CAMDEN, Maine — One hundred years ago at the close of the midcoast Maine’s 1912 summer tourist season, Caroline B. Dow of New York City “discovered” Edna St. Vincent Millay reading her long poem “Renascence” during a staff party at the Whitehall Inn in Camden. That discovery led to Dow’s becoming Millay’s patron, enabling the aspiring young poet to attend Vassar College and introducing her to the literati of New York City.
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, August 29, the date of that historic discovery, a group of well-known poets from across Maine will read at the Inn to celebrate the event’s 100th anniversary.
The historic reading is the high point of a summer-long Millay Anniversary Celebration, which will bring together former Maine poet laureate Betsy Sholl, former Portland poet laureate Martin Steingesser, and current and former Rockland poets laureate Carol Bachofner and Kendall Merriam.
Also featured are poets Gary Lawless, Kristen Lindquist, and Elizabeth Tibbetts, who all grew up on the midcoast, Patricia Ranzoni of Bucksport, and Ellen Taylor of Appleton.
The youngest poet reading is Jason Canniff, the 2011 winner of the Frank and Helene Crohn Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize given to a Maine native and master’s candidate at the University of Maine at Orono. Canniff, originally from midcoast Maine, is poetry editor for “The Stolen Island Review,” the graduate literary magazine at UMaine.
All 10 poets in the gala event will begin by reading a favorite Millay poem followed by several poems of their own. The poets’ latest books will also be on sale before and after the reading.
Host Kathleen Ellis will kick off the event by reading a 1953 letter from the poet’s sister Norma, recalling the events of August 29, 1912. Norma, who worked at the Whitehall Inn as a waitress, had to plead with her sister Vincent to convince her to attend the staff party, where they both sang, danced, and won prizes for best costume and dancer.
Millay, who later became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, was born in Rockland in 1892. Her mother, an itinerant nurse and hairdresser, had also been an actress and musician, and she made certain her three daughters had piano lessons and an extensive home library.
Even so, Vincent Millay’s prospects of attending college or escaping the smalltown life of midcoast Maine after high school were very slim due to the family’s financial straits.
If not for this extraordinary “discovery” on August 29, 1912 of the talented and ambitious young poet from Camden, Maine, it is likely the world may never have known the second of what British writer Thomas Hardy called America’s two great attractions: “skyscrapers and Edna St. Vincent Millay.”
The Millay gala reading is free, and for more information or to make a dinner reservation before the concert at Vincent’s, the Inn’s dining room which opens at 5 p.m., call the Whitehall Inn at 236-3391.
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