by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!
Attentive readers will know that I am a long-time Millay fan - hence the title of this blog - and, were I willing, I could post a poem of hers that I love every day for basically forever. She comes from that wonderful era where poetry was thought of as song, and clarity of expression was actually valued. Wild Swans is a poem that grabs you by the throat.
The poem is devoid of regular metrical structure, but still
manages to evoke a rhythmic feel through judicious use of
sound-repetition. "Wild swans went" repeats the "w" sound; "see" mirrors "seen", "flight" mirrors "flying", and so on. The "o" sound in "House without air, I leave you and lock your door" rolls on through the latter half of the poem. Wild Swans'
rhyme structure is interesting, as well: abbccbac. It echoes within
itself, if you will permit me some unclear phrasing. Rhymes a and b -
"over" and "before" - are similar enough to blend each line into the
next, like a song or chant.
The poet emerges from her house and sees a flock of wild swans in the sky, honking. In the fine tradition of all poetry ever, she looks "in her heart", setting the reader up for a traditional swan-inspired sonnet: "I saw the wild swans, and thought about my love/freedom/whatever for ten lines in iambic pentameter". The work of writing poetry is fundamentally narcissistic, a process of peeling away layers of the self - to say nothing of the absurd self-confidence needed to actually believe your poetry is worth reading.
In the next line, Millay blows this to bits. "What did I see", she asks, "I had not seen before?" Certainly there's nothing in her heart that compares to the pure sensory experience of wild birds flying overhead. This is not a poem of introspection; rather, this is a poem about the limits of introspection. Endless self-interrogation, Millay writes, is suffocating, "tiresome". Hearts live and die and live again, blossom with pointless questions. She leaves introspection behind and calls out to the wild swans: "come over the town again, trailing your legs and crying!" She wants experience, she cries out, something visceral and wordless.
And yes, there's irony. When she yearns for the wordless, she cries out in words - in an eight-line poem that is meticulously crafted. She's a poet. What else can she do?