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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Number 11: Edna St. Vincent Millay "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 the 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 the pears,

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

-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Hap Notes: The life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) is a tale about what comes of being brilliant, independent minded, opinionated and pretty in an era when you could not be all of those things and be taken too seriously for too long. It's hard for me to believe that a woman who wrote the powerful sonnets of Fatal Interview is so marginalized now. I don't believe you'll read any sonnets that show an independent woman's point of view about love that are much better.

Edna was openly bisexual, a bit free and easy (which never really hurt any male poets, I'll hasten to add) and just a little drunk on fame (and sometimes booze.) She made a big splash in the world of literature with her poem "Renascence" and praise was liberally ladled out to her. She was sort of a poster-girl for the "roaring 20s" life. And, she's written more than enough junk, in addition to her gems, as, I might add, have all poets. She also won the Pulitzer Prize so put that in the balance. She was a literary celebrity for a couple of decades starting in 1917.

However, she was one of the first to see the dangers of growing fascism in Europe after WWI (for which -no kidding- she took a lot of flak) and she was a defender of the controversial anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Her political poetry is a tad trite and histrionic, admittedly- she can get bogged down in schmaltz. Her style of poetry is thought to be a bit stylized and musty which always frustrates me because "contemporary" poetry should not be considered good, just because it's new or different, anymore than other poetry should be dismissed because it is not.

She had what should have been a very smart marriage for a writer; she had affairs all through her married life (most notably with the poet George Dillon) but she married a man who completely adored her, worshiped her talent and took care of her until the day he died. He did not subvert her will to housework when she longed to write. Unfortunately, the rest of America wasn't particularly understanding about the life of a writer, especially a very attractive female one. She was lifted high -very high- and then cast aside. She has never regained her rightful place, to my way of thinking.

Let me get down from this soapbox and talk about the poem.

Recuerdo means "I remember" and the poet is remembering being raptly in love. They travel all night on the ferry over and over. Where else were they going to go in the early 20's- even in New York? There were no all-night diners or movie theaters. If you hung around in Central Park too long you'd be arrested for vagrancy (or, if they were physical with each other- worse.) So the lovers spend all night going back and forth on the ferry in the deep of the night. The next morning they are so full of love and richness that they give their fruit and all their money to an old woman they meet on the street. They are deliriously in love.

Surely everyone has memories of seven hour phone calls, or staying up all night talking and laughing with a new love? The poem captures it perfectly with the sing-song repetition of the first two lines of each stanza- that intoxicated way you talk when you're tired but so happy. Then each stanza explains the love-fogged details of what they did with their time. It doesn't hurt to reflect that this back and forth love isn't exactly going anywhere- Millay also knew that this kind of love is wonderful but fleeting.

I've always been starry-eyed about this poem because I remember. You probably do, too. I hope you do, anyway. Everyone should be that in love at least once.

By the way, if you are a woman and a writer, she blazed that trail for you, sister. She blazed it good and hot.

Here's a good quote from Millay: "I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes."

And another: "
It's not true that life is one damn thing after another; it's one damn thing over and over."

You can read more of her work here:

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