Epstein on Millay -- dead seriously

September 16, 2001|By Clarinda Harriss | By Clarinda Harriss,Special to the Sun

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: the Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, by Daniel Mark Epstein. Henry Holt & Company. 300 pages. $26.

Both Edna St. Vincent Millay and biographer Daniel Mark Epstein deserve my apology. In a recent Sun review of a Millay biography, I credited Nancy Milford, the author of that bio, with having read "all" of Millay's incredibly voluminous correspondence. No way. Epstein's What Lips My Lips Have Kissed is rooted in a prodigious cache of letters stored in the Library of Congress. Until 1999 these letters were classified as "unprocessed." They're processed now, and processed well, by poet, playwright, essayist and biographer Epstein.

Officially out on Sept. 10, Epstein's bio sandwiches between the Sept. 7 release date and Sept. 11 on-sale date of the Milford bio; comparison is inevitable. The books are very different. Authorized biographer Milford had the advantage of decades of work and constant conversation with Millay's younger sister Norma. Epstein had the advantage of short-term total immersion and of not conversing with Norma.

Milford's book is vast and messy; it throbs with the feral passions Vincent (the poet's selected designation) inspired in family, friend, lover and foe. Its title, Savage Beauty, is apt. Milford herself becomes a character in it, as Norma vies for her admiration, turning alternately vicious, flirtatious, self-aggrandizing and confiding.

Epstein's book is comprehensive and tidy at the same time. Its passions are those of a poet who understands and admires Millay's craft while not quite escaping the fate that snared many another male poet: falling in love with her.

Epstein shares Millay's early admiration for her own beauty as one powerful admirer after another discovers a new facet of it (her naturally flame-red lips; her throat; her unexpectedly large breasts). He portrays her sexual adventures with her Vassar schoolmates (female) as a rather titillating undergrad course in lovemaking techniques that would soon come in handy during her literally countless liaisons with men.

He believes she didn't win a coveted prize for her poem "Renascence," written when she was 20, because of sexual intrigue gone awry. He is much more sympathetic than Milford to George Dillon, the 'boy' poet with whom Millay became wildly infatuated while married to the unbelievably patient Eugen Boissevaine. He presents Dillon as a beautiful, bewildered Georgia preacher's son enthralled by a woman out of his league, not as an opportunistic weakling; this stance helps a Millay reader deal with the fact that Dillon inspired almost all the poems in "Fatal Interview."

In this view of Dillon, Epstein speaks not only as a man but as an internationally known author who writes extensively on love. Poet Epstein carefully delineates connections between Millay's poems and her life as reflected in her letters. Adept in the same crafts as Millay, Epstein is able to show how the biographical facts affect the diction, scholarly underpinnings, tone and versification of key poems. And he speaks as one playwright-poet to another of Millay's often overlooked genius as playwright and actor.

Penultimate line: Epstein and Milford have both written excellent books about an excellent poet. They'll help to reawaken interest in Millay's work and perhaps even to rehabilitate her image -- an image spattered by years when Millay's poems (not just their author) were considered late-Victorian strumpets or 1920's flappers dirty-dancing among the "serious" poems of the Eliot-dominated dons. Even more than Milford, Epstein takes Millay dead seriously.

Bottom line: Millay's collected works, forthcoming soon. That's where Millay's famously mesmerizing voice will really come back to life.

Clarinda Harriss, chair of the Towson University English Department, has published three collections of poetry and contributed two scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many U.S. magazines including Touching Fire: Erotic Writing by Women. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

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