It is more than a little telling to note that this year's debate
over who to honor with a carved stone at the Poets' Corner of The
Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City chose formalist
Edna St. Vincent Millay over the archetypal language experimentalist
Gertrude Stein for the year 2000.
With the flaming embers of debate over "language poetry"
and "neoformalism" still being fanned these days in
creative writing programs and summer workshops across America, it
should come as no surprise that the Electors of the corner found
themselves confronted with the task of choosing between two writers
whose lives and aesthetics mirror to some degree that debate -
albeit back in the bad old days of the early 20th century, when
modernism was in vogue and radicalism sat in the rumble seat of
"Millay never considered herself among the modernists,"
said Molly Peacock, poet in residence at the Cathedral who joined
the electors in this year's decision and was one of those who made
presentations at the induction ceremonies in late October of this
year. "She has this place in American letters because of
Renascence, which she wrote at the age of 19. She's often taught in
high schools and offered up as someone who emerged into the life of
a poet when she was nearly the age of the students. When I told
various people who we were electing all I heard was "Oh really!
What lips these lips have kissed." You can speak to a formalist
and expect that! But some were very avante garde people."
Avante garde? Quite. Millay was a retro versifier, but she was also
a sexual free thinker, open lesbian, marched for Sacco and Vanzetti,
and had decidedly feminist leanings. "Academic critics never
liked her work, but she seems to be one of the great modern American
poets of content, not of style," said Dana Gioia, one of the
Poets Corner Electors. "No other poet of her time talks as
candidly or forcefully about sexuality as Millay did. She opened up
the whole area, articulated that aspect for half of humanity - and
she did so in mesmerizingly beautiful language. She was not a
modernist, but she was modern."
Thus with the spirit of Gertrude Stein, the true language
revolutionary, lurking in the shadows of the cathedral, Edna St.
Vincent Millay joined Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau - not to mention
Langston Hughes, Mark Twain and Louise Bogen - in America's Poets
Corner on Oct 29, 2000.
It was a moment marked by a spectacular Sunday evening ceremony, the
focus of a Vespers service at the Episcopal Church, and officiated
by Dean of the Cathedral The Very Reverend Harry H. Pritchett, Jr.
The program featured liturgy, full cathedral choir, speeches by
Gioia, Peacock and biographer Nancy Milford, a reading of Millay
works by Roscoe Lee Browne, and a richly intoned rendering of a song
- set by Alva Henderson - based on Millay's sonnet which begins
"Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink..."
The culminating event was a candlelit procession to the corner as
the choir urged celebrants to "sing praise to God who spoke
through man/In diff'ring times and manners...For all the poets who
have wrought/through music, words and vision/To tell the beauty of
God's thought/By art's sublime precision."
"She was the herald of the New Woman," said Milford,
noting that Millay drew crowds to her in the heart of the
Depression. "She represents a half of modernism," added
Gioia. "The first half is stylistic. The second half is the
modernism of content."
A fully apt moment in the life of an institution which prides itself
on being a voice in the exploration of sacred arts and liturgical
expression, and in "the work of building community in an
otherwise fragmented world."
Poets Corner, located in what is billed as The World's Largest
Cathedral in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, was established in
1984 in what the cathedral likes to call its "Arts Bay."
It bears on stone slabs the names, dates, and quotes of notable
American poets and writers. Its original Electors included such
figures as Richard Wilbur and Ralph Ellison ("The
Immortals," says Gioia, who was one of the younger poets
brought in after the first six year terms began to expire). Each
year authors are added to the corner, and readings from the
inductees' work made. "In the early years there were many
writers whose presence there was incontestable and urgent,"
says Gioia. "You couldn't have a poets corner without Whitman,
Twain, Poe, Dickinson. I was instrumental in seeing that Longfellow
and Whittier were honored and I still have hope to see Robinson
Jeffers, one of the great nature poets, a Western poet and
absolutely major figure in American literature."
Since those urgent days, however, the Electors have been faced with
choices involving more discernment than demand. "Now we're into
some writers who are more open to dispute," says Gioia. "I
was a strong supporter of ee cummings, which was a close vote. I
could hardly imagine more different poets, on aesthetic grounds,
than Stein and Millay."
In addition to Gioia and Cathedral Poet-In-Residence Peacock, who
joins the Electors, the current board is comprised of Rita Dove,
John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, Marilyn Nelson, Reynolds Price,
Robert Pinsky, Grace Schulman, William Jay Smith, Susan Stewart and
Among the poets honored in the 16 years since its inception are many
of the fundamental names in American poetry - Whitman, Longfellow,
Poe and Dickinson from the 19th century; and twentieth century
giants such as TS Eliot, William Carlos Williams, ee cummings,
Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens,
Edith Wharton and Elizabeth Bishop. Novelists range from Nathaniel
Hawthorne and Washington Irving to Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and
twentieth century figures Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner.
And now Edna St. Vincent Millay joins them.
Millay (1892-1950) was born in Maine and grew to become one of the
most highly regarded lyric poets of the 20th century by the public.
The first woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she won a small
prize for her poem Renasance, and within a few years had attained
such high repute for her writings that her first book was published
by 1917. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for her book The
Harp-Weaver and other Poems and began a career of hugely popular
speaking engagements that brought her before a large and adoring
public for many years - a crowd that appreciated the novelty and
vitality of of her ideas and ideas, including unprecedentedly frank
female sexuality and veiled political commentary couched in a
comfortable lyrical versification and presented in simple, bold
"Her best poems are unforgettable," says Gioia.
"Millay is a poet who has remained in the public consciousness,
yet one who has not received consistently high critical marks,"
says Peacock. "We joke about poets at the podium who are hair
tossers - she was the original hair tosser. She was a great reader.
She wrote for popular magazines. She had great crowds come to her
readings. She was petite and cute and ephemeral and sprite-like. All
the cute freshness that American culture loves."
Millay was also forward thinking, despite her use of the sonnet and
generally retro attitude about literary forms. "She led the
life of an utterly modern woman," said Peacock. "And she
was psychologically quite frank - she may have been retro in form,
but not in her points of view."
Interestingly, Peacock notes, Millay was in Paris at the same time
as Stein, but "Millay didn't seem to be interested in meeting
her." The contrast between the two divergently radical women is
a telling one, adds the cathedral's poet in residence. "In my
opinion, Stein was as disguised about her subject matter as Millay
was open. Clearly Stein's innovation had to do with concealment,
with indirection. There is a fabulous excitement in her linguistic
surfaces - considered by some conservatives as not poetry at all -
but they obscure. Millay used extremely conservative forms, but she
breathed life into them."
Sexual and aesthetic politics aside, the debate this year had a
decidedly tech-y edge to it, thanks to the Internet. "The
process ued to take place by mail, but now I try to conduct it by
e-mail," said Peacock. "We chat a bit, then we take
Speaking of chatting: celebrants enjoyed wine and conversation after
the ceremony, milling around and over the stone slabs and reading
epitaphs (Millay's says "Take up the song/Forget the epitaph).
But no one was seen reading the poems posted in an obscure and dimly
lit corner of the cathedral - no candles or words carved in polished
marble here - to view the bits of paper tacked to the Muriel
Rukeyser Poetry Wall. Located behind an iron gate on the way to the
rest rooms ("the poetry wall is located in the ambulatory of
the cathedral," say the guides flatly, and they point), it
features slips of lined paper with hand-written verses by students,
prisoners, the sick, the mad - in fact, anyone who sends or brings
them in. "The whole idea is openness, a free giving and
accepting of poetry," noted Rukeyser when she founded the wall
in 1976. "This is the place where poems will always be
accepted." Some of the poems on the wall that night were
written by people the same age as Millay when she catapulted into
the American popular cultural scene at the age of 19.
Peacock sees a lesson in all this. "That dichotomy is what
makes the cathedral such a unique spiritual and cultural
institution," she says. "It has its conserving function
for the great literature of the past. But there are these high
school students from all over the US, they literally walk across the
stones with these words on them. Sometimes it is their first
introduction to the names and lines of a great American writer. And
how fitting that they would walk across a stone that says "take
up the song, forget the epitaph," and walk up to that poetry
wall and take up the song. It kills me. It is absolutely