Poet's Pick April 19
Edna St. Vincent Millay: "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why"
Selected by Arthur Smith
National Poetry Month 2011

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Arthur Smith's Poetry Month Pick, April 19, 2011

"What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

* Arthur Smith Comments:
One of the great pleasures in re-reading Millay’s sonnet “What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why” is encountering its complexity again.  Millay chose one of the oldest and most venerated of literary forms—think of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—in which to declare her independence from gender roles and general decorum that she found so stifling.  In so doing, she extended the range of the sonnet while challenging some of its basic assumptions.

It is important to remember Millay in her own era.  This sonnet was published in 1922 and later included in The Harp Weaver, for which she received the Pulitzer Prize in 1923.  James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium (1923), and Pound’s Cantos (begun in 1924) were already winning the day for Modernism, and poems such as Hart Crane’s “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” (1926) posed the unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, question of how one deals with memory, with sentimentality, with aspects that make us human.

Born in Maine in 1892, Edna St. Vincent Millay graduated from Vassar in 1917, after which she lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village.  By the time her second book, A Few Figs from Thistles, was published in 1920, Millay was already known for her cynicism and her hedonistic wit.  (Remember, this was a woman who wrote “My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—/It gives a lovely light!”)  Openly bisexual, Millay chafed at all perceived constraints and found rather quickly a viable option for herself and for her radical views.  In 1923 she married Eugen Boissevain, and from 1925 until his death in 1949 she lived with him in Austerlitz, New York, where he protected her from outside distraction, allowing her to write and pursue her bohemian lifestyle.  She died one year after him, in 1950.

Millay’s reputation suffered at the hands of the early Modernist critics because her poems were seen as sentimental and backward looking and, at times, arch with inversions of grammar and word order, with apostrophes and posturings, and because her later work could be heavily polemicized—her outrage at the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927, for example, and her anti-Fascist propaganda poetry in the 1940s.  But in her best work there is a lyrical stoicism—similar to that of Thomas Hardy’s in “During Wind and Rain” (1917)—that undercuts these perceived weaknesses.  There is an intensity in Millay’s work that is made even more dramatic by her technical skills, by the directness of her lyricism, by her exquisite handling of tone.  Perhaps this was her way of bridging the gap she found between the Victorian era and her own.  And she did add a new voice into the hopper of opportunity, for which we might bear a secret gratitude.

Millay appropriated the Petrarchan sonnet, not the Shakespearean, to embody the intense emotion, with its interlocking rhymes and internal couplets.  The opening spondee highlights the intrigue by stating not “whose” lips the speaker had kissed, but “what” lips.   Suddenly we have a bit of mystery and the voice of an independent female, but one encountering distress.  The telling outer rhymes of the octet—“why,” “sigh,” “[no] reply,” and “cry”—pretty much disclose the struggle within the first eight lines.  The monosyllabic first line, heightened with punctuation, takes a long time to sound out, but from there on, the enjambed thoughts of lines two to four keep offsetting the balance of the early rhymes with these staggered, emotional deliveries.  The “sigh” then leads directly into the complication.  At the end of the first quatrain there is no punctuation to slow down the acceleration and descent into the second quatrain where the real issues lurk: ageing and loneliness.  What is new here is the voice of a woman who has seemingly picked her way through life and love, and has now found herself alone, and is aware of the profound loss of that singing around her and within her.  The first eight lines are made up of one sentence.  Once begun, there is no stopping.  This information tumbles out without a pause and ends abruptly with “a cry.”  Sound familiar? This, too, is “a little death.”  Lines six through eight have no punctuation other than the end-stop and quickly give way to the sestet, in which the speaker is just now seeing herself as the lonely tree.  And with the metaphor comes the insight.  The sestet begins with the formality of its periodic construction, which helps dramatize and situate the metaphor of the tree.  The speaker’s losses become plain even to herself, doled out by the measured end-stopped lines, and then finally the lovely enjambed two lines that serve also as a couplet.  Part of the horror in this poem occurs in its use of the word “unremembered” to describe the lads in the speaker’s life.  If love is seen as one of the signposts of life, then the names of the lovers go first, leaving them in memory only as actors, lovers in a natural or biological act, as functionaries.  There is coyness here, there is the beautiful handling of tone, and there is the incorrigible spirit of loss dragging art out of us once again.

About Arthur Smith:
Arthur Smith's third book of poems, The Late World, was published in 2002 by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Recent work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Sonora Review, Southern Poetry Review, Descant, and Bat City Review. He is professor of English at the University of Tennessee.

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