Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The last of the rock star poets, and my hero. She was the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize. Millay was one of the last of the formalists, who wrote in rhyme and meter. Some of her earliest poems date from around 1917, a time when women still did not have the right to vote in the United States.

The women’s movement of the late 1800s had made some gains for women; a certain class of young, professional women worked outside the home–at least until marriage. Even as late as the 1960s, it was generally expected that women who married would give up their public, professional lives in favor of the more “feminine”, interior duties of wifeing and mothering. The tailored look of the Gibson Girl, with her buttoned-up shirtwaists, long skirts, and corsets, might appear oppressive to modern women who gladly don all manner of jeans, pantsuits, miniskirts, and other clothing that allow great freedom of movement. For the time, however, the look was considered forward-thinking and, among certain circles, even radical and “unsexing.”

In this pre-flapper era, Millay pushed ahead of all social conventions. She was an unabashed bisexual and carried on affairs with men and women in Greenwich Village. She had at least one threesome. She also went to my school, Vassar College, where she chafed at the rules and fucked had affairs with lots of women. She went by Vincent.

There’s a legend that she once tried to jump off the top of Jewett, which at nine (or is it seven? Fifteen years plays hell on the memory) stories is the tallest building on campus, and that that’s why they have enclosed the tallest fire escapes in metal cages. I have no idea how true this is.

Nor do I know how true this story is, but I still like telling it:

Once at a party during her wild and crazy Greenwich Village days, she complained of headaches. In response, some amateur analyst asked her, “Have you considered the possibility that you might be attracted to women?”

She replied, “Of course I’m attracted to women. And to men too. But what does that have to do with my headaches?”

Alas, Vincent never learned about Alcoholics Anonymous. After her husband died, she descended deeper and deeper into addiction to alcohol and morphine. She died in 1950 at her home, Steepletop, in upstate New York.

Her most often-quoted poem:

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

— First Fig, from A Few Figs From Thistles

Three Songs of Shattering

I.
The first rose on my rose-tree
Budded, bloomed, and shattered
During sad days when to me
Nothing mattered.

Grief of grief has drained me clean;
Still it seems a pity
No one saw,–it must have been
Very pretty.

II.
Let the little birds sing;
Let the little lambs play;
Spring is here; and so ’tis spring–
But not in the old way!

I recall a place
Where a plum-tree grew;
There you lifted up your face,
And blossoms covered you.

If the little birds sing,
And the little lambs play,
Spring is here; and so ’tis spring–
But not in the old way!

III.
All the dog-wood blossoms are underneath the tree!
Ere spring was going–ah, spring is gone!
And there comes no summer to the like of you and me,–
Blossom time is early, but no fruit sets on.

All the dog-wood blossoms are underneath the tree,
Browned at the edges, turned in a day;
And I would with all my heart they trimmed a mound for me,
And weeds were tall on all the paths that led that way!

“Renascence” was the poem that brought her her first fame and an education at Vassar — she was not a woman of means.

I screamed, and–lo!–Infinity
Came down and settled over me;
Forced back the scream into my chest;
Bent back my arm upon my breast;
And, pressing of the Undefined
The definition on my mind,
Held up before my eyes a glass
Through which my shrinking sight did pass
Until it seemed I must behold
Immensity made manifold;
Whispered to me a word whose sounds
Deafened the air for worlds around,
And brought unmuffled to my ears
The gossiping of friendly spheres,
The creaking of the tented sky,
The ticking of Eternity.

–From “Renascence,” fourth stanza

All excerpts from Edna St. Vincent Millay: Collected Lyrics. Harper & Row. New York: 1981.

4 Replies to “Happy Birthday, Edna St. Vincent Millay”

  1. Hee. Conventional taste in experimental poetry. My tastes in literature are catholic and have more to do with the content and the individual author’s use of language than with the form.
    I do, however, tend to prefer spare, clean language. And I have a great deal of admiration for poetry where the words point all the wrong way but still have a meaning. Ron Silliman describes this kind of meaning as “transrational”:

    Making sense is not one of the critical requirements of verse – indeed it far too often just gets in the way of a much more direct treatment of our feelings & sensations. In the name of Ezra Pound’s only dicta for how to write, “direct treatment of the thing” is very often the exact opposite of treating it objectively.

    This is how I described it while chatting with a poet friend:

    me:  I was partly thinking about leaving things jagged
         making the reader work to participate
    him: right
     me: plus
         that thing that poetry does
         reaching in to the truth of the matter
         with the words all pointing the wrong way
    him: huh, interesting
         what do you mean, pointing the wrong way?
    me:  they don't make natural sense
         but they make sense
         they point the wrong way and you still find your way through
         into the thing underneath
         where that other truth is
    him: interesting way to look at it - the wrong way. i hadn't thought
         of it like that.
     me: I aim to be interesting
    him: i think of it more like, not the wrong way or not making "natural
         sense", but more like... they're the right words, you just need
         to figure out what they're saying
         which can be different from person to person, sometimes.
    
  2. Reading your poetry and your commentary on poetry often makes me wish I understood poetry better. 🙂 (I’m much more of a prose/dramatic literature girl.)
    She sounds like a good hero to have.

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