It’s Friday the 13th, and in the triskaidekaphobic cultures in the Western world, it’s time for at least some of us to freak out a little based on some notion we have, I guess, that we may be on the brink of betrayal (a la Judas Iscariot) or that we are about to be inadvertently stabbed to death by a spear made of mistletoe (seriously, folks: Loki‘s bizarre murder of Balder is one reason your friends are making nervous comments on social media today). And here at FP, what can we do but slavishly follow these cultural imperatives in an attempt to capture a wider audience for poetry?
The only problem here is that I’m really not familiar with too many poems even about the basic concept of “superstition”, let alone anything set inside the superstitious world of people who are afraid of Friday the 13th. I nosed around a little today, and ended up at least finding a poem that talks about superstition a little—whether that’s enough to be thematically appropriate today, I leave to you to judge. At least it’s a worthwhile poem—another sonnet spun from the mind of America’s best sonneteer (that should be a word, even though spell-check says it isn’t), and maybe this blog’s most frequent featured poet. Here’s hoping it’s a nice addition to your Friday the 13th: from her 1921 publication Second April, this is the ninth in a series of untitled sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
“Let you not say of me when I am old,
In pretty worship of my withered hands
Forgetting who I am, and how the sands
Of such a life as mine run red and gold
Even to the ultimate sifting dust, ‘Behold,
Here walketh passionless age!’—for there expands
A curious superstition in these lands,
And by its leave some weightless tales are told.
In me no lenten wicks watch out the night;
I am the booth where Folly holds her fair;
Impious no less in ruin than in strength,
When I lie crumbled to the earth at length,
Let you not say, ‘Upon this reverend site
The righteous groaned and beat their breasts in prayer.’”
Millay has hits and misses, but most of her sonnets (in my experience) are hits, and this is no exception. It feels loosely based on Shakespeare, and of course how could Millay, so devoted to the sonnet, not be richly familiar with his work—enough so that maybe it would creep in to her verse, intentionally or un-? Certainly the opening line here feels a lot like “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow“, although of course the two sonnets quickly chart very different courses. Really Millay is interested in the deepest of our American superstitions, what some have called “the last taboo”—our fear of death, and all the euphemism and sentences trailing off and social conventions that fear gives rise to. Honestly, for me the octet (the first eight lines) is the weaker half of the piece: I like the tone she’s striking, and of course Millay (as usual) gets a rhythm and sound that’s gorgeous spoken aloud, rhythmic and passionate and harmonious. But there’s something about the images that struggles to land—she’s clearly irritated with how we try to talk around old age, how we idealize the aged to the point that we refuse to acknowledge how a body withers, that we pretend anger and zeal and lust and all the other passions, both “red” and “gold”, fade away from an elderly person, so much so that the King James Version peeks its head in here with “walketh”. But fitting these pieces together is more work than it should be. I can work out that the weightlessness of these tales is her really saying that the words we say about the aged are often so carefully parsed that they become insubstantial, I think, but the ideas don’t interlock as smoothly as the sounds of the words and phrases do.
The sestet (the final six lines) is where she brings it roaring out, I think—tackling the real fear she has about what they’ll say of her once she’s gone. It’s not the innocent white lies about her aging beauty that really bites at her, not the pretense that she’ll lose the fire inside. It’s the anxiety she feels that in her wake she’ll leave people muttering pious nonsense about her. In her, as she tells us, “no lenten wicks watch out the night”—she’s not a lighter of candles at saints’ statues, she is not a reverent or a devout person when it comes to these rituals of faith, and she utterly rejects the notion that even at the end, when she lies “in ruin”, anything like that will be discovered in her. So she admonishes us not to make any false claims on her behalf, and to keep clear the mourners who will.
Superstition operates on several levels here, since on the one hand I think we’re meant to understand that she sees religion as nothing much more than that, but on the other hand she really is surveying a broader landscape of superstition that surrounds everything we say about the dying and the dead. Our culture is so in love with vitality and youth that it’s easy to understand how uneasy we feel when confronting our mortality, but as Millay points out, we do seem to act like we can simply hold it at bay forever with our words, and that’s ultimately really paralyzing (and even infantilizing) to us as a society. If we never say she looks old, will that preserve her? If we reinvent life stories about the deceased that make them sound more peaceful, more socially acceptable, will that remake them?
I won’t always strive for topicality here, but until I get the Pulitzers back on track, my more usual approach of sticking to poetry from my Pulitzer year will have to be on hold too, so look for thematic poetry in the short term ahead—summer poems, Independence Day poems, poems about fatherhood and watching a baby grow into a child. I’ll try to mix up who shows up at the table, but keep to folks who are pretty approachable and easy to grab on to in their writing style, if I can. I hope Edna was a welcome return visitor today, and we’ll see what I can spin up for next weekend: in the meantime, I hope you have a great Friday, and that the week ahead holds some good reading and time to indulge in it.