Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Here's To Edna!

It is difficult today to imagine a living poet achieving fame and fortune. Edna St. Vincent Millay is the exception to the rule. In the roaring twenties she was like a rock star, the Madonna of her time. Thousands flocked to her poetry readings to see the tiny figure with the milky white skin and the bright red hair, dressed in her long, shimmering gown, and clad in a black velvet cloak. Her most famous lines are: "My candle burns at both ends, it will not last a night; but all my foes, and, oh, my friends it gives a lovely light!" The poem, first published in 1918, became an anthem of the Jazz Age, particularly for a new generation of women experimenting with free love, alcohol and drugs. Thomas Hardy said that Millay's poetry, along with the skyscrapers, was America's greatest contribution to the 1920s. In the 30s and 40s she became one of the leading American anti-fascists. This did not enhance her popularity. Her 1942 poem, The Murder of Lidice, inspired by the slaughter of Czech villagers by the Nazis, was criticized as propaganda. Fifty years ago, weakened by drugs, she fell from the top of the stairs at her home, and died.


  1. The candle that burns at both ends is a beautiful image, but in fact, it is completely wrong, because this experiment doesn´t work. You get some light only for short time and the drippy wax leaves an horrible mess on the floor. Finally, you can´t fix the candle, nor keep it in your hand.
    On the other hand, all these impossibilities legitimate this proverb: This kind of burning shows one result, that is identified – in german language – as “burn-out”.

  2. Yes, this image is very strong and a terrifying symbol of what can not be possible.

    It is amazing therefore, that she had such a long lasting and significant career, as if the god Apollo himself had been holding this candle into the night, and it is ashaming that she has been forgotten so much. So much that I have to thank Michael Kunze for presenting us this outstanding poet - forgotten at least in Europe where we are so ignorant for what concerns american culture, ignorant to the point that we are proud of our ignorance. And it is very significant that a man like Rudolf Borchardt kept Edna St. Vincent Millay in so high esteem.

    Why - and since when - is great art in northern countries so often bound to suffering? Remember Pasternak's statement we read the 20th of february ("What makes us ill"), remember Dylan Thomas. Dylan Thomas once came to Florence reading his poems in the coffee bar "Le Giubbe Rosse" and staying as a guest for some time in a villa in the Chianti. He was always drunk with bottles of Chianti wine lying under his bed. It is nearly impossible to meet a drunk person in Italy even during parties! The serene, banal "normality" of a poet like Mario Luzi is quite uncommon in northern countries, and it is quite normal in the south even if they are "poetes maudits" like the homosexual communist Pasolini who had an atrocious end as well, but never has made excessive use of drugs and whose life and work cannot so easily be catalogized as burned out, since he always has been part of a dense social tissue of cultural collaboration with large sectors of the mainstream, even with popular comedians like Totò, who in Italy is what Charly Chaplin is in America. Figures like Charly Parker are as Edna St. Vincent Millay representing artists of the north, were it has become - at some point of the 19. century - dangerous to obey to an inner voice of truth calling from deep within us.

    Let us make some reflection too on the Grand Tour and on the destiny of persons like Friedrich Alfred Krupp on one hand and of Nicholas Rodney Drake (Nick Drake) on the other hand.

    There is a water metaphor which comes to my mind in front of Edna's fire metaphor. Pasternak once has incouraged us incouraging himself with the words "Life is overflowing the edging of any receptical."