One of my favorite female poets is Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). Today – February 22nd – is her birthday. I first learned about Millay when I was a high school senior and received one of the the “Atticus Finch” English awards that year (…and, no, you don’t have to explain to me that an award bearing the name “Atticus Finch” is a tall order for anyone). Each recipient received different books as their award and I was presented a beautiful copy of Millay’s Fatal Interview as mine.
Earlier that same year, the honors English students participated in a poetry reading evening where we read poetry aloud. I believed there might have even been apple cider involved and some time by a fireplace. It was one of those lovely evenings that you don’t generally have as a high school teenager, but it reminded me of moments that I had often read about from books. Friends gathered by a fire. Poetry verses. The kind of everyday magic that brings to life characters like Frankenstein. I think we may have even recited our own poetry that night, and I do distinctly remember writing a poem about the evening that I was asked to read.
I tie my love of Millay, my love of poetry and who I am as a writer in part because of that evening. My teachers, who selected what book to give me, told me that it was my own words that reminded them of hers. So, curiously, I began to read the book I received and others to follow. And while I am no Millay, I see in her words a kindred spirit and I love how she writes about love, loss, existence, and nature. In addition to being a skilled writer, she had a very interesting life (which I also devoted time reading about) and I have long admired her spirit and the frank way that she chose to express herself in life and in her writing – among many things, she preferred to be called “Vincent” and had numerous love affairs.
As I write this, I realize that I’m not sure who I would be as a writer without the influence of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I also strengthen my belief in how integral teachers have been to my life, opening doors to the arts and strengthening my confidence as a person and as an artist. I think one of the most beautiful things about writing is finding voices that resonate with you and even the ones that don’t – that continual acknowledgment in the world that exists, both vast and small all at once.
My first iPod was actually named Edna after Millay, of course. Etched on the back was a line (bolded) from one of Millay’s sonnets – Time does not bring relief:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
-Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Time does not bring relief”
I love this sonnet, but I love that line especially because of its imagery. It reminds me that as we move forward in time – farther away from memories we will keep, forget, and maybe let go – the past will always be there. In that line, I hear questions that only time can answer: What is that smoke every time you look back on the years? How will you remember the smoke as time goes by? How will you see it in the lane of your life?
Thanks for being an inspiration “Vincent”. Happy Birthday.