Poetry Friday: 1937 speaks for itself (via Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Having posted Sharon Olds’s commentary on 1937 last week, I figured 1937 should get a retort, and who better to speak for that time and place than Millay, a woman who at her best is one of America’s keenest-eyed poets (though who at her worst, admittedly, is trite and clumsy).  1937 isn’t necessarily her best year, but it did yield some good stuff to think on: a poem slightly longer than I usually post, but one worth the time and attention, I think.  Here is Edna St. Vincent Millay‘s “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies”:

Childhood is not from birth to a certain age and at a certain age
The child is grown, and puts away childish things.
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies.

Nobody that matters, that is. Distant relatives of course
Die, whom one never has seen or has seen for an hour,
And they gave one candy in a pink-and-green stripéd bag, or a jack-knife,
And went away, and cannot really be said to have lived at all.

And cats die. They lie on the floor and lash their tails,
And their reticent fur is suddenly all in motion
With fleas that one never knew were there,
Polished and brown, knowing all there is to know,
Trekking off into the living world.
You fetch a shoe-box, but it’s much too small, because she won’t curl up now:
So you find a bigger box, and bury her in the yard, and weep.
But you do not wake up a month from then, two months
A year from then, two years, in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!
Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies that matters,
—mothers and fathers don’t die.

And if you have said, “For heaven’s sake, must you always be kissing a person?”
Or, “I do wish to gracious you’d stop tapping on the window with your thimble!”
Tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow if you’re busy having fun,
Is plenty of time to say, “I’m sorry, mother.”

To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,
who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.

Run down into the cellar and bring up the last jar of raspberries;
they are not tempted.
Flatter them, ask them what was it they said exactly
That time, to the bishop, or to the overseer, or to Mrs. Mason;
They are not taken in.
Shout at them, get red in the face, rise,
Drag them up out of their chairs by their stiff shoulders and shake
them and yell at them;
They are not startled, they are not even embarrassed; they slide
back into their chairs.

Your tea is cold now.
You drink it standing up,
And leave the house.

Millay’s power usually comes from skill with sound and meter—the rhythm of “sink and rise” in “Love is not all” or the cheerful, almost sing-song sound patterns of her poem about running back and forth all night on the Staten Island ferry in “Recuerdo“.  What I am struck by with this poem is how its greatest impact comes from the ideas, and the plainness with which they are spoken.  The premise itself startles and grabs me, the idea that “childhood” is not a set sequence of years, or a physiological/emotional developmental stage, but rather that space in which we mortal creatures remain remote from our mortality.  The phrase, though, captures that other aspect of childhood—the fantastical, the way in which being a child opens our imaginations so that it really is like living in a private kingdom, a world where we can make-believe almost anything.

Millay is patient with the idea.  Having spoken it, she sets out to test its boundaries, almost as if it’s a hypothesis whose truth she is uncertain of.  She dispenses with the deaths that happen to forgotten relatives easily enough.  I wonder if she’s as right about lost pets, since certainly a cat or two who died in my childhood were much lamented, but she’s undeniably right that the sting of that mourning was really nothing to what has come since.  I marvel at her sharp observational skills—the phrase “she won’t curl up now” is incredibly immediate to me, flashing me back to cat burials in the backyard and the terror of rigor mortis and the sense that, whatever I was burying, it was not the creature I had known.  Those little turns of phrase are much more direct here than what I’m used to from Millay, and I like them even when they make me sad.

I’ll admit, I’m a bit baffled by the stanza about the thimble and the apology to her mother (is this Millay saying we are old enough now to realize we’re becoming our parents?  Or something else?): there’s something about the structure that leaves me feeling I’m only getting half of a conversation.  I suspect I may be seeing references only Millay and her mother would really have understood.  But the stanza that follows knocks me flat because it is so real and so absurd: death as the great removal of all our self, not just our noble moments but the quiet ones where we sit and chat or drink our tea.  To be grown up really is that kind of mourning—not the simple grief wailed over a cat dying too young, but the slow terms we grapple with as we face loss in the morning light, the quiet ways we are reminded of how our lives will not be quite the same.  Millay builds the tension here—she darts all over her house, she becomes upset; the dead are not moved.  They are beyond our ability to alter them.  What connects this with childhood, I wonder, and with growing up?  There’s a thread here I feel certain I’m not picking up—I get what’s happening in one sense, but I feel like Millay’s reflections on childhood and adult life must be present here still, and I don’t follow the distinction she’s making.

I love that last stanza, though.  After the building emotion, it would have been easy to end on something big and sweeping.  But instead, she handles the humdrum details of the poem neatly—the tea cannot sit undrunk forever.  The house cannot remain a shrine, and the child grown up cannot kneel in grief always.  There is a life to be entered—one in which the tea is cold because we have waited too long to really get started.

In the end, I wonder if I’m clinging to the “childhood” references too much.  Maybe the poem is more about being an adult than in the transition to adulthood, and the child is just a way of entering the space where she can talk about it.  It seems to me like a self-addressed poem, in which Millay needs to move herself on in some real way.  But it touches on emotions I think any adult who’s lost someone they care about can understand.  Like I said above, I feel like there are things I’m not getting: I figure either you agree and may have some idea of what, or you disagree, and think this poem may not be as good as I think it is.  Either way, it would be nice to hear your thoughts below.

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Poetry Friday: 1932, part 3

Today’s poem is a return to the poetic work of 1932, the year of The Good Earth‘s Pulitzer win.  My poet today is a woman who, for all I know, never wrote another poem.  She certainly never wrote another poem of any note—her (very) brief Wikipedia entry describes her as a “housewife” before it calls her a “poet”.  Her name is Mary Elizabeth Frye, and you’ve almost certainly never heard of her before.  But I think it’s almost as certain that you have read her poem before.  And so tonight I want to stop and reflect on why that might be.  First, Mary Frye’s poem:

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

If you’re like me, you’ve seen these words before.  Maybe someone sent them to you when you’d lost someone you loved.  Maybe you sent them to someone in that position, having searched Google for “hopeful poems about death” or the like.  Maybe you saw them printed in the bulletin at your great-aunt’s funeral, or inscribed in calligraphic letters on a Hallmark card.  It’s the kind of poem that lives, that thrives, among people who otherwise read no poetry.  And I thought it was worth wondering why that is.

If I want to be the cynical poet, I can certainly dig away at this poem’s foundations.  Its use of end-rhyming couplets is almost sing-song.  Its repetitive  structure makes it feel like an eighth grader’s language arts homework (“Write a poem of at least ten lines that uses the phrase ‘I am…’ to begin each sentence.”).  Its imagery is remarkably stock and cliche—the blowing wind, the diamond-glinting snow, the gentle rain.  And yet…

And yet it comforts, doesn’t it?  Whether or not it comforts you, it has comforted millions in its time—this poem, written by an otherwise totally obscure woman in Baltimore, has done more to calm grieving people throughout the English-speaking world than perhaps any other poem ever written.  Why is it so successful at this?  A few thoughts, none of which can be taken as authoritative: first, Frye is offering the one thing people want most, the reassurance that in some real way they are not cut off forever from the absent dead.  But lots of poems attempt this and are less successful.  I think more important is the very humdrumness of the language.  Frye’s poem isn’t calling attention to itself—it’s a mantra, not art.  It is designed not to explain death, but to quiet ourselves down until explanations arise from inside us.  If the words do anything, they reassure us that when the world is most beautiful, and we feel the pang of agony that says “She would have liked that sunset” followed by “and I can never share another one with her”, we are reaching out to someone not lost at all.  Moments that otherwise emphasize the gulf between the living and the dead are now emblematic of their union with each other.

I won’t try to analyze the poem’s theology or assess whether or not it helps the grief-stricken advance to the next stage of mourning.  Mary Frye was sitting with a friend whose mother had died an ocean away when she wrote this.  She wanted to comfort her friend, who never had a chance to say goodbye and feared she would never be able to visit her mother’s grave.  And she wrote this poem on a brown paper shopping bag.  It says what a person wants to say to a friend who is crying.  Over the centuries, millions of us in that same position have attempted to put into words things that cannot be spoken.  Some have gotten closer than others.  For me, I think there is something beautiful about the fact that the woman who seems to have gotten closer than anyone else in recorded history is an unassuming native of Baltimore who never sought fame and who was nearly forgotten by the world.  I won’t say she wrote the greatest poem I’ve ever read.  But I know there are days ahead of me, years distant (I hope), when I will need it.  And I’m glad that it’s there.