Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Happy birthday, Edna


This morning, like every weekday morning, I was listening to the Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor while packing lunches. The segment reminded me that today is Edna St. Vincent Millay's birthday - here's a repost from last April to celebrate one of my most loved writers:

my candle burns at both ends

I've had poems dancing around upstairs as I go about my work - ideas for post that must wait. It's a critical time for preparing the beds and getting baby animals off to a good start around here. As helpful as the kids intend to be, we are learning a lot of new things, so chores are more like lessons, and as much as my blogging helps keep me on track creatively (and with the chores) it must wait at times.

To catch-up with my poetry month posts I'll enjoy some Edna St. Vincent Millay. She's a poet who lived like a rock star.
An unapologetic:
lover...but I'm happy I didn't know any of that when I first dove into her writing. The story unfolded in the poems. I guess I could say it was like finding a vein in the collective unconscious - and that's the magic of it all, right?

The first poem is not Edna's, but it honors all the great poets who let us ride for a moment on their delivery of understanding.

Nunc Dimittis

Little time now
and so much hasn’t
been put down as I
should have done it.
But does it matter?
It’s all been written
so well by my betters,
and what they wrote
has been my joy.

- James Laughlin

And now, Edna.


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

The Plaid Dress

Strong sun, that bleach
The curtains of my room, can you not render
Colourless this dress I wear?—
This violent plaid
Of purple angers and red shames; the yellow stripe
Of thin but valid treacheries; the flashy green of kind deeds done
Through indolence high judgments given here in haste;
The recurring checker of the serious breach of taste?

No more uncoloured than unmade,
I fear, can be this garment that I may not doff;
Confession does not strip it off,
To send me homeward eased and bare;

All through the formal, unoffending evening, under the clean
Bright hair,
Lining the subtle gown. . .it is not seen,
But it is there.

Invocation to the Muses

Read by the poet at The Public Ceremonial of The Naional Institute of Arts and Letters at Carnegie Hall, New York, January 18th, 1941.

Great Muse, that from this hall absent for long
Hast never been,
Great Muse of Song,
Colossal Muse of mighty Melody,
Vocal Calliope,
With thine august and contrapuntal brow
And thy vast throat builded for Harmony,
For the strict monumental pure design,
And the melodic line:
Be thou tonight with all beneath these rafters—be with me.
If I address thee in archaic style—
Words obsolete, words obsolescent,
It is that for a little while
The heart must, oh indeed must from this angry and out-rageous present
Itself withdraw
Into some past in which most crooked Evil,
Although quite certainly conceived and born, was not as yet the Law.

Archaic, or obsolescent at the least,
Be thy grave speaking and the careful words of thy clear song,
For the time wrongs us, and the words most common to our speech today
Salute and welcome to the feast
Conspicuous Evil— or against him all day long
Cry out, telling of ugly deeds and most uncommon wrong.

Be thou tonight with all beneath these rafters—be with me
But oh, be more with those who are not free.
Who, herded into prison camps all shame must suffer and all outrage see.
Where music is not played nor sung,
Though the great voice be there, no sound from the dry throat across the thickened tongue
Comes forth; nor has he heart for it.
Beauty in all things—no, we cannot hope for that; but some place set apart for it.
Here it may dwell;
And with your aid, Melpomene
And all thy sister-muses (for ye are, I think, daughters of Memory)
Within the tortured mind as well.

Reaped are those fields with dragon's-teeth so lately sown;
Many the heaped men dying there - so close, hip touches thigh; yet each man dies alone.
Music, what overtone
For the soft ultimate sigh or the unheeded groan
Hast thou—to make death decent, where men slip
Down blood to death, no service of grieved heart or ritual lip
Transferring what was recently a man and still is warm—
Transferring his obedient limbs into the shallow grave where not again a friend shall greet him,
Nor hatred do him harm . . .
Nor true love run to meet him?

In the last hours of him who lies untended
On a cold field at night, and sees the hard bright stars
Above his upturned face, and says aloud "How strange . . . my life is ended."—
If in the past he loved great music much, and knew it well,
Let not his lapsing mind be teased by well-beloved but ill- remembered bars —
Let the full symphony across the blood-soaked field
By him be heard, most pure in every part,
The lonely horror of whose painful death is thus repealed,
Who dies with quiet tears upon his upturned face, making to glow with softness the hard stars.

And bring to those who knew great poetry well
Page after page that they have loved but have not learned by heart!
We who in comfort to well-lighted shelves
Can turn for all the poets ever wrote,
Beseech you: Bear to those
Who love high art no less than we ourselves,
Those who lie wounded, those who in prison cast
Strive to recall, to ease them, some great ode, and every stanza save the last.

Recall—oh, in the dark, restore them
The unremembered lines; make bright the page before them!
Page after page present to these,
In prison concentrated, watched by barbs of bayonet and wire,
Give ye to them their hearts' intense desire—
The words of Shelley, Virgil, Sophocles.

And thou, O lovely and not sad,
Euterpe, be thou in this hall tonight!
Bid us remember all we ever had
Of sweet and gay delight—
We who are free,
But cannot quite be glad,
Thinking of huge, abrupt disaster brought
Upon so many of our kind
Who treasure as do we the vivid look on the unfrightened face,
The careless happy stride from place to place,
And the unbounded regions of untrammelled thought
Open as interstellar space
To the exploring and excited mind.

O Muses, O immortal Nine!—
Or do ye languish? Can ye die?
Must all go under?—
How shall we heal without your help a world
By these wild horses torn asunder?
How shall we build anew? — How start again?
How cure, how even moderate this pain
Without you, and you strong?
And if ye sleep, then waken!
And if ye sicken and do plan to die,
Do not that now!

Hear us, in what sharp need we cry!
For we have help nowhere
If not in you!
Pity can much, and so a mighty mind, but cannot all things do!—
By you forsaken,
We shall be scattered, we shall be overtaken!
Oh, come! Renew in us the ancient wonder,
The grace of life, its courage, and its joy!
Weave us those garlands nothing can destroy!
Come! with your radiant eyes! — with your throats of thunder!


  1. I go down to the desert often now
    Not to the river, the snaking river
    The asphalt river where steerable coffins
    Piloted by pallid corpses
    Glide in air-conditioned isolation,
    Hermetically protected from the sun
    And earth and rock and scaly-skinned
    Inhabitants of this magic land,
    But to the chocolate cliffs
    The plum butter cliffs
    To the multi-layered, raspberry cliffs,
    That remind me of exotic pastry
    And down below that to the
    Pebble-strewn floodplain
    Where flash floods discharge
    Their gritty loads.
    The stones are varnished black here
    And the clay upon the hillsides
    Is cracked and dusty like elephant skin
    And whatever grows here
    Is tough like green leather, or
    Fortified by thorns or otherwise
    Impregnable to assault, with roots plunged deep
    Into the narrow crevices in the rock.
    I go down to see my favorite tree
    Which has grown sideways, horizontally,
    With sinewy roots like octopus tentacles
    Clutching a fractured ledge,
    Where a tree must forget
    What it is to be a normal tree
    And do what it must to hold fast to life.
    I go down to the desert often now
    Where I forget what it is to be human
    And do what I must to hold fast to life,
    Where solitude enshrouds me in mirage
    And where time flows backward
    Or not at all,
    Where the raw angry wounds
    The cancerous lesions, the pus-filled swellings
    Of my bouts with civilization
    Have gnawed at my substance
    Like syphilzation.
    I go down to the desert often now,
    And I cross the asphalt river,
    I park my steerable coffin
    And emerge from it, aglow
    In the heat, the freedom, the
    Stripped down, jagged, dessicated simplicity of it all,
    The world where pallid corpses
    Cannot be found.
    I go down to the shimmering world
    The burning, cleansing, purifying world
    Where one needn’t swat his ego down
    Because here, there are no touchstones for self
    No selfish others against whom
    To test one’s mettle,
    Where stones and bones and
    Wood and flesh all parch
    And crumble and dissolve and resolve
    Themselves, eventually, into dust
    And where the wind gathers up the dust
    And where the last light from a slanting sun
    Filters through, burning orange and red
    For a flicker of time,
    Our brief moment of shared enlightenment
    Before the eternal night.

  2. "a tree must forget"

    thank you for sharing this, Anonymous



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