Happy Birthday Edna St. Vincent Mallay

backgroundEdna St. Vincent Mallay, who brought us the candle burning at both ends, was born on February 22nd 1892, a woman before her time. Enchanting, bold, and brilliant, her poetry was described by Thomas Hardy as one of America’s two greatest attractions –  the other was the skyscraper.

In the biography, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Mallay, Nancy Milford describes E. Vincent as the herald of the New Woman:

She smoked in public when it was against the law for women to do so. She lived in Greenwich Village during the halcyon days of that starry bohemia, she slept with men and women and wrote about it in lyrics and sonnets that blazed with wit and a sexual daring that captivated the nation.

Poring over thousands of papers and letters, and with the cooperation of E. Vincent’s sister, Norma, biographer Nancy Milford learns how this ‘New Woman” evolved. It was her mother, Cora, who urged Edna and her two sisters towards a fierce and unconventional independence, having asked their father to leave the family home in 1899. It was Cora who taught her daughters to love music and literature from an early age. In Edna’s scrapbooks, are preserved performance programs, photographs, and early writings of the first woman poet to win the Pulitzer. Empowered by a devoted mother, Edna was performing and writing when she was just five years old.

When I think of all that I wish for my own daughter and that which my mother still hopes for me, I like to believe a little of Cora Mallay’s tenacity resides in me. Resolute and uncompromising, her mother, Norma exclaims:

 . . . was not like anyone else’s mother. Yes. She was ambitious for us. Of course she was! She made us – oh, not ordinary!

We all want to be “not ordinary,” to matter while making our respective marks on the world.

As the sun resumed its predictable shimmer following a rare wintry rain in Phoenixtoday, I looked up and through the trees that line a downtown parking lot, and I  thought of Edna St. Vincent Mallay, whose childhood pulsated with her love of nature, poetry, and music. Of those formative years, she would later recall, “it never rained in those days” . . .

City Trees

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The trees along this city street,
Save for the traffic and the trains,
Would make a sound as thin and sweet
As trees in country lanes.

And people standing in their shade
Out of a shower, undoubtedly
Would hear such music as is made
Upon a country tree.

Oh, little leaves that are so dumb
Against the shrieking city air,
I watch you when the wind has come,—
I know what sound is there.

EDNA ST. VINCENT MALLAY

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