“Rediscovering Millay” filled Minsky Recital Hall last Friday night with music and poetry as poems written by Maine-born Edna St. Vincent Millay were performed.
Millay originally aspired to be a concert pianist. According to Kathleen Ellis, a University of Maine English professor who narrated the event, Millay’s piano instructor told her that her hands were too small. “[Millay] would have to settle [and be] one of the most famous women poets of the 20th century,” Ellis said.
Millay was born in Rockland, Maine on February 22, 1892. Her single mother, Cora, encouraged her children to pursue their passions and urged Millay to enter her poem “Renascence” into a contest. Millay won fourth place and with that came a scholarship to Vassar where she would continue to write poetry.
In addition to her poetry, Millay also wrote plays, starting with “The Lamp and the Bell” in 1921.
In 1923, Millay married Eugen Boissevain. Boissevain acted as Millay’s manager and helped her become the famous poet she is today.
Ellis, Laura Artesani and Ginger Yang Hwalek, accompanied singer Nancy Ogle. Ogle and Artesani were hired by the Whitehall Inn to put together the “Rediscovering Millay” program, where they gave their first performance of this series.
“Millay was ‘discovered’ at the Whitehall Inn 100 years ago this summer, and they have a special room dedicated to her with her own piano in it, which is where Laura and I gave that performance,” said Ogle.
“Rediscovering Millay” began with Ellis talking about fall and Henry David Thoreau’s visit to Maine and its rivers, leading into the first poem of the evening, Thoreau’s “I Was Born Upon Thy Bank River.” The following two songs Ogle sang were “Forgetfulness” and “As I Walked Out One Evening,” by Hart Crane and W.H. Auden, respectively. Hwalek, a music professor at UMaine, accompanied Ogle on piano.
Artesani — a professor of music education and music history — took over the piano as Ogle sang 14 of Millay’s poems, repeating one in another composer’s version.
They began with “Thursday,” one of Millay’s “sassy, coquettish poems” from her earlier years as a poet in New York. This is one of Millay’s more comedic pieces, with lines like, “And if I loved you Wednesday / Well, what is that to you? / I do not love you Thursday / So much is true.”
Ogle has enjoyed Millay’s poetry for as long as she can remember.
“Twenty years ago, when Kathleen Ellis wrote the script for a PBS documentary on Millay, I was hired on as musical advisor,” Ogle said. “Laura Artesani and I did some Millay concerts at the time, a few of the songs [we performed Friday]. Two [of the songs] were written just for us, specifically for this summer’s concert series. One of these was Greg Hall’s piece, the composer from Portland who was in the audience and the other brand new piece was one by Joyce Hope Suskind of New York City.”
Many composers have worked with Millay’s poems, turning them into songs that would be sung all over the country. According to Ellis, Millay was considered one of the best lyricists of her time.