Poet's Pick April 14
Edna St. Vincent Millay: "I shall forget you presently, my dear,"
Selected by Melissa Stein
National Poetry Month 2016

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Melissa Stein's Poetry Month Pick, April 14, 2016

"I shall forget you presently, my dear,"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950)

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little day,
Your little month, your little half a year,
Ere I forget, or die, or move away,
And we are done forever; by and by
I shall forget you, as I said, but now,
If you entreat me with your loveliest lie
I will protest you with my favorite vow.
I would indeed that love were longer-lived,
And vows were not so brittle as they are,
But so it is, and nature has contrived
To struggle on without a break thus far, —
Whether or not we find what we are seeking
Is idle, biologically speaking.

 

* Melissa Stein Comments:
It’s a strange business, poetic guilty pleasures. My adolescent gateway drugs—Edna St. Vincent Millay and E. E. Cummings—have ping-ponged in and (mostly) out of literary fashion over the decades. They were both poetry rock stars in their day, and while it’s easy to comprehend the conventional wisdom that the mischievous Millay’s poems are skilled and arch confections, and Cummings’s work became a parody of itself, reveling in a novelty that blanketed naïve and sentimental cliché, many of these poems still pull the rug out from under me. And both of these poets, through the fiercest love of the sonnet, turned the sonnet on its head.

I grew up in a home where this newspaper clipping was magneted to the fridge: “But what a shining animal is man, / Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that, / For worse than that must follow—yet can write / Music; can laugh; play tennis; even plan.” As a child I remember again and again puzzling over that awkwardly strange phrasing “that is not that”—what is not what? (It took many years for me to recognize the expression “that’s that.”) The bareness of that final line, its rhythm played against short phrases simultaneously chopped up and spliced by semicolons, was weirdly fascinating. I didn’t know who Millay was, didn’t know it was the final part of a sonnet, couldn’t possibly understand its message about the human animal facing mortality, but still it compelled me each time I reached for a glass of milk or a carrot.  

Flash forward to high school, where my charismatic (and rather mysteriously troubled) English teacher introduced us to poems such as “I shall forget you presently, my dear,” published in A Few Figs from Thistles in 1920, the same year American women got the vote. [More background on Millay appears in Arthur Smith’s Poet’s Pick.] Millay’s poems quiver with sensitivity to the natural world; her renderings of attachment and grief are exquisite. And couched in the traditional sonnet form, perfectly mastered, such subversion!

As in a sonnet that begins “Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow! / Faithless am I save to love’s self alone,” Millay deliberately used the familiar inverted phrasing of old-fashioned poetry, the stilted kind that makes a teenager’s eyelids droop, to couch an improbably feminist message. Women have brains and talents. Women have the right to make choices. Women have sex drives they can employ however they like. Women can be fiercely independent. Women can make their mark through art. Women don’t have to play by the rules!

The sonnet “I shall forget you presently, my dear,” made up of only two sentences, has a marvelously casual, breezy feel and deliciously arch tone to it—so fluid and rhythmic we almost miss the breathtaking turns it takes. A day, a month, six months with a lover—oh, what’s the difference. But for now, we’ll act out this devoted attachment. The next swerve: if only romantic love were true. And the gut punch: both men and women are creatures of nature following our impulses and drives; the rest is window dressing. The bluntness of that ending couplet—the extra syllables in “seeking” and “speaking” poking willfully out of the sonnet (presaged by the distended compression of “loveliest” and “favorite”) and that maddeningly brilliant last line, only four words long—felt radical the first time I read it. It still does.


Melissa Stein:
Melissa Stein is the author of the poetry collection Rough Honey, winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, New England Review, Harvard Review, Best New Poets, Southern Review, and many other journals and anthologies. She is a freelance editor in San Francisco. www.melissastein.com


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