Thursday, February 22, 2007

Frank O'Hara and Two Birthdays

This week I’ve been reading Frank O’Hara’s collected poems. There are a few poems in there that I love. I’ll post some later I’m sure. I’m still meandering through the volume. Many people have told me that the poems I’m working on recently are reminiscent of Frank O’Hara, which I find baffling because I am not loving O’Hara. I like him. I’m interested in the work, but I find little so far that I truly admire. And nothing that I love. Nothing that makes me say, Oh, I want to do something like this. Still I’m interested. I ordered a copy of letters that someone wrote to him and I’d like to read the memoir that Joe LeSueur wrote. So an exploration of O’Hara, but I don’t think he’s becoming a guide for me on how to write poems.

Two people that are guides for me are Edna St. Vincent Millay and Gerald Stern. Both of them are celebrating birthdays today, too. This from the Writer’s Almanac.

It's the birthday of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, (books by this author) born in Rockland, Maine (1892). Her mother couldn't afford to send her to college, but when she was 19, she entered a poem called "Renascence" in a poetry contest hoping to win the large cash prize. One of the judges was so impressed that he started a correspondence with her, fell in love, and nearly divorced his wife. Her poem didn't win first prize, but when she recited it at a public reading in Camden, Maine, a woman in the audience offered to pay for her to go to Vassar College, and Millay accepted.
At Vassar, she was the most notorious girl on campus, famous for both her poetry and her habit of breaking rules. Vassar's president, Henry Noble McCracken, once wrote to her, "You couldn't break any rule that would make me vote for your expulsion. I don't want a banished Shelley on my doorstep." She wrote back, "Well, on those terms I think I can continue to live in this hellhole."
She had red hair and green eyes and people had often stopped and stared at her on the street, she was so beautiful. When Millay moved to Greenwich Village after college, most of the men in the literary scene fell in love with her. The critic Edmund Wilson was one of those smitten men.
Millay wrote poems about bohemian parties and free love in her collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), and she became one of the icons of the Jazz Age. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans, more like a rock star than a poet. One man who saw Millay perform her own work said, "The slender red-haired, gold-eyed Vincent Millay, dressed in a black-trimmed gown of purple silk, was now reading from a tooled leather portfolio, now reciting without aid of book or print, despite her broom-splint legs and muscles twitching in her throat and in her thin arms, in a voice that enchanted."

It's the birthday of poet Gerald Stern, (books by this author) born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1925). He began to write poetry in college but he didn't know any other poets, so he didn't try very hard to get anything published. He later said, "I was too harsh a critic of my own work, and I couldn't focus my thoughts and feelings in a way that would satisfy me."
He worked a series of teaching jobs but began to suffer from depression. Then, one day, in his late 30s, after a doctor's appointment, he suddenly realized that his life was almost half over, and he began to write poems furiously. He published his first poetry collection, The Pineys, in 1971, and has gone on to write many more collections, including Leaving Another Kingdom (1990), Bread Without Sugar (1992), and Odd Mercy (1995).

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