My great grandmother’s cousin (this is my paternal grandmother’s mother’s father’s niece: blink and it makes sense for a millisecond) was the esteemed poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She liked to be called Vincent – and who wouldn’t, with a name like Edna? – and was known widely for her bisexuality and drug use. That line about the candle burning at both ends? One of hers.
There is one rhino-sized fly in the ointment, however. I hate rhyming. I feel a revulsion for it that stems from the recesses of my soul. I see it, and I hate it with a burning intensity which, were it made corporeal, would mow down a minor city.
Here’s how I see Vincent’s poem “God’s World”:
Rhyming is a cheap way of writing poetry – you get snowed by how every line has the same number of beats and is wrapped up prettily at the end. I often find that poetry with such strict structure is fodder for so much more abuse than free verse: it’s why “roses are red, violets are blue” takes such a beating – so much that I don’t even remember what the original is supposed to end with.
Vincent did, fortunately, write a couple of poems that didn’t stink with trite couplets – though they do still have rhyme schemes. The collection I read, Renascence and Other Poems, is full of life and the profound pangs of loss of a loved one, about cruel fate and the balm of nature.
I read aloud one poem, “The Suicide” aloud, and was stunned by how passionate the work drove me to be. I sat upright, leaning in, and let it all wash through me. I finished, felt like someone had pressed a cold hand to my chest…and then I had to get ready to celebrate my grandfather’s 90th birthday. My timing was more than a little off, but I can’t say how that last line “’Thou hadst thy task, and laidst it by’” affected me.
It’s that raw emotion, rather than the structures she laid into it, that makes her a great poet; the conviction, the empathy. More than anything, a pall of depression hangs over the whole work, the leaden wanderings of an astute mind over the same worn track, again and again. There’s a sense of futility and of habit. It makes me wonder – do all intelligent people experience a level of depression? Does the observation of the world make you question its suitability for life? For your life? These are, of course, futile questions, but it makes me think that if I were to sit down with Vincent, we would have a long conversation; maybe I would learn things I am not prepared to hear, but that’s how it goes. Holding up a mirror to your ancestors is often a mirror to yourself.
With &$#@ rhymes.