October 31, 2012

Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

I keep being astounded at how many good books there are in the world. I got this biography of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay from the library after a friend sent me this snippet of verse by her :

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!
I thought it sounded a bit arrogant and began to wonder what sort of woman had written it. I had always pictured Edna St. Vincent Millay as an emotional and slightly chubby older woman, I guess because of "God's World," which I liked but which seemed old-fashioned to me. Millay was actually barely 20 when she wrote that poem, an undergraduate at Vassar, wild and crazy, wafer-thin, hauntingly beautiful (according to admirers although the pictures don't exactly bear that out) and already famous at that age.

At 512 densely written and heavily researched pages, the book took me over a week to read, but I could hardly wait to get to it every night. This is the same author who wrote the wildly successful Zelda in the 1970s about that other famous "flapper." The writing is a densely stitched patchwork of letters, first person interviews, news clippings of the day and family memories. One of the best things about it is that many whole poems are included, in the context of when and why and how they were written.

My thoughts about the writing being old-fashioned weren't entirely off base. Millay did write in styles - sonnets, epics, ballads, plays - that harkened back to an earlier era, while many of her contemporaries, T.S. Eliot, e.e.cummings, et al, had gone on to more modern forms.

Millay's life was, by most standards, an unbelievably chaotic one. I will not say more in case you want to read more about her. Savage Beauty is a mesmerizing story of one woman's fame, utter disinterest in most social conventions, and extreme dedication to her craft.

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