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Still great poetry after all these years
on May 20, 2013
I first discovered Millay as a teenager and was enthralled by the diversity of her poetry: everything from lyric ballads and sonnets to political poems.
Read Millay for her humor and wit that her poems often- albeit sometimes very subtly- evince. After all, this is the young lady who was a real hell-raiser at Vassar. Upon being threatened with expulsion after one escapade and demonstrating supreme indifference to that penalty, the Dean of Students -apparently a very wise woman- told the young Millay that she would not expel her after all, "not wanting another Shelley on my conscience." Millay, we are told, was so flattered by this comparison with one of her poetical heroes that she answered: "Well, under those conditions, I guess I can stand it in this hell-hole for another few years." You've got to love her spunk, right?
Read Millay for her social conscience. I don't think anyone can fail to be moved by her poems composed in honor of the martyrs of Lidice, for example: the little Czech village that was so brutally destroyed by the Nazis in reprisal for Heydrich's assassination by resistance fighters. Or be roused to indignation by the poems in honor of the treatment of Sacco and Vanzetti.
Read Millay above all, however, for the beauty of her lyrical gift. From the insouciance and youthful cheek of "My candle burns at both ends...." to the mature heartbreak of the sonnets in the "Fatal Interview" cycle Millay remains one of the greatest lyrical poets of the 20th century. She deserved the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded to her nearly 100 years ago and she still deserves it today. Her poetry stands the test of time in spite of the views of some supercilious nay-sayers.