Mia takes on a poet who may be our sauciest featured writer yet.

Edna St. Vincent Millay – winner of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, to help you place her historically – is one of my favorite female poets. Actually, maybe she’s my only favorite female poet. Because I don’t read a lot of poetry. One of my hopes in working on this blog is to expand my poetic horizons, so I’d love suggestions from our readership on where to start – like, specific poems by specific writers. Consider today a learning experience.

We’ll kick it off with this saucy, feminist number by Millay – the woman knew how to work a sonnet and how to tell off an unworthy lover:

Oh, oh, you will be sorry for that word!
Give me back my book and take my kiss instead.
Was it my enemy or my friend I heard,
“What a big book for such a little head!”
Come, I will show you now my newest hat,
And you may watch me purse my mouth and prink!
Oh, I shall love you still, and all of that.
I never again shall tell you what I think.
I shall be sweet and crafty, soft and sly;
You will not catch me reading any more:
I shall be called a wife to pattern by;
And some day when you knock and push the door,
Some sane day, not too bright and not too stormy,
I shall be gone, and you may whistle for me.

Sauciness aside (though can we ever really put sauciness aside?), one aspect of Millay’s poetry I appreciate is her recognition of how, in real life, the mundane tends to envelop the dramatic. Her poems on death express this best. Like this sonnet:

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man—who happened to be you—
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

And this poem, titled, “Lament”:

Listen, children:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.

It’s these references to the trappings of daily life that makes Millay so accessible. And, while the sentiment is neither distinctly modern nor distinctly feminine, I think that this struggle between what one wants to do and what one ought to do is something that many modern women struggle with — smiling and putting on a dab of figurative or literal lipstick when all you really want to do is cry. This struggle is apparent in the following sonnet, though in a slightly different way. Here, Millay has trained herself to resist a lover’s beauty:

Thou art not lovelier than lilacs,—no,
Nor honeysuckle; thou art not more fair
Than small white single poppies,—I can bear
Thy beauty; though I bend before thee, though
From left to right, not knowing where to go,
I turn my troubled eyes, nor here nor there
Find any refuge from thee, yet I swear
So has it been with mist,—with moonlight so.

Like him who day by day unto his draught
Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
I drink—and live—what has destroyed some men.

But lest you think Millay was all measured emotion — and she really wasn’t — I’ll end on one of her most famous poems, “First Fig,” which is decidedly of the “it’s better to burn out than fade away” school of thought:

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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