CAMDEN, Maine — Edna St. Vincent Millay, the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, was one of the most infamous residents of this bucolic town by the sea.
Her parents divorced, shockingly, in 1900; she and her sisters were known for their wild escapades while growing up; and when she came of age as an artist she had an unconventional lifestyle — complete with love affairs with both men and women.
That’s the stuff of local legend.
So historian Barbara Dyer was unpleasantly surprised when a woman working at a Camden coffee shop had no idea who Edna St. Vincent Millay was.
“She is one of the most famous poets in the world,” Dyer said, “and there are some people who have not heard of her.”
Dyer, 84, decided to resurrect the tradition of holding a birthday party for Millay. About 50 people came to the Camden Public Library on Sunday to celebrate her 117th with chocolate cake, balloons and a recitation of one of Millay’s most famous poems, “Renascence.”
The poem is known by generations of Maine students as the one that begins “All I could see from where I stood / was three long mountains and a wood,” and then quickly morphs into a meditation on mortality. It’s long and complicated and lyrical, and Millay wrote it when she was just a teenager who enjoyed scrambling to the top of Mount Battie, Dyer told the crowd.
“She was an unusual girl,” Dyer said. “She rushed impulsively into the world, as if to make her mark, and she did make her mark.”
While Millay’s mother, Cora, struggled to make a living for herself and her daughters, the family had an abundance of creativity to match a scarcity of money — and rules.
“Her mother told the girls they could leave the dishes in the sink and the beds unmade, as long as they were reading literature and playing music,” Dyer said. “Some people said they used one side of the plate until it got dirty and then turned it over to use the other side. But there’s a lot of stories in Camden and I’m not sure about that one.”
Dyer focused her own stories on Millay’s early life in Camden, and encouraged the audience members to look at a bookcase full of photos and mementos from the poet’s time here, including her high school graduation program and a photograph of her bloomer-clad basketball team.
Some people had their own Millay stories to share, like Christine Buzzelle of Portland, who is related to Millay on her mother’s side.
“I’ve just always been fascinated by her,” Buzzelle said. “She was a wild and crazy woman.”