American poetry

The sad fate of Edna St Vincent Millay – America’s once celebrated poet

In June 1957, Robert Lowell attended a poetry reading by E.E. Cummings. Sitting dutifully and deferentially alongside him were Allen Tate, W.S. Merwin and his wife Dido and the classical scholar William Alfred, ‘while Cummings read outrageous and sentimental poems, good and bad of both kinds’. They were not alone: ‘About eight thousand people listened.’ But you can tell from Lowell’s adjectives – ‘outrageous and sentimental’ – that Cummings’s reputation is already on the slide. Edna St Vincent Millay’s diaries record a reading in Waco on 10 January 1930: ‘In spite of icy streets, really dangerous & cold weather, abt. 1500 people present.’ In 1934, Millay took Laurence Olivier and

Suicide was always a spectre for John Berryman

‘A matter that hurts me is that I have made many hundreds of people laugh, in various cities, during the last year or so, but not you — and your father is thought to be a wit.’ This was the poet John Berryman to his nearly-estranged son Paul in 1964. The hurt, off-kilter tone and the humble-brag speak to the Berryman one encounters in this capacious Selected Letters. One of the great extremists of a brilliant generation, which included Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Elizabeth Bishop, Berryman’s entanglement of art and risk, his view of poetry as a ‘terminal activity’ and the artist’s life as one of self-annihilating labour, is

Walt Whitman’s poetry can change your life

To describe a new book as ‘eagerly awaited’ is almost unpardonable. Yet Mark Doty’s What is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life is exactly that. It’s not just that Doty is an extraordinarily fine writer whose every word sings on the page. Poetry has a tendency to come into its own at exceptional times such as our own. William Wordsworth’s 250th anniversary has provoked media reflections on his consolatory power; a recently established Poetry Pharmacy is receiving attention; and social media brims with poems and poets attempting to make sense of what’s happening to us. Arguably there couldn’t be a more apt context for Doty’s book about his lifelong