Essential Poets: Edna St. Vincent Millay

As the first in a new series, Taylor Jablonowski takes a look at an essential poet who deserves your attention: Edna St. Vincent Millay.


Pour yourself a cup of organic coffee, light up your hand-rolled cigarette (because drugs are bad, mmkay?) and put on those reading glasses you don’t actually need–I’m here to give you a decent sampling of poets and a half-ass history lesson.

In celebration  my fancy title of “Head of Poetry” for  Cultured Vultures, my first bunch of poets are all going to be from the good ol’ U S of A. They might be responsible for McDonalds and reality televison but they’ve got some bloody great writers!

The first in this series is my favorite bisexual of all time.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Born 1892

The first Millay poem I read was “Love is Not All” in my junior year of high school, and I fell in love with the last few lines:

…I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

I don’t quite identify with it as much now that I’m no longer a seventeen-year-old hopeless romantic, but Millay was the first poet I ever enjoyed reading. She’s perfect for someone looking to explore because the majority of her poetry is straight-forward and relies more on deliberate word choice than being clouded in metaphors. Plus, she’s pretty sassy:

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn wtih pity, — let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

In case you don’t speak poetry quite yet, she’s saying: “Thanks for the hook-up, but I’m just not in to you.” Not shocking in this era, but in the 1920’s female sexuality was taboo, and not only was Millay writing about sex outside of marriage, but about her love of women as well (i.e in “Witch Wife”: “…she was not made for any man/and she will never be all mine“).

And I think we can all appreciate a little girly action.

If you’re in need of a spirit animal, Edna is the perfect one because:

1) As a kid, she tried to make her school teacher call her “Vincent”, like her family did. Instead, he’d call her random women’s names that started with “V”. She ignored the shit out of him.

2) Her career started when she entered her poem “Renascence” in a 1912 poetry contest. It was considered by the other poets to be the best poem submitted, but the magazine awarded her fourth place. The second place winner gave her his $250, she made a bunch of poet friends and got her college education paid for.

3) She had the coolest husband ever: Eugen Jan Boissevain, who was a self-proclaimed feminist and took care of the domestic duties so that Millay could focus on her writing. They also had an open relationship and she banged a bunch of younger guys. Pretty sweet.

Later in her life, she lost some popularity when WWII started and she pointed out that the United States probably shouldn’t get involved in the bomb-orgy, but her poems stayed pretty solid and her anthology is worth reading multiple times.

If you’ve been thinking that her name rings a bell, you’ve probably heard First Fig”. It’s one of my favorite poems, so meditate on its brilliant simplicity until next week:

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!

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