Friday, December 24, 2004

To What Purpose

Except to Be (3)

Though I respect the intensity of my students who feel otherwise, I can't much admire the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which seem to me more serious about the poet's pose in the world than about either the world or herself. Her "Spring" — "To what purpose, April, do you return again?" — says: You won't catch me getting taken in by this rebirth crap, knowing as I do, from my history of hurt, how . . . etc. "I know what I know," one line congratulates itself.

Yet that famous opening line holds something fundamental to poetry, not because of its attitude or its attitudinizing, but because of its absurdity. The ideal Logical Positivist — indispensible joker — will object that, even given the poetic fiction of seeming to address a segment of the calendar, questioning its intent and motives misapprehends such fundamental distinctions as the one between sentience and insentience, and above all the incomparability of time (which goes by, one hour per hour, no matter what you think or want) and creatures in time, which go on as they can, until they don't. The poem begins from, and can't do without, and replaces at the center of our consciousness that created it, an opposite conviction. If we can't question April, what can we question? If we can't question April, who can?

So I don't dismiss Millay's premise. I miss her taking it more thoroughly on its own terms. To do that would have led her into myth. The rest of the poem would wonder through that myth, not keep distracting itself and us with veiled references to past disillusionments. She ends by comparing April with Ophelia — if only she had gotten there first and gone on, not saved it for the end. To April's Ophelia, whose Laertes? Polonius? Hamlet? Could the poet have ended up as Gertrude instead, wary and pitying and doomed?


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