Winter 2001


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Choose Millay Over Stein For This Year's Honor
It is more than a little telling to note that this year's debate over who to honor with a carved stone at the Poets' Corner of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City chose formalist Edna St. Vincent Millay over the archetypal language experimentalist Gertrude Stein for the year 2000.

With the flaming embers of debate over "language poetry" and "neoformalism" still being fanned these days in creative writing programs and summer workshops across America, it should come as no surprise that the Electors of the corner found themselves confronted with the task of choosing between two writers whose lives and aesthetics mirror to some degree that debate - albeit back in the bad old days of the early 20th century, when modernism was in vogue and radicalism sat in the rumble seat of American culture.

"Millay never considered herself among the modernists," said Molly Peacock, poet in residence at the Cathedral who joined the electors in this year's decision and was one of those who made presentations at the induction ceremonies in late October of this year. "She has this place in American letters because of Renascence, which she wrote at the age of 19. She's often taught in high schools and offered up as someone who emerged into the life of a poet when she was nearly the age of the students. When I told various people who we were electing all I heard was "Oh really! What lips these lips have kissed." You can speak to a formalist and expect that! But some were very avante garde people."

Avante garde? Quite. Millay was a retro versifier, but she was also a sexual free thinker, open lesbian, marched for Sacco and Vanzetti, and had decidedly feminist leanings. "Academic critics never liked her work, but she seems to be one of the great modern American poets of content, not of style," said Dana Gioia, one of the Poets Corner Electors. "No other poet of her time talks as candidly or forcefully about sexuality as Millay did. She opened up the whole area, articulated that aspect for half of humanity - and she did so in mesmerizingly beautiful language. She was not a modernist, but she was modern."

Thus with the spirit of Gertrude Stein, the true language revolutionary, lurking in the shadows of the cathedral, Edna St. Vincent Millay joined Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau - not to mention Langston Hughes, Mark Twain and Louise Bogen - in America's Poets Corner on Oct 29, 2000.

It was a moment marked by a spectacular Sunday evening ceremony, the focus of a Vespers service at the Episcopal Church, and officiated by Dean of the Cathedral The Very Reverend Harry H. Pritchett, Jr. The program featured liturgy, full cathedral choir, speeches by Gioia, Peacock and biographer Nancy Milford, a reading of Millay works by Roscoe Lee Browne, and a richly intoned rendering of a song - set by Alva Henderson - based on Millay's sonnet which begins "Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink..."

The culminating event was a candlelit procession to the corner as the choir urged celebrants to "sing praise to God who spoke through man/In diff'ring times and manners...For all the poets who have wrought/through music, words and vision/To tell the beauty of God's thought/By art's sublime precision."

"She was the herald of the New Woman," said Milford, noting that Millay drew crowds to her in the heart of the Depression. "She represents a half of modernism," added Gioia. "The first half is stylistic. The second half is the modernism of content."

A fully apt moment in the life of an institution which prides itself on being a voice in the exploration of sacred arts and liturgical expression, and in "the work of building community in an otherwise fragmented world."

Poets Corner, located in what is billed as The World's Largest Cathedral in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was established in 1984 in what the cathedral likes to call its "Arts Bay." It bears on stone slabs the names, dates, and quotes of notable American poets and writers. Its original Electors included such figures as Richard Wilbur and Ralph Ellison ("The Immortals," says Gioia, who was one of the younger poets brought in after the first six year terms began to expire). Each year authors are added to the corner, and readings from the inductees' work made. "In the early years there were many writers whose presence there was incontestable and urgent," says Gioia. "You couldn't have a poets corner without Whitman, Twain, Poe, Dickinson. I was instrumental in seeing that Longfellow and Whittier were honored and I still have hope to see Robinson Jeffers, one of the great nature poets, a Western poet and absolutely major figure in American literature."

Since those urgent days, however, the Electors have been faced with choices involving more discernment than demand. "Now we're into some writers who are more open to dispute," says Gioia. "I was a strong supporter of ee cummings, which was a close vote. I could hardly imagine more different poets, on aesthetic grounds, than Stein and Millay."

In addition to Gioia and Cathedral Poet-In-Residence Peacock, who joins the Electors, the current board is comprised of Rita Dove, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, Marilyn Nelson, Reynolds Price, Robert Pinsky, Grace Schulman, William Jay Smith, Susan Stewart and Henry Taylor.

Among the poets honored in the 16 years since its inception are many of the fundamental names in American poetry - Whitman, Longfellow, Poe and Dickinson from the 19th century; and twentieth century giants such as TS Eliot, William Carlos Williams, ee cummings, Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bishop. Novelists range from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving to Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and twentieth century figures Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.

And now Edna St. Vincent Millay joins them.

Millay (1892-1950) was born in Maine and grew to become one of the most highly regarded lyric poets of the 20th century by the public. The first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she won a small prize for her poem Renasance, and within a few years had attained such high repute for her writings that her first book was published by 1917. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her book The Harp-Weaver and other Poems and began a career of hugely popular speaking engagements that brought her before a large and adoring public for many years - a crowd that appreciated the novelty and vitality of of her ideas and ideas, including unprecedentedly frank female sexuality and veiled political commentary couched in a comfortable lyrical versification and presented in simple, bold emotive strokes.

"Her best poems are unforgettable," says Gioia.

"Millay is a poet who has remained in the public consciousness, yet one who has not received consistently high critical marks," says Peacock. "We joke about poets at the podium who are hair tossers - she was the original hair tosser. She was a great reader. She wrote for popular magazines. She had great crowds come to her readings. She was petite and cute and ephemeral and sprite-like. All the cute freshness that American culture loves."

Millay was also forward thinking, despite her use of the sonnet and generally retro attitude about literary forms. "She led the life of an utterly modern woman," said Peacock. "And she was psychologically quite frank - she may have been retro in form, but not in her points of view."

Interestingly, Peacock notes, Millay was in Paris at the same time as Stein, but "Millay didn't seem to be interested in meeting her." The contrast between the two divergently radical women is a telling one, adds the cathedral's poet in residence. "In my opinion, Stein was as disguised about her subject matter as Millay was open. Clearly Stein's innovation had to do with concealment, with indirection. There is a fabulous excitement in her linguistic surfaces - considered by some conservatives as not poetry at all - but they obscure. Millay used extremely conservative forms, but she breathed life into them."

Sexual and aesthetic politics aside, the debate this year had a decidedly tech-y edge to it, thanks to the Internet. "The process ued to take place by mail, but now I try to conduct it by e-mail," said Peacock. "We chat a bit, then we take several votes."

Speaking of chatting: celebrants enjoyed wine and conversation after the ceremony, milling around and over the stone slabs and reading epitaphs (Millay's says "Take up the song/Forget the epitaph). But no one was seen reading the poems posted in an obscure and dimly lit corner of the cathedral - no candles or words carved in polished marble here - to view the bits of paper tacked to the Muriel Rukeyser Poetry Wall. Located behind an iron gate on the way to the rest rooms ("the poetry wall is located in the ambulatory of the cathedral," say the guides flatly, and they point), it features slips of lined paper with hand-written verses by students, prisoners, the sick, the mad - in fact, anyone who sends or brings them in. "The whole idea is openness, a free giving and accepting of poetry," noted Rukeyser when she founded the wall in 1976. "This is the place where poems will always be accepted." Some of the poems on the wall that night were written by people the same age as Millay when she catapulted into the American popular cultural scene at the age of 19.

Peacock sees a lesson in all this. "That dichotomy is what makes the cathedral such a unique spiritual and cultural institution," she says. "It has its conserving function for the great literature of the past. But there are these high school students from all over the US, they literally walk across the stones with these words on them. Sometimes it is their first introduction to the names and lines of a great American writer. And how fitting that they would walk across a stone that says "take up the song, forget the epitaph," and walk up to that poetry wall and take up the song. It kills me. It is absolutely wonderful."

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