Are you entertaining entering the glamorous world of liberal arts and becoming an English major? There is a lot to ponder (what color ink should you choose to take notes? what will your unifying design theme be for your iPad and iPhone cases?), but it really comes down to whether or not you’re ready to embrace the fundamentals. Let me break it down for you. As a literature student, you have two jobs. The first job is to read everything assigned to you to read. Never mind that sometimes your reading list is a brain-baffling tossed salad of German postmodernism , world mythology, and John Milton. Nobody is asking you what you want to read. You’re reading what’s on that syllabus, so hush your mouth, put down that People magazine, and pick up that Bertolt Brecht.
Once you’ve read your assigned works, you might think you’re done. Well, you’re not, because that’s when you start your shift on your second job, which is to get your analysis on. Unleash your powers of perception and persuasion and run the time-honored drill of writing a paper. The act of writing a paper demonstrates understanding of the text, grasp of the larger ideas and context around the work you just read, and that you know how to procrastinate to a point where it becomes necessary to read The Grapes of Wrath, draft an outline, and write a paper about Steinbeck’s use of grapes as a motif in the 48 hours before the due date. Or maybe I wrote about Steinbeck using wrath as a motif? I’m not sure, as I was hallucinating by hour 37.
For the opinioned among us (looks in the mirror, points to self), crafting and writing papers is a rewarding exercise. I thoroughly enjoy making juicy literary arguments and I can cite more sources than a Kardashian has eyeliner. Fiction, non-fiction, plays, short stories, novellas, fairy tales–bring it ON. Notice anything missing from that list? I’ll fill you in. POETRY. I don’t know why, but I am incapable of articulating anything insightful about poems. It’s not that I can’t enjoy poetry. It’s that I can’t explain it. When obligated to describe why a poem has a particular quality, I’m stumped. It just comes out as “Nice letters make good word poem picture”, and the only thing exaggerated about that example is that it’s giving me more analytic credit than I deserve. I dreaded assignments requiring any analysis of any poetry. I once punted so hard on a paper about Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” that my teacher took me aside to ask me if everything was okay. I think she suspected me of having someone else do the assignment for me and was wondering why I’d hired a kindergartner. Sadly, that’s when I had to face an unpleasant truth: I would never be a poetry whiz. I’d never be in the same class as the amazing Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Edna St. Vincent Millay was a Jazz Age writer, activist, and all-around badass. How badass, you ask? Okay: She was a Maine native, Pulitzer Prize-winning celebrity poet, and named after a hospital. BIO BONUS LEVEL UNLOCKED. POINTS AWARDED, EDNA. Where Zelda Fitzgerald embodied Jazz Age liberation as a volatile live wire, celebrating conspicuous consumption and inebriated recklessness, Edna St. Vincent Millay was cooler than the other side of the pillow. Independent, willful, and insanely talented, she lived an unconventional life characterized by artistic integrity and intellectual curiosity. And sexual curiosity. Let’s just say all the curiosity.
Savage Beauty is the gorgeous biography about Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford. It does ESVM’s life justice (Four-initial monogram? Badass) spanning her early, poverty-stricken years in rural Maine, her boldness as a Vassar student, and her amazing career. All of that is interesting enough, but Milford’s meticulous research reveals an Edna who is lively, stubborn, and driven by her passion for the arts and for artists. ESVM was a born writer, composing opera librettos and plays, but it is her poetry that casts the longest shadow.
Generally, my ability to appreciate poetry is limited to crying at a well-placed poem at a movie funeral. (And you know I just paused to watch John Hannah read W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in Four Weddings and a Funeral. And now you’re pausing to do the same thing. I’ll wait. It’s a good scene.) There is one exception to this sad rule, and that is the sublime, brilliant ESVM poem “Renascence”. Written when Edna was a teenager, she submitted in a national poetry contest, where it was awarded 4th place instead of an expected 1st. The ensuing “she was robbed” controversy was Edna’s first exposure to poetry fame and facilitated a full scholarship to Vassar. “Renascence” is ambitious in scale and subject matter. Over 200 lines long, it is written in the first person, with the narrator reconciling her feelings about feeling overwhelmed and lost in a vast world. It is almost prose, almost a short story, both intimate and sweeping with a sermonlike momentum. I’ve loved it since I first read it. It’s fortunate that it’s a good, long, juicy, solid poem because it has to stand in for all the other poems that I avoid like the plague.
Like all masterpieces, “Renascence” is deceptively simple. It’s both challenging and comforting, begging larger thematic questions (immortality and stuff) while grounding itself in a natural, mountainside setting. The real magic of “Renascence”, though, is that I never had to write a paper about it, so I never ruined it for myself or anyone else. (Um, until today.) My poetry bandwidth is just too narrow. Trying to pin down ESVM poetic genius for research posterity would have been like trying to hammer a nail with a baguette: crumbs everywhere and a really annoyed nail.
I’m definitely calling in sick at the second job today.
Nancy Milford writes stupendous biographies. Sadly, she has written only two–Savage Beauty, and Zelda. You go read them while I sit here and wish for her to publish another one, preferably about Zora Neale Hurston or Dorothy Parker.