March 29, 2018

Edna St. Vincent Millay's Savage Beauty

To a Young Poet

Time cannot break the bird’s wing from the bird.

Bird and wing together

Go down, one feather.

No thing that ever flew,

Not the lark, not you,

Can die as others do.

Edna St. Vincent Millay was flamboyant in her love affairs and her art.

She was the first woman ever to win the Pulitzer Prize.

She was said to be an exciting performer of her poetry. Her voice was likened to "an instrument of seduction" and her impact on audiences and men was legendary.

Millay married a self-proclaimed feminist, Eugen Boissevain, who gave up his own pursuits to manage Millay’s literary career. Millay wrote that as a couple acted liked two bachelors. They remained “sexually open” throughout their twenty-six-year marriage. Boissevain died in 1949 and Edna died in 1950.

I picked up the poetry collection, The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and then dipped into the Millay biography by Nancy Milford, (who also edited the poetry collection). Milford says in the biography that the story is "a family romance" because of the love between the three Millay sisters and their mother - a love so deep as to be dangerous.

Millay’s sonnets from her early twenties were the poems that made her reputation as being insolent, flip, and defiant in her first book of poetry, Renascence and Other Poems.

In the 1920s, she was voice of liberation. But reading a selection of her poems, you'll find love, death, nature and allusions to the classical and the romantic.

A Visit to the Asylum

Once from a big, big building,
When I was small, small,
The queer folk in the windows
Would smile at me and call.
And in the hard wee gardens
Such pleasant men would hoe:
“Sir, may we touch the little girl’s hair!”—
It was so red, you know.
They cut me coloured asters
With shears so sharp and neat,
They brought me grapes and plums and pears
And pretty cakes to eat.
And out of all the windows,
No matter where we went,
The merriest eyes would follow me
And make me compliment.
There were a thousand windows,
All latticed up and down.
And up to all the windows,
When we went back to town,
The queer folk put their faces,
As gentle as could be;
“Come again, little girl!” they called, and I
Called back, “You come see me!”

“A Visit to the Asylum” by Edna St. Vincent Millay is in the public domain.

The Millay Colony for the Arts was founded in 1973 and is located at the former home of Edna St. Vincent Millay. It is an artists’ residency program and artists’ center in Upstate New York, on seven acres bordered by Edna St. Vincent Millay’s former house and gardens.



March 22, 2018

Americans Are Still Reading Print Books


Print books remain the most popular format for reading, with 67% of Americans having read a print book in the past year. That comes from a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January. I think it is a good thing that 74% of Americans have read a book in the past 12 months in any format. That percent has been stable since 2012, but Americans are also spreading their book consumption across several formats.

Despite all the buzz about everything going digital, relatively few Americans consume digital books (which include audiobooks and e-books) to the exclusion of print.

The print-only people are at 39%. 29% read in digital formats and also read print books. But those reading only digital formats and that have not read any print books in the past 12 months is a measly 7%. The use of audiobooks is rising - now up to 18% of those surveyed.

March 16, 2018

Poems Read Aloud

This spring, I am the "poet in residence" at a middle school. It is fun to be back in a classroom, especially since I am only there once a week and only for an hour. The students have sessions where we write, revise, and listen to each other's poems.

There are three "events" where they can read their best poem aloud. One is performance-oriented, but the other two are just readings and it is quite a thing to be that age and be able to stand in front of a crowd and read aloud. Some will memorize. Some will add some performance, but I'm impressed with any of them reading something they wrote aloud at that age.

My own first reading at an open mic in a bookstore happened in high school and before I read my knees were very literally shaking and I had to hold onto the podium to keep my hands still.

Having heard actors and poets read some poems on recordings, my idea of "how to read a poem aloud" was rather distorted. I knew I couldn't read like Richard Burton, but I thought that kind of reading should be my model.

Of course, you don't need celebrities to have a good reading of a poem, but actor John Lithgow put together The Poets' Corner  a collection of well-known poems and had them read by a group of celebrities. The readings are online.

I listened to the collection and it brought back memories of poems read or heard when I was a young student discovering poetry. It includes Wallace Stevens's poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream" (read by Kathy Bates) which was a poem that grabbed me in high school with its title and language.

There are many collections of poets and others reading online. You could spend days going from one to another on YouTube alone. I share some of these with students because hearing poetry read aloud is not a commonplace event for most people. young or old.

The students read their poems too quickly. They try to memorize rather than "learn by heart" their poems - a difference that is not easy to understand or learn. Some over-dramatize. They use their "poet voice" in the way that novice Shakespearean actors drift into British accents - even when Romeo is Italian or Twelfth Night takes place in Illyria (Yugoslavia) and Hamlet and his friends are from Denmark.

It is rare to see a poet (or any writer, though non-fiction writers and novelists get more airplay) interviewed on TV - even rarer to hear poetry read. I was happily surprised when actress Helen Mirren was asked by Stephen Colbert to read the end of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” on his show. (read "Ulysses")  It is an old poem and apparently, one Colbert has great affection for.

“Death closes all: but something ere the end
Some work of noble note, may yet be done…”

That section of Tennyson's poem - hopeful that some work might still be done - reminds me of the Epilogue to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Prospero, a wizard and an old man, gives this final speech and I have always thought of it as Shakespeare's own farewell/retirement speech. He asks that the audience "release me from my bands, with the help of your good hands." The two times I have seen the play performed, after that line the audience did, with its applause, free him. Shakespeare's "project" - "which was to please" is finished.

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

I think that many of my young poets, like Prospero and Shakespeare, want "spirits to enforce, art to enchant."  I hope they get that, if only for a few minutes when they read and are freed by the audience's hands.

March 10, 2018

Prompt: Tools of the Trade

Early surgical tools

What is a tool every new physician needs? In Scotland, they are thinking it is a book of poetry. Medical students there receive a book of poetry intended to help them recharge and be mindful of the human aspect of their vocation.

An article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) alerted me to this program where the graduating medical students in Scotland receive a free copy of a poetry book titled Tools of the Trade: Poems for New Doctors. The pocket-size book is less than 100 pages and designed to be carried while on duty. Poems are grouped into five themes: looking after yourself, looking after others, beginnings, being with illness, and endings. The anthology was put together by the Scottish Poetry Library.

The gift is offered simply as a compassionate friendly gesture. As editors Dr Lesley Morrison and Dr John Gillies write in their introduction: "To care and be compassionate to others, we first need to be compassionate, to look after, to be kind to ourselves."

Some of the poets are or were doctors themselves, and all the poems speak in some way to the experience of being a junior doctor. Different poems will suit different situations, and readers.

“I remind students in their first week that neglect [of patients] is a real consequence of disregarding the human aspect of what we do,” says David Crossman, dean of the medical school at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and chief scientist for Scotland. “These poems just bring you back and help you understand who you are talking to.”


The article started me thinking about the kinds of poems I might include in anthologies for other trades and professions. Every job has its tools. Poetry is usually not one of them.

An artist has tools of the trade. The backyard gardener has tools. I wonder what poems we would give them to help in their work?

Our writing prompt for March is to write a poem intended for someone in a particular job. That might your own profession or one that you once aspired to, or something you know very little about but find interesting. It should be a poem that would help them in their work. Maybe it helps them deal with the problems that come with the job, or helps inspire them, or reminds them why they chose to do what they do. 
Submission deadline: Wednesday, April 4, 2018