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Poet's wild life a provocative read.

Byline: SECOND SUNDAY BOOK CLUB By Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

A new biography of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay proved a provocative March pick for Eugene's Half and Half Book Group, which invited Register-Guard readers to virtually join their discussion through the newspaper's online Second Sunday Book Club.

In almost 25 years together, Half and Half members have volunteered in local hunger programs, traveled to Newport's literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel, and cultivated an annual traditional known as Play Night.

`We pick one-act plays by women playwrights, then perform them, scripts in hand,' member Jean Miksch said.

In a March 12 discussion, the group found Nancy's Milford's 608-page "Savage Beauty" a fascinating, if somewhat exhausting, look at an extraordinary subject who single-handedly lived up to the club's name.

After operating without one for nearly a quarter-century, this all-female club was forced to pick a name that would label the shelf that they donated to the new Eugene Public Library two years ago.

"We looked around and realized we were about half straight and half gay, so we're the Half and Half Book Group,' founder Sue Wineland said.

And Millay's famously bisected love life was among the biography's most fascinating topics.

`Women fell in love with her and men fell in love with her and then more women and more men fell in love with her,' one Half and Half member noted. `Georgia O'Keeffe was writing her love letters, for God's sake!'

The discussion

On Millay's romantic conduct: She just broke conventions right and left seemingly without angst ... She would be very intent on someone and then just dump them. She was so hard and cruel, and she didn't feel bad ... That's what I liked about her - no guilt! ... She operated a lot like men. She lived in the world very freely, and when she got tired of someone, she moved on ... Like SOME men, not all men ... You have to wonder, though, about the people she left in her wake ... Yeah. Had they been able to contribute to this book, we might have had a whole different picture ... Her relationships with women during college were fascinating. Was that East Coast, upper crust thing? ... Maybe so. Lesbian relationships did used to be called Boston marriages ... I thought it was more an all-girls' school thing. They had lesbian affairs there and went up to marry men.

On the childhood that shaped a poet prodigy: Her mom left her at home alone when she was 8 ... What would happen today if that went on? ... That mom was pretty unusual. She gave her daughters so much freedom to be what they wanted to be ... The assumption was that the kids were self-sufficient. How many kids are brought up to think of themselves that way today? ... Is someone just born like that, like a Mozart? ... To just start spilling out genius poetry, there's a lot of hard work in it ... Her mother and her sisters were all so supportive of Edna's talent. They made sure she had time to write.

On Millay's poetic style: When you write something that powerful that young, you'd think you'd get worse. She didn't ... But there is a bitterness in the later poetry, compared to the early stuff where she's so positive; it sort of goes to a cynical place ... When I was 14 or 15, I used to spend all my time reading those, looking for the dark, angry ones ... She was such a rebel, and yet her poetry was very traditional ... It still rhymed. She wrote in the era of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. They were not still writing sonnets.

The verdict on the book: To be honest, it was somewhat painful to read this whole book. Five hundred pages about anybody is a long book. Slogging through, I felt a little bit like a voyeur ... Writing biography must be a terribly difficult thing to do. I never got a sense of whether (Milford) liked or disliked Millay, approved or didn't ... There was certainly some warmth there ... The quote in the book that best summed up my feelings was from Arthur Ficke, when he called Edna, ``the oddest mixture of genius and childish vanity, open-mindedness and blind self-worship, that I have ever known.''
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Title Annotation:Arts & Literature
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 9, 2006
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