Friday, February 22, 2013

Stealing Words

(Edna St. Vincent Millay)

The more I write, the more I'm convinced novels are the easiest form to master. Sure, they take a lot of time, but all that space! All those pages to wander and figure things out! There's a lot of forgiveness in 300 plus pages. You can get some of it wrong or sloppy or ugly and readers will forgive it if the majority is still pretty good.

Short stories - those are harder. It requires a lot more focus and precision. Flash even more so.

But poetry?  Every single word counts. Counts twice, I'd say. We all probably have written poetry since elementary school. "Roses are red, violets are blue..." Something like that. And every angsty teen thinks they can write poetry. But I'm not sure writing as therapy counts as great poetry. Great poetry... is hard. It is a sock to the gut.

In school we joke that us prose writers have to steal lines from poetry for our titles, because poets can say something in just a few words in a way that evokes emotion and interest. Our titles, on the other hand, are prosaic and flat and feel like a brick on your head.

I've been reading more poetry lately, in an effort to write better prose. I like it all - the old stuff, the new stuff, the traditional metered rhyme and the modern avant garde. I love lyrics. If you're a writer, it's good to slow a minute and really sink into some evocative imagery and emotion, some powerful use of rhythms and repetition. If you're not a writer, it's still good.

Today is Edna St. Vincent Millay's birthday, one of my favorite poets. I can never stumble on her writing without feeling like her words trip something in me. A great writer - both poet and prose - can make you see yourself in their words, can sometimes take your breath away with how close they hit to your heart, and Millay does that for me.

So in honor of her birthday, here some of her words I love the most. I hope you see something in them that touches you, too.

“Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,--so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, 'There is no memory of him here!'
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!”


“My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I'll not be knowing,
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take,
No matter where it's going.”


“There is no shelter in you anywhere.”


“And what are you that, missing you,
I should be kept awake
As many nights as there are days
With weeping for your sake?

And what are you that, missing you,
As many days as crawl
I should be listening to the wind
And looking at the wall?

I know a man that’s a braver man
And twenty men as kind,
And what are you, that you should be
The one man in my mind?"


“The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by."


“When you are corn and roses and at rest
I shall endure, a dense and sanguine ghost
To haunt the scene where I was happiest
To bend above the thing I loved the most”


“And her voice is a string of colored beads,
Or steps leading into the sea.”

(are not those lines crying to be titles of a book???)


“Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand.
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!”


"What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight..."

(also, it's not all poetry. Here's a few of my favorite gems of hers.)

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.”

“You are loved. If so, what else matters?” 

“I love humanity but I hate people.”

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.”

“A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”


  1. “I love humanity but I hate people.”

    Ain't that the truth sometimes!

    Thanks for sharing all of this amazing poetry.


  2. Love this.

    Also - I'm AMAZED at people who write picture books. All those hours for so few words...

    1. I agree! I think the smaller the medium, the harder. At least for me. Novels give lots of wiggle room, but the less room you have to make an impact, the harder it seems to be!

  3. Wow.

    I've always believed poets make the best prose writers as well. (Unfortunately, although I've tried, I've never been much of a poet.)

    Those were some really thought-provoking lines/verses.

    The ones you mentioned would make great titles:

    "And her voice is a string of colored beads,
    Or steps leading into the sea.”

    I didn't immediately think "book title," but I did find myself hooked on the image those lines created. Gee, I'd love for my voice to be a string of colored beads. And the last one you wrote...

    Ha, ha, ha! Awesome!

    1. The last one is my favorite for a laugh. :)

      I've always been a bit jealous of people who could put words together in such emotional, impacting ways. That first poem, about grief, is really my favorite right now.