A masterpiece of avant-garde poetry, written by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and published by Harper & Brothers in 1937.
So, what is it exactly? What's it about? Well, it is certainly a book, as it has two covers and, between them, 122 pages of words... Beyond that, it becomes a bit hard to classify. I could describe it as a "narrative-essay that you could perform as a play". Unfortunately, that doesn't really do it justice at all. To put it in a simpler way, I'd say it's a poem that wanted to be everything at once, and succeeded.
The basic concept of the book is really rather simple: it's a poem about 7 New York City elites, sitting around, drinking, and speaking poetry to each other. No, I don't mean to say that they are reading poetry. Every word of the conversation is itself the poem.
That sounds contrived, I know. You shouldn't judge it until you read it, however. I think you'd be surprised on how extraordinarily uncontrived it reads. It's written in that same kind of free-wheeling, spontaneous American prosepoetry that the Beats would later call their own. When it rhymes, never once does a rhyme seem forced. Never once does a line break seem unnatural. If anything, after the initial smirk of novelty wears off, the poetic form seems more humanizing than prose, as if people have been speaking this way all along, and you just didn't notice it until now. The form creates a conversation that is not exaggerated but, rather, distilled, filtered through poetry to the essence of the words.
ANSELMO (to MERTON)
Strange, that a man who would not play with fire, will play with God!
You run grave risk, my friend, of being scorched by Faith.
I note with satisfaction, that in dealing with Merton you are as helpless as I.
The reason is this: that not only does he not respect, he actively distrusts,
all things which money does not buy.
If Faith could be ordered by 'phone and delivered at the
He'd never be without supply.
It is I who have faith, not John, and not you, Anselmo.
You are doubters both; you are for ever thrusting your
fingers into the wounds.
The Church has built up a ritual so elaborate that the humble person,
Hurrying from Mass to market, has no time to doubt;
But you have time; Pascal had time; you all have time
Who have time to think.
Your Church is built upon a rock of doubt,-- on three
Denials, and a dozen hearts of little faith.
What a man believes, he lives with quietly.
No Church upon the daily rising of the sun, who howl not
With terror while the dragon eats the sun.
As for me, I am a ship in mid-ocean; my vision extends outward
Like the spokes of a wheel, five miles in all directions to a round horizon;
And beyond that is Mystery.
It has no face; it is not faceless; it is not conscious; it is not
unconcious: it is Mystery.
I believe in the existence of that, the nature of whose existence
I cannot apprehend; for I am not equipped with the organ of apprehension
(Nor was ever a man so equipped)
In that dimension.
As I said, the book was published in 1937. In reality, though, most of it was written the year before, but on a trip to Sanibel Island in May of '36, Millay's only manuscript of the poem was destroyed in a hotel fire. Amazingly, the book that was later published is actually a complete second draft, reconstructed from only her own memory of what she had written down, and with new bits and revisions added in as she went.
As for the poem itself, the time is "The present", the place is "New York", and the scene is "The drawing room of Ricardo's house, a fine old house in Tenth Street, just west of Fifth Avenue." The seven characters are as follows...
Merton - a stock-broker. A "distiguished-looking man of sixty-eight." Clearly the oldest and most wealthy man in the room, but also Ricardo's closest friend, Merton is the group's stalwart Conservative-with-a-captial-C. Protestant, Republican, cynical, interested in horse-racing, hunting and the finer things in life. You'd think that all this would make him the natural enemy of Carl, though the two seem to get along well enough.
John - a portrait painter. Longing for a spiritual connection despite the fact that he has no idea where to find it, leaving him eternally frustrated and confused. A "visual thinker", his stanzas are thick with imagery.
Pygmalion - a writer of short stories. "Pygmalion" is a nickname, though what the story is behind it, we're never told. The consummate writer, always ready with the perfect line; clever, and infinitely quotable. Especially enjoys teasing John. Gay, and clearly no big fan of women. The instigator of the group, knowing all the right buttons to get his friends railing, and getting increasingly drunk as the evening goes on.
Carl - a poet, a communist. Eloquent, poetic, Crusader for the People. His ranting is mostly shrugged off by the others, especially Merton (who is, after all, a veritable avatar of capitalism). The pair seem to start off in kind of a blood-truce, but a sly comment by Pyg quickly gets the two tied up in a debate that runs through the entire evening.
Anselmo - a Roman Catholic priest. Aloof, reflective, with a strong love for Nature. Anselmo and Ricardo were born in the same village in northern Italy, have known each other since childhood, and have remained friends through life, despite their wildly different worldviews. Anselmo seems to be somewhat out of place in the group of intellectuals, who are always trying to playfully disuade him from his religious convictions. Though, when he leaves the party early, each of the mostly-godless bunch admit that they actually think quite highly of him.
Ricardo - the aristocrat, at whose house the conversation takes place. Intelligent, analytical, a lover of words, long-sighted, and thoroughly agnostic. Though only forty-three, Ricardo seems to be like a father figure to this disparate group of souls, the common point around which their worlds revolve. Patiently neutral, and yet, the deepest and most diverse of them all; master of the subtle, piercing metaphor.
Lucas - a young man in the advertising business. Plainspoken and rebellious. Ironically works as a commercial writer for products that he hates. The antithesis of Pygmalion. Straight. Atheletic. Likeable. Doesn't even pretend to be knowledgeable about the world, and seemingly in awe among the great minds he's fallen in with.
Perhaps most startling of all is the way that Millay is able to capture each of these radically contrasting personae in a way that feels honest and organic, without any hint of allegory or bias. And just like real individuals, they never stay on one topic for long. One moment Merton is making jokes about women, the next Ricardo is lauding the virtues of Agnosticism. Ricardo gets up to refill drinks, and the topic shifts to Commercialism. Merton leaves for the bathroom, and the conversation turns to music, to horse-racing, to the second World War, to Carl's poetry and to some mushrooms that he found. As the poem weaves its way through formal sonnets to ryhming couplets to sardonic free verse fury, each character shows through in stark and intimate definition, as real as any friend.
It is, in short, the perfect book to take with you on a lonely cross-country trek, like carrying a conversation around in the pocket of your jeans. You flip the pages, and it's as if, in one gasp, Millay becomes the prism of the world, struck with a sudden flash of light to display the full spectrum of color and thought. She becomes the voice of a generation travelling together between one day ending and another just begun.
What time is it, Dick?
It's exactly twelve o'clock. It's neither P.M. nor A.M. it's exactly M.
Midnight. Midnight in New York. It will be almost dawn now
I fear not, friend; I fear that in Paris, too,
It is midnight. Midnight in London; midnight in Madrid.
The whole round world rolling in darkness, as if it feared an air-raid.
Not a mortal soul that can see his hand before his face.