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Published: Saturday, 10/6/2001

Poet's life was anything but a fairy tale

BY BOB HOOVER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

SAVAGE BEAUTY: THE LIFE OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY. By Nancy Milford. Random House. $29.95.

WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED: THE LOVES AND LOVE POEMS OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY. By Daniel Mark Epstein. Henry Holt. $26.

The life of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay is a kind of twisted fairy tale. It holds all the right ingredients - a fantastical childhood, the rescue by both a fairy godmother and a handsome prince, scores of handsome suitors, and the gifts of magical beauty and talent with all the fame and fortune they can bring.

But something was terribly wrong with “Vincent” as these two very different biographies show. Her fairy tale was a myth obscuring a life of pain, both emotional and physical.

Her beauty brought her a stream of male and female lovers, but she quickly grew addicted to their attention, an addiction that became insatiable. It later became a burden as that beauty faded.

As her fame grew in the 1930s, making her a good income, her poetry suffered and declined.

Her childhood was marked by parental abandonment and dire poverty. The divorce of her parents when she was 7 cost her her father, who lived in pathetic isolation, and forced her mother to spend months away, working as a nurse.

Eventually settled in the seaside town of Camden, Maine, at age 12, Vincent was in charge of her two younger sisters, Norma and Kathleen, in a dilapidated rental while her mother moved from job to job. The effect was devastating to the child's psyche even as it made her imagination flourish.

Now, 51 years after Millay's death, Nancy Milford and Daniel Mark Epstein independently have surveyed the strange life and the frequently beautiful work of the woman who was once the best-known poet in America.

Reading the books concurrently is a walk through Frost's yellow woods where the roads first divide, then join, then part again for good.

It's a crash course on Millay, with Milford providing the nuts and bolts - dates, names, places - and Epstein the interpretation of her writing.

This is Milford's first book since her 1972 success, Zelda, a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. She began her research on Millay that year by visiting Norma and slowly coaxing from her an eyewitness account as well as thousands of letters and documents.

Twenty-eight years of researching, interviewing, and writing have produced a remarkably dense ledger of Millay memorabilia, highlighted by a sharp and sympathetic account of the poet's troubled childhood.

But, as Millay reaches adulthood and fame in the early 1920s (she would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1923), her biographer loses her focus in the mountains of diaries, letters, clippings, and interviews.

The poet died in a fall in 1950 at 58, her body and mind destroyed by drugs, alcohol, and serious illnesses, physical and mental.

Despite Milford's mammoth effort, she has crafted an impersonal, detached view of an extraordinary human being. We don't hear Millay's voice or see her gamine body topped with flaming red hair.

Finally, we don't get a sharp analysis of her poetry, the very thing that made her famous.

Epstein, who's published seven poetry collections, does more to capture the essence of Millay's poetry in his much shorter work. Carefully, he analyzes the verse as a reflection of the poet's life through the years.

He is most appreciative of Millay's sonnets, written while she was having an affair with the younger poet George Dillon, with the blessing of her husband, the easy-going Eugen Boissevain, a wealthy businessman.

Perhaps Epstein wants us to rediscover the frankly old-fashioned poetry of a writer who seemed untouched by the cultural ferment in America after World War I.

Some may take him up on his dare, but many will find it hard to be swayed by his at times offhanded approach.

Finally, after holding these two versions of Edna St. Vincent Millay in your arms, it's a relief to say goodbye.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Bob Hoover is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's book editor.



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