29 April 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/18

I hadn't intended to repeat a poet so soon, but here's Edna St Vincent Millay again, to close out April and the series of spring poems with a bleaker view of the subject:


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Edna St Vincent Millay

"Maggots" can be obsessive fancies as well as the larva of some of the less popular insects, such as the housefly – a reminder that beautiful flowers are not the only things reborn in the spring, and also that our minds can be completely separated from the world around us, and mental rebirth can be difficult to the point of impossibility (contrast last week's poem by Richard Wilbur, in which the springtime rebirth of the natural world is linked to mental rebirth).

I took this poem from Millay's Collected Poems; it originally appeared in her 1921 volume Second April. The lines about life in itself being nothing, "an empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs" take on an eerie poignancy when you realize that almost thirty years later, in 1950, Millay's death involved falling down a flight of stairs, and though the official cause of death was a heart attack, there was speculation that alcohol played a part as well – like many of the blithe young writers who rose to fame in the 1920s, Millay struggled later in life with drunkenness and depression. Normally I resist autobiographical readings, finding them too reductive – yes, it all comes from a place in the poet's life, but it doesn't reach full meaning unless it goes to a place in the reader's life as well – but this accidental foreshadowing shades the poem towards a deeper sadness for me.


Sibyl said...

Millay is essential to life. So in imitation of you I posted a poem a day on my facebook page this month, only to discover that thirty days was woefully inadequate. This afternoon, in a manic fit, I posted about 8 I considered vital to existence. I post this link for you to one that I particularly would not want to live without. I am sure you know it, but it's not possible to read it too many times. This is by way of some small recompense for making poetry safe for me again.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm glad I could help toss you back in to the deep end of the poetry pool. Thanks for the link! You know, sometimes I post things that I think are maybe overly familiar, but then I realize (1) others will see it who have probably never seen it before and (2) it's usually longer than I think since I've really sat down and read things I think of as "familiar" so revisiting and refreshing are always good.

Sorry I missed your poetry posts! By the way if you (or anyone else) want to friend me on Facebook, I'm on there as Patrick Joseph Vaz (there are a disillusioning number of Patrick Vazes listed, so I use my middle name) and my avatar shows me with Matisse's Femme au Chapeau.