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Just Listen Podcast: Poetry - Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay

Today we examine the work of two American poets, both of whom are featured in a new book by John Dizikes entitled Love Songs: The Lives, Loves, and Poetry of Nine American Women

The book’s focus is on a group of nine American women whose work dominated and helped shaped the direction of American poetry. All of them used New York City as the locus for their expansion as poets during the first half of the twentieth century. 

Both Sara Teasdale and Edna St. Vincent Millay made important and lasting contributions to American poetry; Teasdale became the grand dame of the love lyric and her poems were part of every lover’s toolkit; during her own lifetime, valentines abounded with her lyrics, many of which dealt with longing, desire, and later, unrequited and disappointing love. Few poets have been able to achieve the soundness of rhyme and meter, of passion and song, as Sara Teasdale was able to achieve in a mere four or eight lines. Perhaps only Emily Dickinson—whose interest was the psyche moreso than the heart—could pack as much meaning and intensity into a lyric phrase as Sara Teasdale. Even so, “…terrified by physical illness,” Dizikes tells us in his book, “and submerged in emotional darkness,” she took her own life in the early evening hours of January 29, 1932, with a warm bath and a heavy dose of sleeping pills. The maestra of the concise love lyric, undone by love itself, and loneliness, disappeared in all but memory from the world that had cost her so much emotionally.

Some poems by Sara Teasdale…we begin….

Edna St. Vincent Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for her book The Ballad of the Harp Weaver and brought the 700-year old sonnet form into the twentieth century with new life and voices that presented love lyrics in the everyday idiom of the modern city.  Playing with conventional forms as well as the new free verse, Millay became an important bridge between the old and the new—a familiar voice putting forth controversial descriptions of female sexuality and feminism.  While Sara Teasdale’s lyrics are often dreamy and redolent of diaphanous, sweet billows, Millay’s voice is more impatient, more practical, more based on the reality of a tasted kiss than on the longing for it. Dizikes tell us, “Millay would be so closely identified with bohemia and with sexual liberation that it seemed as if she had been predestined to epitomize the spirit of Greenwich Village.  The four most often quoted lines of her poetry, still familiar to people who know nothing else she wrote, captured the spirit of the liberated woman:

My candle burns at both ends,

It will not last the night,

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends

It gives a lovely light.

Unfortunately, not long after publication of his book, John Dizikes died.  He was the author of four books, including Opera in America:  A Cultural History, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.  He was a professor Emeritus of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  A founding member of UCSC’s Cowell College in 1965, he later served as Provost. The John Dizikes Teaching Award, presented annually in recognition of outstanding teaching by humanities faculty, was established in his honor in 2002.

Some poetry by Enda St. Vincent Millay…we begin….