UMaine to offer Millay Prize to help poetry, English grad students

Posted Feb. 28, 2010, at 6:27 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of America’s best-known Modernist poets, but the fame of the Rockland-born woman may not have come to pass without the help of a New York woman who offered to fund Millay’s education at Vassar College.

In the week of what would have been Pulitzer Prize-winning Millay’s 118th birthday, the University of Maine announced a program it hopes will support a student in the future in a similar way.

The university announced Wednesday the creation of the Frank and Helene Crohn Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize established by the Crohns, of Rhinebeck, N.Y., through a $300,000 gift held at the University of Maine Foundation.

The Millay Prize will be open to UMaine graduate students pursuing English or poetry studies, and the winners will receive $1,500 with an invitation to read from their winning submissions at a special event, the first of which is planned for this fall.

As earnings from the endowment grow, the prize could reach $15,000 annually, said UMaine professor Steve Evans, who co-directs the UMaine-based National Poetry Foundation.

Students interested in applying — there are 12 graduate students in the UMaine creative writing or poetry and poetics programs — will submit an 18- to 24-page manuscript to be reviewed by a nationally renowed judge who will decide the winner.

The judge has not yet been determined, Evans added.

Evans said the prize will not only reinforce graduate education but should also serve as a recruiting tool for UMaine.

“Our applicants tend to be competitive and we’re always happy when we land them, but the Millay Prize will give us a little bit of an edge in terms of getting them here,” he said. “If students are serious about poetry we can reward that and make their time here a little easier.”

For the Crohns, however, the award is a way to help keep Millay’s legacy alive.

Frank Crohn became interested in Millay at an early age because of his mother’s love of Millay’s poetry, according to a news release last week announcing the prize. In later years, Crohn became an avid collector of the works of 19th and 20th century novelists and poets.

It was at a 1980 book dealers event at Steepletop, Millay’s beloved home in the Berkshires, that Crohn became interested in the Millay Society. He has been a member of the society for several years and has been an active member of the board of trustees for the past 10 years.

The Crohns, who have connections to Maine through business interests and their support of the university’s Lobster Institute, intend that the recipient of the Millay Prize always be a UMaine graduate student.

“Edna St. Vincent Millay died in 1950, but her work is still alive today,” Frank Crohn said in a statement. “As a young woman, Millay was part of a group of poets who were leaders in the literary movement of the time. It is our wish to have the next generation know Millay and the importance of her work, which is still very relevant today.”

Evans said Caroline B. Dow, who was the executive director of the YWCA’s national training school of New York, funded Millay’s education at prestigious Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., after hearing the young poet reading her work “Renascence” in Rockland. Millay, who was raised by a single mother, went to high school in Camden.

Millay attended Vassar from 1913 to 1917, where she blossomed, despite some run-ins with the school administration.

“She was a famously unruly student and the president of Vassar got to know her very well because he was constantly having to discipline her,” Evans said with a laugh. “But that was the cool thing about Millay. She was a really unruly spirit. It is kind of an archetypically poetic soul she had.”

However, Evans said, Millay’s years at Vassar led to her move to the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, which at the time — and still — was an artistic center. Millay won the Pulitzer, the first female poet to do so, in 1923.

“I really don’t think without that intermediate step [of Dow’s support] she would have found that,” Evans said. “That’s kind of what we’re hoping to echo, to confer recognition at an important moment in a young writer’s career and help them along that way.”

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