The Operating System

4th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 26 :: Jeannie Hoag on Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay

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Growing up in my small Wisconsin town, there were four places I loved above all others: the park, the Dairy Queen, the stationery aisle of the drugstore, and the public library.

When I was 12 or 13, I found among the library’s three shelves of poetry the book Strange Victory by Sara Teasdale. It was a small hardcover book with crumbling glue and undone stitching.  The poems read like moralistic life lessons from a late 19th-century divorcee and I ate them up. In particular, “Advice to a Girl” saw me through the heartbreaks of middle and high school, a seven year span when I mistakenly considered prolific note-writing a workable method for winning the hearts of the cutest, most popular boys.

Advice to a Girl

No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed;
Lay that on your heart,
My young angry dear;
This truth, this hard and precious stone,
Lay it on your hot cheek,
Let it hide your tear.
Hold it like a crystal
When you are alone
And gaze in the depths of the icy stone.
Long, look long and you will be blessed;
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed.

A few years after reading Strange Victory, I found Teasdale again in Up a Road Slowly, a young adult book by Irene Hunt. The novel quoted several poems, including “I Shall Not Care”.

I Shall Not Care

When I am dead and over me bright April
.           .Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted
.           .I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
.           .When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
.           .Than you are now.

Teasdale’s poems don’t resonate with me the same way now, but I found them precisely when I needed them. They spoke to the anger and hurt of teenaged life, and served as models for my own moralistic early poems (sample title: “Money, Greed, and Fame”).

Up a Road Slowly introduced me to another poet and contemporary of Teasdale: Edna St. Vincent Millay. Where Teasdale’s poems acted as salve for my growing pains, Millay’s poems were joyful bundles of exclamation points and botany.

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

Afternoon on a Hill

I will be the gladdest thing
.           .Under the sun!
I will touch a hundred flowers
.           .And not pick one.

I will look at cliffs and clouds
.           .With quiet eyes,
Watch the wind bow down the grass,
.           .And the grass rise.

And when lights begin to show
.           .Up from the town,
I will mark which must be mine,
.           .And then start down!

I have a distinct memory of walking along the bluffs of the Mississippi River on a fall day when the leaves were glowing against the sky. I had just memorized “God’s World”, which is still one of my favorite poems, and it captured exactly how I felt that day.

God’s World
O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
.           .Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
.           .Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
.           .But never knew I this:
.           .Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart, –Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,–let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

In my mind, Millay’s poems are all like this, enthusiastic, full of specificity and delight for the many details of the world. They age well.  As relevant today as they were in the early 1900s, they have seen me through many ages.

Sara Teasdale helped me take my first steps into poetry, and my writing was certainly shaped by her work. Edna St. Vincent Millay has likewise been a model, and I still aspire to her joyful version of the world.As evidence of her influence, I submit as Exhibit A my own poem “Great Coffee O Morning”. Though not an intentional imitation, revisiting it now Millay’s exclamations, exaltations, and invocations are gleefully present.

Great Coffee, O Morning

Great coffee, O Morning
Great breakfast of oatmeal
Enormous punctuality,
waking every ten minutes
6:32, 6:42, 6:51
O Morning of great promise
I will accomplish all my
goals today, I am on my
way to achievement
and turning my back to the
possibilities of non-achievement
for on my own I have awakened
and on my own crawled out of bed
And to make coffee,
O to make coffee and to make extra
to last my commute, O great Morning

Jeannie Hoag is from northwestern Wisconsin and attended the UMass Amherst MFA program. Her chapbook New Age of Ferociousness was published by Agnes Fox Press. She currently lives in Queens, New York. Jeannie will join us to talk more about these founding ladies of American Poetry at GROUP HUG! 30/30/30 LIVE at Mental Marginalia, at The West, just two days from today!

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