The cosmos says we need to get a leap year, and extra day, and yet we put it in February. It was a dozen degrees Fahrenheit this morning, and my bike ride back from breakfast was into an insistent north wind that explains to me that we’re in Minnesota and we’ll probably have a snowstorm or two yet before we can see spring—a spring that sometimes seems too short to form memories.
So, before we leave this month and season, I thought it a good time for a short poem referencing a short month from American poet Sara Teasdale. Teasdale is like Edna St. Vincent Millay, a poet that 100 years ago was thought a leading voice in this country’s verse, after which we spent the rest of the century more or less forgetting or down-grading their place.
When such re-evaluations happen, it’s common to assign them to the refined judgement of posterity, the further assay that separates momentarily sparkly stuff from the for-all-time classics. How does that happen?
One could assign this downward path to Teasdale (like Millay) writing metrical and rhyming verse in their prize-winning years early in the 20th century. The evil Modernist free-verse hordes in this view laid waste to all who dare to rhyme or march to a one-shoe-off beat.
There’s a factor there, sure, but this story doesn’t account for two giants whose statues were not toppled: Frost and Yeats. Nor the monuments on many campuses to canon sitters like Auden and Wilbur et al who were not primarily free-verse poets.
No, I think there are more important factors in this determination, one that is currently under revision in our new century. First, both were essentially lyric poets. “Lyric” in this sense doesn’t mean that they wrote song lyrics. Though of course this project finds them sing-able and otherwise suited to presentation with music, “Lyric” in the literary sense means that their poems tend to be set in the impressions and immediacy of a moment, and their final and considered judgement of that moment is not necessarily explicit. Lyric poems don’t usually have great themes developed with long arguments in verse. Nor do they have narratives the way a novel or story does, were we turn the page to find out what happens next. What happens in a lyric poem—happens! Right then. Right now.
The pioneering Modernists in the years before the end of WWI, those that were or wrote like Imagists, were fine with that. Indeed, this was the point of Imagism. Teasdale wasn’t called an Imagist, but she could write like one, albeit with rhyme and meter. The Imagists didn’t call for the end of rhyme and meter, they called for an end of poems that existed to fill out those forms without the vividness of the lyric.
But post Eliot and the Pound of the Cantos, post the sheltering of poetry inside the academic monasteries which could too easily fall into a rout of poems to be taught rather than poems to be experienced, these poems could seem slight. The Imagists were a fine exercise to break from the past, but they were not, in this outlook, the way to write great poetry.
And here’s the other reason. Gender. The academics were overwhelmingly men and were steeped in the things men were thinking about. And the world of the middle of the 20th century had a lot of concerns that made the concerns of Teasdale and other women poets of the early part of the 20th century seem like the line in Casablanca uttered by Humphrey Bogart “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
For the first part of our double feature: 90 seconds of cinema that was an emotional touchstone to many. Also, mansplaining.
It took the culture until nearly the end of the 20th century to see that part of the world’s craziness was because men were still explaining how it worked to women.*
All that may be too much of a burden to bear for this short poem by Teasdale. But if “February Twilight” was signed Frost or Yeats, I suspect more attention might be paid to her poem. It doesn’t read much like Yeats, but it could pass for the shorter, lyric Frost.
The lyric impulse in poetry survived the mid-20th century when colored with Dada and Surrealism. “See, it’s not me! I’m a serious poet, but I just chanced into this charged moment.”
What does Teasdale experience in the charged moment of her lyric? That it seems like she’s the only one that views this star, a manifest untruth we could explain to her, but which I think she knows as the final line presents. She doesn’t explain this to us, but we can stand in the cold, snowy February and experience it with her.
I’m choosing tambura and acoustic guitar again for my performance today, this time with an organ keyboard part. Click on that player gadget below to hear it. “If you don’t, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”
*Which I’m doing here. Ha Ha! Here’s where one of the principles of the Parlando Project comes in: “Other People’s Stories.” I’m not claiming the exclusive right to mansplain mansplaining, but men speaking up about it has its place and value.
Oh, and explaining has value too. And I happen to like Casablanca as a movie. And defeating fascism might have a value greater than the optimum choice for a snuggle-bunny. And I had huevos rancheros for breakfast. A hill of beans would be meaningful and sustaining to me!
2 thoughts on “February Twilight”
It has been decades since I read Sara Teasdale or Edna St. Vincent Millay. If I were to take them up again, which would you recommend I read first? Btw great post!
Thanks for the kind words and devoted readership.
As i often caution in posts here, I’m not an expert or scholar on the writers whose words i feature here. I came to Millay because her paths crossed Susan Glaspell and because my father, a child of the last Twenties, liked her as what he thought of as modern poetry. I discovered Teasdale because of Tom Rapp’s setting of her poem done circa 1970. So as to recommendations of where to start, I’m likely to be fairly random.
With Teasdale, her breakthrough and celebrated collection 1917’s “Love Songs” might be good. It’s certainly the way the world discovered her.
Millay went through more styles in her longer career. By reputation her later poems are supposed to be worse, even laughably bad, but I rely greatly on works in the public domain where PDF scanned versions of the books are available to me and free for me to use in this project without the usually ignored requests for permissions. Millay’s “A Few Figs from Thistles” is a short collection of mostly short poems that was popular in it’s day and helped (along with Teasdale) to form the image of the “new woman” who’d speak about complex feelings regarding love, death, and complexity of human relationships. It can strike some as glib, sort of a WWI era Rupi Kaur–but then others see the wit as a complement to someone like Dorothy Parker. Millay’s follow up “Second April” is a larger collection and might be a good place to start if one wants a heartier portion to start with. I’ve just been looking at the latest Millay collection that seems to be in the public domain “The Buck in the Snow” from 1928, and I don’t find Millay’s poetry falling off yet. There’s a short section in that one with other poems like her “Justice Denied in Massachusetts” where she’s reacting to the Sacco and Vanzetti case.
Libraries probably still have Teasdale and Millay books in their collections, but I have a hard time telling when I’ll have time to read something or be in the mood for a particular kind of poetry. The Internet Archive has a great storehouse of books in the public domain in PDF, Kindle, and EPub formats.
One of the nice things about these scans is that the books are scanned from libraries and private collections and you can sometimes read penciled-in marginalia from previous readers. Kind of like the joy of a used book shop without the accumulation of more “stuff” in my old age. One scanned Millay book I was reading this month had notes from someone that claimed a poem was Arthur Ficke related for example.