Saturday, September 26, 2015

Judging American Cuisine and Lassoing Unicorns: Edna St. Vincent Millay on Food and E. E. Cummings

Reading Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford in short sessions each day is like taking licks from one of those giant pinwheel all-day suckers you used to get as a kid at the county fair. Remember how you tried to discipline yourself to just twenty licks per day because you never wanted the beauty of that pastel-colored sugar to end? (Even though the sucker eventually grew furred with dust bunnies traveling through the air and became inextricably stuck to the top of your nightstand.)

So it goes with my sojourn through the life of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, minus the furred-over lollipop feeling. According to my Library Thing database, I started reading Savage Beauty on August 5, and it may well be another two weeks before I’m finished with the book. I’ll hate to see it come to an end. It is a literary sugar rush.

Milford not only expertly tracks the wild course of Millay’s life--and occasionally inserts herself, the biographer, in some of the most interesting sections--but she delivers exquisite passages from the poet’s poems, diaries and letters. Today, I thought I’d share a couple of them here at the blog. One is on food, and the other is about fellow poet E. E. Cummings.

In June 1932, while living in France, Millay was invited to give a reading at a home on the Left Bank, hosted by a woman named Natalie Clifford Barney, described by Milford as “rich, eccentric, tiny, seductive, and American.” The soiree was very bohemian. As one visitor put it, “No self-respecting American woman would be seen there. Oh no! Edith Wharton would never have come, never!”

Just before she read from her poems, Millay was drawn into conversation with a Frenchwoman named Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, who recounted her recent visit to the United States. “Wonderful country!” she exclaimed. “So alive, so vigorous! But such bad food!”

This kind of culinary critique didn’t sit well with Millay, who’d been raised in Maine, which may not have been the foodie nirvana it is today, but there were certainly bountiful meals to be had there back in the day. She bristled and began to put Mme. Delarue-Mardrus in her place, as described by Millay’s friend Allan Ross Macdougall, with a speech that was “at once a patriotic dithyramb and a gastronomic prose poem.” Even though I suspect it’s filtered through Macdougall’s enhanced retelling, it really is a beautiful take-down.
     In your travels, chere madame, did you ever taste the lobsters that come from the waters off the coast of my home state, Maine? Broiled or boiled and served with melted, fresh country butter, they are unforgettable. Did you have fish chowder made of haddock, Maine potatoes, onions, salt pork and rich milk?
     Were you ever introduced to Boston baked beans? I mean the kind baked in an old-fashioned crock. We cook them slowly and for long hours in the oven and serve them sometimes with such brown bread as can be found in no other part of the world.
     Did you ever have Cherrystones or Little Necks; and did you ever, by chance, taste a Provincetown clam pie made of the deep-sea Quahogs and a liberality of olive oil and garlic? Were oyster-crabs and whitebait ever set crisp before you? Did you taste soft-shell crabs, lightly sauteed, or drink the juice of the soft-shell crab? Were you ever a happy member of an old-fashioned clam-bake on a secluded New England beach?
     Then what of the other American dishes that are seldom to be met with elsewhere on the gastronomic globe? There’s the shad roe and the shad itself, both broiled; sweet corn and sweet potatoes; pumpkin pie and deep-dish blueberry pie; diamond-back terrapin done as the Baltimoreans do it in a rich Madeira stew, or as the Philadephians do it with egg-yolks, cream, and “sweet butter in a lordly dish.” Then there’s Philadelphia Pepperpot which has tripe in it, and that same city’s surprising mixture of tripe and oysters.
     There’s the Creole Jambalaya of New Orleans made with savory rice and shrimps almost as big as your French ecrevisses. We also have our native blueberries. And there are our cranberries and beach-plums which I used to gather on Cape Cod. We make delicious preserves from them. Oh, there are many other products and dishes native to states and regions of my country. If you have never tasted them, ma chere, you cannot in all fairness judge American cuisine…

Speaking of judging, the next year found Millay making recommendations to the Guggenheim Foundation on behalf of poets she felt were worthy--and, in the case of 39-year-old Edward Estlin Cummings, a man she admittedly disliked personally and called “fetid,” applicants who were worthy of damning with faint praise. Here’s part of what Millay wrote in her Guggenheim “recommendation” for Cummings: is a big talent in the hands of an arrogant, peevish, self satisfied, self indulgent writer. That is to say, here is a big talent in pretty bad hands.
     I am not one of those who stand for the untouchable holiness of the capital letter and traditional typography. So far as I am concerned, Mr. Cummings may do anything he likes with the alphabet, the English grammar, and the multiplication table, provided only the result of his activities be something interesting, and, after a reasonable period of application, comprehensible, to a reader of culture and brains. Mr. Cummings may not, however, I say, write poetry in English which is more difficult for me to translate than poetry written in Latin. He may, of course, write it. But if he publishes it, if he prints and offers for sale poetry which he is quite content should be, after hours of sweating concentration, inexplicable from any point of view to a person as intelligent as myself, then he does so with a motive which is frivolous from the point of view of art, and should not be helped or encouraged by any serious person or group of persons...
     But, unfortunately for one’s splendid hate which had assumed almost epic proportions, by no means all of Mr. Cummings poetry is of this nature. In these books which I have just been reading there is fine writing and powerful writing (as well as some of the most pompous nonsense I ever let slip to the floor with a wide yawn), and that this author has ability I could not deny; that he has more than that I gravely suspect.
     What I propose, then, is this: that you give Mr. Cummings enough rope. He may hang himself; or he may lasso a unicorn. In any case it is high time we found out about this man Cummings. Let us give him every opportunity to show us at once whether he is a genius, a charlatan, or a congenital defective,—and get him off our minds.

In the end, Milford tells us, Cummings got his Guggenheim.

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