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What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay Hardcover – September 1, 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Poet, playwright, and translator Daniel Mark Epstein certainly has the right background to understand and evaluate poet, playwright, and translator Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)--though Millay didn't write biographies. Readers of Epstein's Sister Aimee and Nat King Cole will recognize the intense personal engagement the author brings to his task. He's not afraid to express an almost physical fascination for his subjects, which is especially appropriate for the flamboyant Millay, who insisted on the right to take as many lovers as she pleased and to write about them in some of the greatest erotic poetry in American verse. Epstein focuses on that poetry, deciphering the affairs that fueled it and elucidating the boldly iconoclastic, almost cynical acceptance of love's fleeting nature that informs it. (Of the last sonnet in A Few Figs from Thistles, with its notorious putdown, "I shall forget you presently, my dear / So make the most of this, your little day," he remarks: "For a woman, not yet thirty, to compose and market such a poem... was a scandal, an alarm, and a red flag to censors.") While the Edna St. Vincent Millay who emerges in Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty is indelibly shaped by her upbringing, particularly her relationship with her mother and sisters, Epstein's Millay is a self-created goddess of love and literature. It's fascinating to compare these two biographies, published nearly simultaneously and each with considerable merits. Milford's lengthy book, the product of three decades of research, is lavish with details and comprehensive in scope. Epstein's more selective work excels in cogent summaries and forcefully stated opinions. Either book will satisfy readers with an interest in Millay or American literature; really passionate aficionados of the art of biography will want to read both. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Sexually implacable, perennially noncommittal and, by all accounts, possessed of an irresistible charisma, the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay led a love life of Byronic proportions. The truth about her personal affairs was scarcely less fantastic than the rampant speculations; even now, historians find it difficult to separate Millay rumor from Millay fact. This volume, a case in point, is less a biography of the great seductress than an imaginative reconstruction of her amorous adventures. As such, it reads like a literary novel with a racy streak. Some may argue that Epstein goes too far in the fictional coloring of his heroine, particularly in the early parts of the book, where he refers to one of America's greatest lyric poets as "the little sorceress" and "the little actress." Still, Epstein's telling of the poet's progress makes for gripping narrative and will satisfy readers interested in Millay's romantic image and sources of inspiration. An experienced author and poet himself, Epstein is especially skillful at calling up vivid images, and he makes even the better-known facets of Millay's love life (such as her bisexuality and her 25-year open marriage) seem fresh. The book's preface makes much of Epstein's use of unpublished material viewed by hardly anyone besides the poet's sister Norma and "possibly one other biographer whom [Norma] engaged to write a book in the 1970s." In a case of fateful timing, the "other biographer" (Nancy Milford) will at last publish her book, Savage Beauty (Forecasts, June 18), in the same month as Epstein's, and will almost certainly steal his thunder. Whereas Epstein's book offers a rousing tribute to the Millay legend, Milford's outstrips his in breadth and subtlety.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (September 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805067272
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805067279
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,137,820 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on September 1, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This compellingly readable, lushly evocative biography focuses on the lovers and the love affairs that inspired Millay's best-known poetry. While Millay capitalized on her public image as a jazz-age "free spirit"--reckless, heedless and enjoying every minute-- her life story reads like a great, tragic Romantic novel.
Millay's hardscrabble childhood in turn-of-the(20th)-century Maine is so vividly conjured in Epstein's story, you can just about smell the smoke from the cast iron stove as she careens between the crushing responsibility of caring for her younger sisters and the imaginative escape she forged through music, theater and poetry. Through a combination of sly manipulation, talent and sheer luck, Millay went from being an arty local eccentric to a national celebrity--the cynosure of the Manhattan literary scene--at the age of 20, virtually overnight. The seemingly incongruous combination of her porcelain-doll looks and unabashedly passionate (yet formally rigorous) poetry acted like catnip for her contemporaries, men and women alike: she looked like an angel, behaved like a libertine, and packed an intellectual wallop equal to that of any man. Epstein describes the compulsive pace at which, during the height of her poetic production, Millay conducted many, often simultaneous, love affairs, lavishing indifference on the legions who worshipped her image and reputation, and suffering agonizing unrequited passion for the (relatively few) others.
By focusing on the most significant affairs and linking them (with impressive use of both painstaking scholarship and critical insight)to specific poems, Epstein incisively portrays the emotional pitch of the time without getting bogged down in endless lists of names, dates and locations.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a marvelous account of the difficult early life, passionate love affairs, and heartbreaking physical demise of the gifted poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose journey from poverty to celebrity to alcohol and drug addiction follows a familiar and distinctively modern course.
From this scrupulously researched life story, complete with previously unpublished journal entries and letters, Epstein takes us first inside the mind and heart of a girl who longed for love, then into the life of a woman who could never satisfy her ravenous appetite for passion. In the course of his often spellbinding narrative, he presents critical life events other Millay biographers have missed, such as the teenage poet's first erotic experience, with a female friend, and her surprising obsession for horse breeding and racing that eventually drained the considerable fortune she'd earned as one of America's best-known poets.
An accomplished poet himself, Epstein also recognizes Millay's genius as a lyricist whose sonnets are considered some of the finest in the language. He illuminates the meaning of some of her most famous poems and the life events that inspired them: the spiritual crisis that resulted in "Renascence," for example, and the tumultuous love affair with a lonely young poet that threatened her marriage and inspired the 52-sonnet sequence, "Fatal Interview."
This is a captivating tale, alternately joyous and sad, passionate and desperate, suspenseful and ultimately moving-a must-read for those interested in how life sometimes fools us into thinking that talent, fame, and fortune are synonymous with happiness and peace of mind.
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Format: Hardcover
This biography was a fast and furious read, due to the great anecdotes as well as the tightly-written analysis. Ms. Millay's life was a whirlwind and many heretofore unknown facts and episodes are revealed, adding richness to the typical chronological description of this writer's life. Ms. Millay was more than a writer, she was a full-blown creative personality, in a time when to do so as a woman from a modest background was virtually unheard of. Even for those who do not know her poems or do not usually read literary biography, this book documents a fascinating woman's life and is well worth picking up.
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Format: Hardcover
Daniel Mark Epstein brings a special understanding to Edna St Vincent Millay's biography by virtue of being a poet himself. I think that's why this book is in many ways superior to the Nancy Mitford book.
Edna St Vincent Millay was not only a great person of words, but a great seductress and everyone, male and female alike, fell under her spell. Apparently, accordingly to this book, she managed to live up to their expectations quite well. Mr Epstein matches the love poems to the folks they were written for and gives the details of the various affairs. It may not sound interesting, but it is quite interesting - especially since M's Millay seemed to have a weakness for men who were not quite as talented as she was. The background behind "Fatal Interview" and the story of her (apparently) one love she lost before_she_ was ready to is quite an interesting read by itself.
Mr Epstein focuses on M's Millay as sort of a self made goddess and how her various affairs shaped her writing. M's Mitford focuses on how M's Millay's relationship with her mother shaped her life. Both of these are very interesting and I'd advise reading them consecutively and draw your own conclusions. In some respects, I think Mr Epstein is correct in what he presumes, but the same can be said of M's Mitford.
Throw yourself into the words and life of Edna St Vincent Millay - you'll find yourself awash with her beautiful poetry and prose and this book will help you make sense out of it.
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