cv’ (1931):
Hearing your words and not a word among them
Tuned to my liking, on a salty day
When inland woods were pushed by winds that flung them
Hissing to leeward like a ton of spray,
I thought how off Matinicus the tide
Came pounding in, came running through the Gut,
While from the Rock the warning whistle cried,
And children whimpered, and the doors blew shut;
There in the autumn when the men go forth,
With slapping skirts the island women stand
In gardens stripped and scattered, peering north,
With dahlia tubers dripping from the hand:
The wind of their endurance, driving south,
Flattened your words against your speaking mouth.
No marked modernist experimentation or pioneering divergences; but real skill and an ear well-tuned to that subtle boundary where the effective, well-spaced deployment of alliteration and assonance tips or slips into droning or hammering. The wind is truly driving in from the sea in this poem and not simply in the words that explicitly tell you so.
Millay—or the generally accepted valuation of Millay—seems to have made a later generation of women poets a little uneasy, especially those wanting to explore their own lives and histories in a franker, less inhibited way. Of course, there were—are?—large and lazy assumptions about what ‘women’s poetry’ was and was not. Robert Lowell, in conversation with Ian Hamilton, would name only four women who ‘stand with our best men’: Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath.
Lowell is, of course, often cited—and almost as often damned—for initiating, to a large extent, the ‘confessional’ mode. When Bishop wrote to him in March 1972, expressing her deep concerns about Lowell having used and, crucially, changed letters from Elizabeth Hardwick, she added, ‘In general, I deplore the “confessional”—however, when you wrote LIFE STUDIES perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students’ mothers & fathers and sex-lives and so on. All that can be done—but at the same time one surely should have a feeling that one can trust the writer—not to distort, tell lies, etc.’
Lowell himself was not always comfortable with the work of poets said to be influenced by him, including Anne Sexton—and Sylvia Plath, who readily acknowledged the importance of Lowell’s Life Studies in what she viewed as a ‘breakthrough into very serious, very personal emotional experience, which I feel has been partly taboo.’ Plath wrote to her mother in 1956, ‘Ted [Hughes] says he never read poems by a woman like mine; they are strong and full and rich—not quailing and whining like [Sara] Teasdale or simple lyrics like Millay’.
In that same conversation with Ian Hamilton, asked about Anne Sexton, Lowell answered carefully that he knew Sexton well: ‘It would be a test to say what I thought of her.’ But he added, ‘She is Edna Millay after Snodgrass’. ‘After Snodgrass’ meant after—perhaps chronologically but also in the style of—that poet’s 1959 collection, Heart’s Needle: Snodgrass was an acknowledged influence on Lowell’s own move towards a freer and more personal poetry. But ‘Edna Millay’ – alas, alas. Sexton specifically expressed a ‘secret fear’ of being ‘a reincarnation’ of Millay, a poet she considered ‘soggily sentimental’.
‘Soggily sentimental’, though? Some of it may well be, I’ve not ventured that far; best to tread carefully and be selective. Still, you could say that of a great many others, more often than not.
Death devours all lovely things:
Lesbia with her sparrow
Shares the darkness,—presently
Every bed is narrow.
 Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 272.
 Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 148.
 Words in Air , 402.
 Cary Nelson, ‘Modern American Poetry’, in The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism, edited by Walter Kalaidjian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 78.
 ‘A Conversation with Ian Hamilton’ (1971), in Robert Lowell, Collected Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 287.
 Words in Air, 708-709.
 Sylvia Plath to a British Council interviewer, quoted by A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), 38.
 Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963, selected and edited with a commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), 244.
 Steven Gould Axelrod, Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 97-99.
 Quoted by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: The War of the Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 206.