Millay’s “Rosemary” for National Poetry Month

It’s my hope that some of you are newer people reading this as a result of my increased posting frequency and other activity during April’s National Poetry Month. If you’ve just found this: welcome! What we do here is combine words (usually poetry) with original music in varied styles, and then write about our encounters with those words and what we discover from performing them.

Since we’ve been doing this for 6 years and over 600 pieces, what we’ve been doing this Poetry Month has been to highlight some of my favorites from the first half of our Project. Since the composition, performing, and recording tasks are already done for these pieces, this has made the daily posts possible, but it has still been a lot of work at a time when life has made other calls on my time and concern. I’ll skip that story, but I want to take a moment to tell those other blog authors that I follow that I’ve been unable to read your posts for the past couple of weeks. I miss that, and I still intend to catch up.

Today’s piece is from a poem of love and respect lost by Edna St. Vincent Millay which is titled “Rosemary.”  As a lyric poem it’s somewhat mysterious in terms of time, place, and exact events. The opening verse’s rushes and bergamot have something of a house-cleaning feel to them. Rush stalks were used in place of rugs or other floor covering historically in homes as varied as Native American structures to European castles, and dried bergamot is fragrant and would be a nice way to make a place smell better, as is the herb rosemary, which may be the name of the speaker in the poem, and/or another way to freshen the smell of the house. Housekeeping is continued as a theme in the second verse. The final verse links back to the opening two lines, and I read it as a revelation that those tasks are being done out of duty and with a false-face of faithful servitude. After the final verse, those early fragrant herbs and fresh-straw-on-the-floor mentions now say something has gone off, is spoiled or rotten.

Millay on Chaise Lounge 3

I felt a contemporary link for dismay when I saw this picture of Millay “On a chaise lounge, on a chaise lounge, on a chaise lounge…”


Is the poem’s speaker a wife or partner in a cold relationship? Or possibly a servant? The poem’s “gentle sirs” in its next-to-last line indicates more than one master is being acknowledged, but I can’t eliminate the idea that it could be a spurned lover chiding a partner as if she’s now a servant.

I called this poem “mysterious” rather than “vague” largely because I find Millay’s word-music enticing. Another poem with the same matter, but without that extra factor, might merit that second term. In my performance I created a jaunty tune for this enigmatic but essentially sad story. That’s a common tactic in British Isles folk music, where you can have brisk tunes telling stories of unjust and sorrowful fates. The performance ensemble is a small acoustic band: drum set, bass, two acoustic guitars — but I’m a one-man band performing that in overdubs. Listening back on this several years later I admire that I was able to make it sound like a live take by an actual band. My musicianship has remained inconsistent throughout my life, but this one works, and is able to serve the composer (me), though I wish I was a better vocalist here and elsewhere.

The lyric video


Three ways to hear it: a player gadget below for some of you, and this backup highlighted link if you don’t see the player. And as I’ve done so far with all these re-releases of early Parlando Project performances, I’ve created a new lyric video that shows the full text of the poem above.


The most popular Parlando Project piece for Summer 2018 is…

Since I’ve been keeping track, one thing has been consistent with the most popular piece each season: it’s been by a poet not widely known or read in the United States. So previously we’ve seen on top after a season of your listening: my translation of Dada principal Tristan Tzara’s The Death of Apollinaire,”  the better-known-in-the UK Edward Thomas’ Adlestrop,”  the too-often overlooked Chicago Modernist Fenton Johnson’s The Banjo Player,”  and Frances,  the teenage love poem by George Washington, whose career as a poet never really took off.

This has happened even though I’ve featured (multiple times) most of the popular canon of pre-1923 English-language poets touched by the Modernist movement of the 20th Century: Frost, Yeats, Sandburg, Millay, Pound, Williams and Eliot.

Pat yourself on the back: the listeners here are open to a variety of writing, and they don’t necessarily need to have a name they already know attached to the words.

Still, it’s surprising that it’s surprising that we have Emily Dickinson coming in at the top spot this past summer.

Dickinson (along with Frost and Yeats) seem to be special cases with The Canon, in that all three have retained some level of popular readership and presence in that still-existing oral-tradition of memorization, even into our current century, without being denigrated into the bin of “not-great poetry.”

Our Summer 2018 most liked and listened to audio piece is “Ample Make this Bed.”  Like many Dickinson poems it’s extraordinarily compressed, just eight lines—and like so many of her poems it invites us in and then mystifies us. Most of us have made a bed, and some of us have even been instructed in how to complete that task correctly. Here, with “Ample Make this Bed,”   we may get six lines into the eight and we haven’t left domestic normality other than the ironic satisfaction with a job, that if done excellently, will stand forever. Ah, if only any domestic housekeeping task can stand ‘till judgement day, rather than the few hours until it needs to be done again!

The poem’s final two lines are so modestly telling and beautiful. Until them, no rhyme—and then internal rhyme and end-rhyme rush in! And the synesthesia of “yellow noise,” an image which could have been informed by Dickinson’s mysterious medical syndrome which included photophobia, but needs no biographic detective work to strike us boldly.

Is “Ample Make this Bed”  about death, domestic drudgery, love, or the unstoppable passage of time? Emily Dickinson seemed to have taken care with her poetry, to make it ample and arranged to last until judgment day, so it’s likely intentionally undetermined—or mystically, exactly, all of those things united.

Musically, I’m quite proud of my music and performance of all the various parts with this one. If you missed it last July, why not go ahead and listen to it now. And if you like it, please let others know about what we do here.