“One of poetry’s great effects, through its emphasis upon feeling, association, music and image — things we recognize and respond to even before we understand why — is to guide us toward the part of ourselves so deeply buried that it borders upon the collective.”
― Tracy K. Smith, Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology
American Sonnet 10
by Wanda Coleman
. after Lowell
our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row . .and boll. fenced others’
gardens with bones of lovers. embarking . .from Africa in chains
reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah’s light . .planted here the bitter
seed of blight and here eternal torches mark . .the shame of Moloch’s mansions
built in slavery’s name. our hungered eyes . .do see/refuse the dark
illuminate the blood-soaked steps of each . .historic gain. a yearning
yearning to avenge the raping of the womb . .from which we spring.
Florence, Ala. December 7th 1866
From Wade in The Water
by Tracy K. Smith
Dear Sir I take the pleashure of writing you
A fue lins hoping that I will not ofende you
by doing so I was raised in your state
and was sold from their when I was 31 years olde
left wife one childe Mother Brothers and sisters
My wife died about 12 years agoe and ten years
agoe I made money And went back and bought
My olde Mother and she lives with me
Seven years agoe I Maried again and commence
to by Myself and wife for two thousande dollars and
last Christmas I Made the last pay ment and I have
made Some little Money this year and I wis
to get my Kinde All with me and I will take it
as a Greate favor if you will help me to get them
I won’t ever tell you how it ended.
But it ended. I was told not to act
Like it was some big dramatic moment.
She swiveled on her heels like she twirled just
The other day on a bar stool, the joy
Gone out of it now. Then she walked away.
I called out to her once. She slightly turned.
But she didn’t stop. I called out again.
And that was when, well, that’s just when
You know: You will always be what you were
On that small street at that small time, right when
She left and Pluto sudsed your throat and said,
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche
Tú la quisiste, y a veces ella también te quiso.
For someone who is interested in words and language, I am ashamed to admit I am a complete failure in learning other languages. Most of the rest of my family has decent conversational Spanish skills, something that I think all Americans should have, given the importance of our neighbors to the south. If you are like me, then this might be helpful. A loose translation of the last two lines of the poem above is:
“I can write the saddest verses tonight, You loved her, and sometimes she loved you too.”
The Super Bowl half time on Sunday was incredible. I was pleased so many of the songs were sung in Spanish, quite a contrast to the political ads from President Trump and his constant attack on immigrants. Shakira and J. Lo put on a great performance and regardless of your opinion on booty shaking, there was no mistaking their power as performers and their impact on the pop culture of the United States. The NFL never does anything by chance. It was clear they were courting a wider audience and realizing that it didn’t matter what the bible belt felt about the costumes or the dancing, no one was going to turn it off and a whole new demographic might just tune in. I loved the dancing brass back-ups for J. Lo. Phillips poem below is a fitting commentary to the entire spectacle, that try and simplify it, or put it in a “category” and you are going to miss the complexity of what is really going on. What the half time show said to me, is it’s more than one thing. It was about life, about music, about celebration. It spoke to me, we are much more interesting in living life as a global multi-cultural experience than in courting isolationism and building walls.
by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Both guitars run trebly. One noodles
Over a groove. The other slushes chords.
Then they switch. It’s quite an earnest affair.
They close my eyes. I close their eyes. A horn
Blares its inner air to brass. A girl shakes
Her ass. Some dude does the same. The music’s
Gone moot. Who doesn’t love it when the bass
Doesn’t hide? When you can feel the trumpet peel
Old oil and spit from deep down the empty
Pit of a note or none or few? So don’t
Give up on it yet: the scenario.
You know that it’s just as tired of you
As you are of it. Still, there’s much more to it
Than that. It does not not get you quite wrong.
Never was your singular voice contrived.
Nor the passion that shaped it. Like your art,
No more separable from your racing heart
Than blood from beating, than poets from pride.
Jilted lovers, their earnest vows denied,
Your bohemian life, eagerly read,
Vainglorious words and beauty wed,
To your poetic nature like a bride.
Faithfulness to art a winsome doom.
How great was Envy’s pressure to be true,
To the siren who infamously burned?
A Pulitzer for voicing freedoms earned.
Luminous the light of being you,
Free to live and love, what you loved and whom.
It’s hard to say goodbye to Vincent, but awfully good to be about to say Hello to February. And as much fun as its been to spend a month in her company, she would be the first to tell you variety is the spice of life. Time to head out again farther afield with more spontaneity and new poets.
Here is a charming grainy home made movies of Edna with her friends. I highly recommend you turn your volume to zero when you watch it. Someone, well meaning I am sure, laid in music over the top. These were silent films, similar to the films of my mother as a child. Try watching it as Vincent would have watched it. And then we will bid adieu to Millay letting her own words have the last word.
From Not For A Nation
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
What rider spurs him from the darkening east
As from a forest, and with rapid pound
Of hooves, now light, now louder on hard ground,
Approaches, and rides past with speed increased,
Dark spots and flecks of foam upon his beast?
What shouts he from the saddle, turning ’round,
As he rides on? — “Greetings!” — I made the sound;
“Greetings from Nineveh!” — it seemed, at least.
Did someone catch the object that he flung?
He held some object on his saddle-bow,
And flung it towards us as he passed; among
The children then it fell most likely; no,
‘Tis here: a little bell without a tongue.
Listen; it has a voice even so.
I Will Put Chaos Into Fourteen Lines
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I will put Chaos into fourteen lines
And keep him there; and let him thence escape
If he be lucky; let him twist, and ape
Flood, fire, and demon – his adroit designs
Will strain to nothing in the strict confines
Of this sweet Order, where, in pious rape,
I hold his essence and amorphous shape,
Till he with Order mingles and combines.
Past are the hours, the years, of our duress,
His arrogance, our awful servitude:
I have him. He is nothing more than less
Than something simple not yet understood;
I shall not even force him to confess,
Or answer. I will only make him good.
I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever, by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favourite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And oaths were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far, –
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.
A hundred years later and Millay is seeing a resurgence in respect and interest. It begs the question if she were alive today and writing the very same sonnets, would she even get a sniff from publishers? Tracey K. Smith and Terrance Hayes are using the sonnet form in innovate ways and receiving critical acclaim. But they are not metrical sonnets. Do fuddy, duddy traditional sonnets still have a role to play or has the ghost of William Carlos Williams, (who I love by the way) won the day and free verse is forever king? The problem is there are an incredible number of terrible free verse poets. Go to a local poetry reading at a coffee house sometime. There are also incredibly gifted ones. I would say the same is true for poets that still write in rhyme, but you already have three strikes against you if send in a poem that rhymes for publishing. I started this blog because I got tired of the endless rejection slips and figured that rather than waste my time sending in poetry that was unlikely to get a welcome, I would create a vehicle to share the poetry I enjoy and slip a few of my own in once in a while and see if I could get away with it. White, male, metrical poets that get published today are as rare as a breed as there is in the literary world. I can’t think of a single one that has gotten my attention in recent years as I don’t think they have much of an opportunity to find their audience. If you have a favorite present day metrical poet please share….
Several chums of Millay would pull off one of the better poetic spoofs of the 20th century. Witter Bynner, along with Arthur Ficke, would create a new fake poetic movement called the Spectra Poets. Writing under assumed names, and genders, they concocted all kinds of silliness making fun of the new fad of free verse poetry. Unfortunately, free verse got the last laugh. Frank Hudson, a friend of Fourteenlines, has an outstanding article on his blog. Check out the link below and while you are there, listen to some of his original music using poems as lyrics. Its worth the time to listen.
Bynner, although gay, and possibly involved in an on again, off again relationship with Ficke, would propose to Millay while she was in Paris via a series of letters. Millay would turn him down and then through a series of unfortunate events, (or fortunate), Millay would accept only for Bynner to ghost her, priming the pump for Eugen to come along and sweep her off her feet. I think Edna’s marriage with Eugen was a far more fulfilling one than if she had married Bynner, in what would have been a poor marriage of literary convenience.
If Words Are Wise
by Witter Bynner
Words, words and words! What else when men are dead,
Their small lives ended and sayings said,
Is left of them? Their children go to dust,
As also all their children’s children must
And their belongings are of petty worth
Against the insatiable consuming earth
But words, if words are wise, go on and on
To make a longer tone of unison
With man and man than ever faint selves make
With one another for whatever sake . . . .
Therefore I wept tonight when live words rose,
Out of a dead man’s grave, whom no one knows.
“I’m so tired of hearing about ‘Renascence,’ I’m nearly dead. I find it’s as hard to live down an early triumph as an early indiscretion.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Clearly my ruined garden as it stood
Before the frost came on it I recall –
Stiff marigolds, and what a trunk of wood
The zinnia had, that was the first to fall;
These pale and oozy stalks, these hanging leaves
Neverless and darkened, dripping in the sun,
Cannot gainsay me, though the spirit grieves
And wrings its hands at what the frost has done.
If in a widening silence you should guess
I read the moment with recording eyes,
Taking your love and all your loveliness
Into a listening body hushed of sighs . . . .
Though summer’s rife and the warm rose in season,
Rebuke me not. I have a winter reason.
We experienced the best of winter this past weekend in Minneapolis, perfect for the pond hockey events around the area. Cold enough to produce the bright white squeaky soft snow that muffles sound and reshapes the light so that you see the world in a different way. The roads were bad, bad enough to close schools and cancel activities and force everyone inside to cook and play games for 24 hours. It was warm enough, at least for Minnesotans that have the winter gear and proper attitude, that working and playing outside was comfortable. It was exactly the kind of January weekend I enjoy most.
Millay was bi-sexual, her first lovers all women during college. In my opinion, bisexuality is the least accepted consonant among the LGBQT community. It is isn’t militant enough for some political factions of sexual politics, particularly feminist sexual politics, an undercurrent of “pick a side why don’t you” running through the underbelly of the discourse. I don’t think Millay would have used that term to describe herself, labels on sexuality are a relatively new concept. She was a generous and self absorbed lover, never truly discarding anyone in her life it seems, once someone became her lover for a period of time. The passion could go out of the balloon quickly with Vincent in terms of sex, but she always surrounded herself with vibrant people and the most vibrant remained on as friends.
The circumstances leading up to her marriage to Eugen Boissevain are a bit convoluted. She had pursued and rejected several marriage proposals for various reasons prior to her marrying Boissevain. She was living in Europe and somewhat miserable and lonely, both her younger sisters having already married. Millay was tired of the constant threat of unpaid bills hanging over her head and wanted more stability that a marriage could provide. When Eugen entered Vincent’s life he was getting over the tragic death of his first wife, Inez Milholland, who had died 7 years earlier. By all accounts, Eugen was the pursuer and he got what he wanted. Eugen was a good fit for Vincent. He was not threatened by her feminist politics, nor her talent as an artist and had enough money to allow her to focus on her literary pursuits. He contained the poise and confidence to not be threatened by her love affairs with other men and women during the remainder of their lives and marriage, while being a good companion to Vincent.
A former lover of Vincent’s, Alyse Powers, described Eugen this way:
“Handsome, reckless, mettlesome as a stallion breathing the first morning air, he would laugh at himself, indeed laugh at everything, with a laugh that scattered melancholy as the wind scatters the petals of the fading poppy… One day his house would be that of a citizen of the world, with a French butler to wait on the table and everything done with the greatest bienséance, the next the servants would have as mysteriously disappeared as bees from a deserted hive, and he would be out in the kitchen washing the dishes and whistling a haunting Slavic melody, as light-hearted as a troubadour. He had the gift of the aristocrat and could adapt himself to all circumstances … his blood was testy, adventurous, quixotic, and he faced life as an eagle faces its flight.”
In short, Eugen was as complicated a personality as Vincent and they fit together intricately for the remainder of their days. The next 15 years Vincent and Eugen traveled, lived and worked at Steepletop and made a life together. Vincent worked hard as a writer and used this period to establish herself in both her place in literary and feminist history and influence. That she eventually fell both out and into vogue subsequently is a testament to her greatness that is at the core of her best work. True genius is rare and eventually finds its proper place in our collective cultural appreciation of art.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Still will I harvest beauty where it grows:
In coloured fungus and the spotted fog
Surprised on foods forgotten, in ditch and bog
Filmed brilliant with irregular rainbows
Of rust and oil, where have a city throws
Its empty tins; and in some spongy log,
Whence headlong leaps the oozy emerald frog. . . .
And a black pupil in the green scum shows,
Her the inhabiter of divers places
Surmising at all doors, I push them all.
Oh, you that fearful of a creaking hinge
Turn back forevermore with craven faces,
I tell you Beauty bears an ultra fringe
Unguessed of you upon her gossamer shawl!
Gazing upon him now, severe and dead,
It seemed a curious thing that she had lain
Beside him many a night in that cold bed,
And that had been which would not be again.
From his desirous body the great heat
Was gone at last, it seemed, and the taut nerves
loosened forever. Formally the sheet
Set forth for her today those curves
And lengths familiar as the bedroom door.
She was as one who enters, sly and proud,
To where her husbands speaks before a crowd,
And sees a man she never saw before –
The man who eats his victuals at her side,
Small, and absurd, and hers: for once, not hers,
Reading the sonnets contained within Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree, it is hard to reconcile the timeline of when they were penned to the content. Edna St. Vincent Millay published them in 1923, several years before she met and wed her husband and more than 20 years before a sequence of deaths of men she loved would begin to surround her like a shroud. I am not one to investigate literary criticism, which ties all kinds of obscure politics and literary references to lines of poetry. I know that is what great poets do, they write literary criticism, they read literary criticism, they translate other great poets from other languages and they write poetry with depth so literary critics have something to do. But I am not a great poet. I am consumer of poetry and as I have stated before, I approach poetry with the same approach I drink wine, I consume what I like, regardless of what other people think or the gravitas it has received.
There are seventeen sonnets in the sequence from Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree that deal with Death, using the view point of a wife watching and helping her husband die. Vincent constructed these sonnets slightly different than her previous work, but the construction in my mind is not intent on making a statement on Feminism as much as they fit the disjointed nature of the subject matter – death. I do believe that great poets and novelists are able to create something in words that is entirely more real than the life in which they live. These sonnets are written in third person, not first person and by doing so, they are not autobiographical, but at the same time they are chillingly personal.
The first sonnet in the sequence tells the story of many marriages, one that has subsided in working like a marriage should, but there is still a kind of connection with a history of love that cannot ever completely unchain one from the other. The first lines speaks volumes of what has come and gone. And like most things in life, do not express the totality of the wife’s sentiments, which are flushed out in subsequent sonnets.
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
So she came back into his house again.
And watched beside his bed until he died,
Loving him not all. The winter rain
Splashed in the painted butter-tub outside,
Where once her red geraniums had stood,
Where still their rotted stalk were to be seen;
The thin log snapped; and she went out for wood,
Bareheaded, running the few steps between
The house and shed; there, from the sodden eaves
Blown back and forth on ragged ends of twine,
Saw the dejected creeping-jinny vine,
(And one, big aproned, blithe, with stiff blue sleeves
Rolled to the shoulder that warm day in spring,
Who planted seeds, musing ahead to their far blossoming).
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
She had a horror he would die at night.
And sometimes when the light began to fade
She could not keep from noticing how white
The birches looked – and then she would be afraid,
Even with a lamp, to go about the house
And lock the windows; and as night wore on
Toward morning, if a dog howled, or a mouse
Squeaked in the floor, long after it was gone
Her flesh would sit awry on her. By day
She would forget somewhat, and it would seem
A silly thing to go with just this dram
And get a neighbor to come at night and stay.
But it would strike her sometimes, making the tea: She had kept that kettle boiling all night long, for company.
I have had more than my fair share of deaths in my circle of loved ones in the past year. It can get to feel like death is ganging up on you. And it has been interesting to watch how all impacted in various spheres of my life, have dealt with the grief and finality of change that death brings. There is no one way to grieve and no right or wrong way to experience the loss of beloved ones and creatures in our lives. Grief is entirely a personal experience best shared with others, even if it feels awkward. In a recent conversation with someone who has experienced a bucketful of tragedy and loss in a short period of time, she stated it astutely, “I did the best that I could.” Vincent channels that sense of being lost and doing the best you can in the final sonnet I will share from this sequence.
Sonnets from An Ungrafted Tree
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
The doctor asked what she wanted done
With him, that could not lie there many days,
and she was shocked to see how life goes on
Even after death, in irritating ways;
And mused how if he had not died at all
‘Twould have been easier – then there need not be
The stiff disorder of a funeral
Everywhere, and the hideous industry,
And crowds of people calling her by name
And questioning her, she’d never seen before,
But only watching by his bed once more
And sitting silent if a knocking came . . .
She said at length, feeling the doctor’s eyes,
“I don’t know what you do exactly when a person dies.”
Say it is life that matters. Say the bone
And flesh that blazoned it are but a book
Mislaid, forgotten, and the meaning known.
I will believe, but I have lived to look
On the cold body of the beautiful dead,
White and immobile as the moon in air –
The imperious heart being strangely quieted,
And the proud spirit flown I know not where.
Say it is earth again. Let it be hid
In ruined leaves. Account it as the dust
That quarrels not with doom and never did,
And reckon me among the quick who must.
Yet would I sleep tonight at the rose’s root,
Seeing what TIme has trampled underfoot.
George Dillon and Edna St. Vincent Millay shared several things, both won the Pulitzer Prize, Millay for The Ballad of the Harp Weaver and Other Poems in 1923 and Dillon for The Flowering Stone in 1932. They also shared a bed. The two would cross paths in Chicago in 1928, while Vincent was on a reading tour and despite a 14 year age gap, the two were smitten on first sight. Millay was the pursuer and wrote volumes of letters and poems to Dillon in those first torrid months. Millay was married and confided instantly to her husband about her new found boy-toy. He was wise enough to know that this too would pass, and on the face of it accepted Millay’s love affair with Dillon, which both chronicled in sonnets and poetry; Millay in Fatal Interview and Dillon in The Flowering Stone. This unconventional mutual confessions of unfaithfulness was a big nothing burger in their own personal lives, but was just the kind of juicy romance that the reading public was hungry for at the time. To have a strong, beautiful woman, in charge of her own sexuality was an awakening force in evolving norms towards women’s independence and sexual liberation.
Millay simultaneously wrote sonnets to both her husband and Dillon during the years 1928 to 1930 and it is a bit confusing reading Fatal Interview which was written to whom. The sonnet below Millay wrote in pencil on her first lunch with Dillon in 1928 in Chicago, so completely was she infatuated, she gave it to him immediately. Her opening salvo completely prophetic, so much was she confident in her love language and natural tendencies.
This beast that rends me in the sight of all,
This love, this longing, this oblivious thing,
That has me under as the last leaves fall,
Will glut, will sicken, will be gone by spring.
The wound will heal, the fever will abate,
The knotted hurt will slacken in the breast;
I shall forget before the flickers mate
Your look that is today my east and west.
Unscathed, however, from a claw so deep
Though I should love again I shall not go:
Along my body, waking while I sleep,
Sharp to the kiss, cold to the hand as snow,
The scar of this encounter like a sword
Will lie between me and my troubled lord.
Edna St. Vincent Millay 1928
Dillon went on to become an editor for Poetry magazine from 1937 to 1949. Today, Dillon is largely forgotten as a poet. His literary legacy did not survive his generation. He stopped writing poetry by age 41 and eventually faded off the literary landscape. His only present day notoriety is as one of many of Vincent’s lovers. And in that regard, he is in very good company.
by George Dillon
Let loneliness be mute. Accuse
Only the wind for what you lose,
Only the wind has ever known
Where anything you lost has gone.
It is the wind whose breath shall come
To quench tall-flaming trees and numb
The narrow bones of birds. It is
The wind whose dissipating kiss
Disbands the soft-assembled rose.
It is the wordless wind that knows
Where every kind of beauty goes.
And if you lose love in the end Say it was taken by the wind.