A year ago, I posted a short piece “The Ghost of Edna St. Vincent Millay” in honor of Millay’s 130th birthday. In it I described the extraordinary influence she and her poetry had on my young self. What I didn’t mention was the influence she has continued to have on my not-so-young self.
My rediscovery of Millay occurred about ten years ago in Chicago, when I was doing research at the Newberry Library, poring over the papers of my grandfather, author Floyd Dell. To my astonishment, I found more than a thousand hand-written letters he’d written about his love affair with Edna Millay. Fascinated by the story, I made it the subject of my first book Blood Too Bright – Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay published in 2017 (and recently re-issued as a second edition).
In Blood Too Bright, I quote from an article Floyd wrote for the New York Herald in 1931. “Not only as a poet, but also as a person, Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of those happy achievements of the Life Force, which only happen about once in a thousand years. . . . To know Edna Millay is to have a tremendous enrichment of one’s life. It is something to be happy about. There is sheer magic in it.“
A happy achievement indeed. In the depths of the Depression, Millay attracted an audience of more than 2,400 people to hear her read. and she sold more than 35,000 copies of her book of sonnets, Fatal Interview. An icon of the Jazz Age, Edna Millay embodied the independent (and often reckless) spirit of The New Woman of the 1920’s. She was a rock star, loved and adored.
A century later, Millay is no longer a rock star; but knowing her all these years has made me very happy. I am in her debt for the beautiful poetry she wrote and that I still read today. I am indebted to her too for all the people I’ve met in the last ten years as a result of that poetry: first, in Chicago in 2012, when I discovered Floyd’s letters. Almost as thrilling as the discovery itself was sharing this discovery with Newberry archivist Alison HInderliter, seeing her eyes light up as I waxed enthusiastic about the artifacts I’d found in her archives. Thanks to Millay I’ d made a good friend in Chicago.
Three years later in Cumberland, Maryland, over lunch with author Krystyna Poray Goddu, Millay did it again. Between bites of salad and sips of tea, we talked about our writing. The moment I mentioned my book of letters my grandfather wrote about his love affair with a famous poet in Greenwich Village, a light dawned. “What’s your grandfather’s name?” she asked. When I assured her she wouldn’t know him. (Nobody knows Floyd Dell anymore.). She replied with a big smile, “Oh, but I do know him. I just finished writing a biography of Millay for young people, A Girl Called Vincent, which I delivered to the publisher yesterday!” What were the chances I’d be eating lunch with a new acquaintence who knew both Edna St. Vincent Millay and Floyd Dell?
Krystyna and I spent another hour swapping stories about Millay – I about Floyd reciting her poetry at dinner and my memorizing her sonnets as an adolescent, Krystyna about reading Renascence for the first time at age 12 in her attic room, swept up even then by the poet’s passion. It seemed we couldn’t help ourselves, and suddenly we were reciting Millay poems back and forth to one another. Thanks to Millay, I made another wonderful friend.
In 2016, I spent a happy afternoon in New York City with the executor of Millay’s literary estate, Holly Peppe. It was Holly who granted me permission to quote from Millay’s poems and to include photographs of Millay in my book. for which I was very grateful. But what came next — her Millay stories — sealed the friendship. “I first heard Millay’s name when I was 4 or 5 and my mother read “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver” to me as part of our bedtime ritual.” This was a poem from my childhood as well.
Years later, Holly explained, Millay’s sonnets would serve as the basis of her doctoral dissertation. Her research took her to Millay’s house Steepletop in Austerlitz, New York, where she spent weeks at a time over three years, talking with Edna’s sister, Norma. I knew Steepletop myself as a house my grandparents often visited, not far from where I spent my childhood summers. Thanks to Millay, here was another person who was a joy to know. (Holly’s introduction to the newly annotated Selected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay is also a joy to read.)
In September 2017, I was invited to attend Millay Arts and Poetry Festival in Rockland, Maine as a member of an Authors’ panel, where I shared the stage with Holly and Krystyna, as well as Millay biographers Nancy Milford (Savage Beauty) and Daniel Mark Epstein (What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.)
The room was packed.
We were each invited to share our particular take on Millay and read a favorite poem. I chose one of Floyd’s favorites: “The Poet and His Book”
“Stranger, pause and look/From the dust of ages/Lift this little book/Turn the tattered pages/Read me, do not let me die/Search the fading letters, finding/Steadfast in the broken binding/All that once was I.”
As the audience applauded, I thought how happy both Floyd and Edna would be that we in that room hadn’t let her die.
My last night in Rockland, I attended a concert where singer-songwriter Liz Queler, her husband Seth Farber, and son Joey Farber were to perform music from their album The Edna Project, twenty-one Millay poems they put to music. For over an hour, I sat in the darkened hall, mesmerized, as Liz Queler,her burnt-orange dress swaying, sang one extraordinary Millay poem after another, ending with Renascence, twenty stanzas long — without forgetting a single word.
When the concert ended (and after applauding myself into a frenzy) , I spent time with Liz and learned her Millay story. Unlike Holly, Krystyna or me, Liz hadn’t liked poetry as a child. By chance, though, as an adult her mother-in-law gave her a book of Millay’s poetry as a birthday gift. It wasn’t until she was struggling — grief stricken about her father’s Alzheimers and unable to write new songs –that she turned to Millay, committing herself to transform a Millay poem into a song of her own. Tavern was that song, only one of twenty-one she recorded, each as beautiful, quirky, charming and wicked as Millay herself. Whenever I wonder why my grandfather and his contemporaries loved this poet as they did, I listen to Liz sing.
Floyd was right. Knowing Edna Millay has enriched my life tremendously; indeed, there has been sheer magic in it.