"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Manly Man Goes Millay

Selected Poems (Perennial Classics) Selected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shame led me to read this book of poetry.

Here is how it went. Last November I read a blog post by Dave Cullen in which he pointed out the disparity between male and female authors receiving recognition. The column stuck with me. Fast-forward to last month as I mulled over what present to get my niece for her high school graduation. I bought her a new hardbound collegiate dictionary. But I also wanted to get her a work of prose or poetry to try out, something of proven literary merit.

My initial impulse, no lie, was to give her a copy of Childhood's End by the late Sci-fi master Arthur C. Clarke. I didn't feel shame about that. It's an excellent and thought-provoking novel I hope my niece does read sometime. But I realized I ought to do better than just toss her one of my "favs." I also felt a strong impulse that I should get her something by a female author. And that's when the shame hit.

Though I have read many books by women, I couldn't think of any works off the top of my head that would make good graduation gifts. The guilt began to flow when I realized that had my niece been a nephew, I could have easily listed a bevy of titles fit for any high school graduate to sample. Moreover, as the proud recipient of an English degree, I ought to be able list several female authors whose works are ideal for soon-to-be college freshman.

Then I remembered seeing the name Edna St. Vincent Millay on a friend's Goodreads Profile. So I grabbed one of Millay’s collections off the shelf at Borders Bookstore, read a couple poems in the store, and quickly bought the book. If it ended up not being appropriate for my niece, at least I would improve my own reading list.

In Millay's writing, I found poems about nature, companionship, assertiveness, and even wanderlust. I especially loved one passage where Millay said in effect that she wasn't satisfied with roses--either as a romantic gift or a subject for poetry. She prized more the vitality of real human interaction. At some point, I stopped reading to see if my niece might like Millay and just enjoyed the poetry for myself.

My goal in giving my niece this collection was not to make her a Millay fan. If she becomes one, bonus! As a liberal arts junky I would also be tickled if she writes me this summer and says, “Uncle Jake, I did not enjoy Ms. Millay’s poetry for the following reasons…” I just wanted to extend her a sincere invitation to explore great literature as an avenue of personal development. And as she purchases books for school, most often written by men, I felt it important to make sure she starts out with a book on her shelf written by a great woman who succeeded on her own merits.

Most of the authors I read are men, and I make no apology for that. I like being a man and reading about the male experience. Not long ago I sat in a buddy's backyard and relished listening to him read masterfully the first paragraph of Moby Dick, a manly story indeed! But the strength in that work can be found in equal measure in the works of many female authors past and present. I thank Mr. Cullen and Ms. Millay for reminding me of that. But I also thank my niece.

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