Feb. 22, 2004

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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Poem: [What lips my lips have kissed] by Edna St. Vincent Millay, from The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay (Modern Library).

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone;
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings so more.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in Rockland, Maine (1892). Her parents divorced when she was a little girl, so she was raised by her mother, who supported the family by making wigs and working as a nurse. Millay helped take care of her younger sisters, but when she wasn't cooking or cleaning, she wrote poetry. By the time she was fourteen, she was publishing poems in the children's magazine St. Nicholas. Her mother couldn't afford to send her to college, but when she was nineteen, she entered a poem called "Renascence" in a poetry contest hoping to win the large cash prize. One of the judges was so impressed that he started a correspondence with her, fell in love, and nearly divorced his wife. Her poem didn't win first prize, but when she recited it at a public reading in Camden, Maine, a woman in the audience offered to pay for her to go to Vassar College, and Millay accepted.

At Vassar, she was the most notorious girl on campus, famous for both her poetry and her habit of breaking rules. Vassar's president, Henry Noble McCracken, once wrote to her, "You couldn't break any rule that would make me vote for your expulsion. I don't want a banished Shelley on my doorstep." She wrote back, "Well, on those terms I think I can continue to live in this hellhole." She started sending her poems off to magazine editors in New York City, and she always included a picture of herself with her submissions. She had red hair and green eyes and when she'd lived in Camden, Maine, people had often stopped and stared at her on the street, she was so beautiful. When she moved to Greenwich Village after college, most of the men in the literary scene fell in love with her, including the critic Edmund Wilson, who proposed to her and never got over her rejection. He wrote about her in his novel I Thought of Daisy (1929).

Millay wrote poems about bohemian parties and free love in her collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), and she became one of the icons of the Jazz Age. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans. She recited her poetry from memory, delivering the poems with her whole body. Many critics considered her the greatest poet of her generation. The poet Thomas Hardy famously said that America had produced only two great things: the skyscraper and the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. She became the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.

But after her marriage, she began to suffer from debilitating stomach pains, and she became addicted to morphine. By the end of her life, her poetry had fallen out of fashion. She died in 1950, at the age of fifty-eight, after falling down the steps in the middle of the night.

Millay wrote, "My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely light!"

It's the birthday of poet Gerald Stern, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1925). He was the child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. His younger sister died of spinal meningitis when he was just eight years old, and his parents never recovered from the loss. He grew up the only Jewish kid in his school, and he often got into brutal street fights with boys in the neighborhood.

He began to write poetry in college but he didn't know any other poets, so he didn't try very hard to get anything published. He once wrote an epic poem called "Ishmael's Dream" and sent it to the poet W.H. Auden. Auden was so impressed he invited Stern to tea, but Stern never even sent the poem out for publication. He later said, "I was too harsh a critic of my own work, and I couldn't focus my thoughts and feelings in a way that would satisfy me."

He worked a series of teaching jobs but began to suffer from depression. Then, one day, in his late thirties, after a doctor's appointment, he suddenly realized that his life was almost half over, and he began to write poems furiously. He said, "I discovered . . . everything at once—voice, style, approach, and have been practically besieged by poems from that time on." He published his first poetry collection, The Pineys, in 1971, and has gone on to write many more collections, including Leaving Another Kingdom (1990), Bread Without Sugar (1992), and Odd Mercy (1995).

It's the birthday of Edward Gorey, born in Chicago, Illinois (1925). He's known for writing and illustrating many morbidly funny books, including The Beastly Baby (1962), The Wuggly Ump (1963), and The Epiplectic Bicycle (1969). After college, he got a job drawing book covers for Doubleday, and started to produce a series of very strange, uncategorizable books of his own. These books looked like children's storybooks, but they were much too dark and violent to be read by children. The Hapless Child (1961) is about a little girl named Sophia who is picked on and abused, sold into slavery, forced to make artificial flowers, and finally run over by a car. His alphabet book The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) teaches the ABCs by using the names of children who have been violently injured or killed. It begins, "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears."

Because his books were printed in such small quantities, they became collector's items, and began to sell for up to a thousand dollars each. Eventually, his early books were collected into an anthology called Amphigorey (1972), which became a bestseller. By the time of his death in 2000 he had written and illustrated more than a hundred books, and his work had been made into a Broadway musical.

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