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  • Listening to Millay
  • Derek Furr (bio)

"Besides having beautiful hair, an extraordinary good forehead in spite of the freckles, an impudent, aggressive, & critical nose, and a mysterious mouth . . . I have, artistically & even technically, an unusually beautiful throat."

—Millay to family, Sept. 17, 1914, quoted in Milford, 117

In the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, presentation is perhaps not all, but it is supremely important. Throughout the 1920's and 30's, when Millay's fame was on the ascendancy, her poetry arrived in beautiful packaging: there was her tantalizing persona, at once cheeky gamine and brooding romantic; there were artfully-crafted editions of her poems, always featuring that most cultivated of lyric forms, the sonnet; and there was her voice, which her would-be lover Edmund Wilson described as the source of her authority with her audience. Traces of that voice remain in recordings that Millay made of her work, and in the notations of many of her listeners who tried to describe her sound and her style of reading.

Millay's voice was as familiar to her contemporaries as her "extraordinary good forehead" and "mysterious mouth." What role, therefore, should listening to Millay play in our current understanding of her persona and poetry? I will address this question by beginning to construct an audible Millay from the various remaining traces of her voice. I will consider Millay's references to the qualities of her voice and what she called her "throat," and I will analyze public reactions to her readings. This material will provide a rich context for the second part of the essay, in which I will analyze her reading style and the arrangement of poems on her recordings in order to demonstrate the critical differences between listening to Millay "then" versus "now." [End Page 94]

Voice as Artifact

As we shall see when we examine their letters, Millay's listeners assumed that the poet's voice embodied her poetry and her true self. This assumption is similar to that underlying the current compilation, Poetry Speaks, which suggests in its very title that poetry is embodied voice. That assumption was the subject of Derrida's deconstruction of voice-as-presence in Speech and Phenomena. The power of the voice, as Derrida describes it, originates in an illusion of unmediated presence. Having no "worldly form," the voice appears to issue from a true self, one that hears its own voice before speaking and is then heard by others. The voice or the spoken word, Derrida argues, appears to be the subject: "My words are 'alive' because they seem not to leave me: not to fall outside me, outside my breath, at a visible distance; not to cease to belong to me, to be at my disposition 'without further props'" (Derrida, 19). However, when words are imagined or spoken, there is movement through time, suggesting to Derrida that voice and "self-presence" are traces, on the same field of play as printed words or perceived objects.

The recorded voice is, of course, necessarily situated in time—the time of the recording and of the listening. If we accept Derrida's notion of voice, we might study the recorded voice much as we would a printed text, taking into consideration context and intertexts. When we listen to Millay, we hear her assumptions about what a poet and poem sound like, and we hear her audience, not only as ambient noise on a recording but also as instrumental in the development of her vocal quality and reading style.

Such close listening, in which the poet's voice is treated as situated, cultural artifact, has been a focus recently in Victorian period scholarship. Most of this work involves an effort to re-imagine ways of engaging Victorian poetry, especially in providing insight into metrical and generic variety. On the topic of recorded poetry, John Picker's study Victorian Soundscapes is most useful. Picker analyzes the late Victorian reception of recordings created for Edison's phonograph, especially recordings of poets reading from their work. He notes that, on the one hand, Edison's representatives and the poets that they recorded considered the recordings a form of embalming: as they understood it, their voices...


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