I loved poetry from the time I learned to read, but I was very unfocused in my exploration of the genre. My dad still has his old Norton Anthologies from college, and I used to sit in the rocking chair in his formal living room and flip through them to while away the summer afternoons. Most of the poetry therein was a little beyond me – this was when I was 10 or 12 or so – but I stuck with it, feeling as if each poem contained something hidden and wonderful that my sustained attention would uncover. In some cases, I was right.
It wasn’t until I discovered Edna St. Vincent Millay, when I was about 13, that I felt compelled to actually read someone’s oeuvre in its entirety. Millay has her poetic faults, but for a teenager, those are her virtues. She writes about love, loss, and death without irony and permits herself to blatantly express her emotions without fear of seeming hysterical or overwrought.
Her work is very accessible, and this accessibility makes me feel a bit reticent about my admiration for her. I think, however, I should be true to my former self and admit that reading Millay can still make me feel like I’m a teenager slouched in a beanbag with my hair in rollers and a book in my hand, dreaming about endless love. There are worse forms of nostalgia.
Sonnet: Love Is Not All
Love is not all: It is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain,
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
and rise and sink and rise and sink again.
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
pinned down by need and moaning for release
or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It may well be. I do not think I would.
Edna St. Vincent Millay on Wikipedia
Edna St. Vincent Millay on poets.org
Generally, I think the sonnets are actually better than the lyric works, but I am linking to both.