The New Woman of Her Day
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, The New Woman of Her Day. 100 years ago, in 1917, Edna St. Vincent Millay published her first book. Renascence and Other Poems it was called, and it was the start of a dizzying career. Millay was quite simply the most famous female poet in the first half of the 20th century, maybe even the most famous poet, period. In any case, a real star in American culture. To mark the occasion, the 100th anniversary of her first book, I’d like to replay a podcast we did with writer Kate Bolick. Bolick had written an essay about Millay for The Poetry Foundation, called “Working Girl”. It’s still up on our site. That essay later figured into her book, Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own. Here’s our conversation from 2013.
Curtis Fox: Kate, do you remember the first time that you read Edna St Vincent Millay, and what you thought of her poems?
Kate Bolick: I do, I remember coming across her in high school. Late middle school, early high school, around the time I was reading Emily Dickinson. I loved both of them.
Curtis Fox: Such different characters too.
Kate Bolick: They’re very different but they’re both very passionate writers, and they really captured my adolescent heart.
Curtis Fox: Was she formative in your …
Kate Bolick: You know it’s funny, at the time in middle school and high school I loved reading Edna. In college I started writing poetry myself, and taking it very seriously. I didn’t take her seriously then, I never read her. She was too popular. I didn’t take her seriously as a poet, and I never looked at her.
Curtis Fox: So what changed between that time in college and now? Because you’ve written a very positive piece about her, you really obviously like her poems and you like what her life says to you. What changed?
Kate Bolick: I find Edna to be a fascinating American figure, and a fascinating female figure in America. What she embodied at that moment in time and what accounted for her popularity was not only her talent as a poet, but also, she was pushing the boundaries of how women were allowed to think and talk about love. By doing that, she gave voice to a whole new range of emotion in a public way that women hadn’t been able to do before. She was massively important to the ways in which women think and talk about themselves.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, she had a huge cultural impact at the time. It’s kind of hard to see why from our point of view today, but maybe we’ll learn a little bit more about that now. You write that, it isn’t easy to think about Edna St Vincent Millay’s body of work without also thinking about her actual body. She was not shy about using her body and her famous beauty to her advantage. Tell us a little bit about that.
Kate Bolick: As I was writing the piece, I was struck by how much Edna looked like the beauty ideal of her time. She was small and kind of wraith like, and had masses of auburn waves and she would wear them in an Edwardian pile on her head. She looked very Romantic and fragile.
Curtis Fox: Sort of pre-Raphaelite or something.
Kate Bolick: Yeah, a funny thing about her is that she grew up in a tiny little town on the coast of Maine. Very poor, not sophisticated or glamorous at all. Didn’t have any contact with sophistication or glamor, but even so, the way she came to public attention was she wrote a poem called “Renascence” that was published in an anthology called The Lyric Year in 1912. When she was corresponding with the editor of the poetry contest after her submission she sent him a photograph of herself. (LAUGHING) She was canny. She knew that she was attractive, and she knew that it was a man on the other side of this correspondence she was having. She went on to do that a lot, when she was starting as a poet she would always enclose her portrait with her poems.
Curtis Fox: That is canny, I guess. Let me get you to read one of the poems you mention in your piece, it’s called “The Penitent”. But before you read it, is there anything that you think might be helpful to know about it so we can wrap our heads around it?
Kate Bolick: Yeah, “The Penitent” was first published in Poetry Magazine in June 1918 and then later collected in her book A Few Figs From Thistles which came out in 1922 and helped her win the Pulitzer in 1923. What I really like about this poem is that it’s a great example of her satirical flippant voice that she was so popular for at the time.
Curtis Fox: Go ahead and give it a read. Here’s “The Penitent” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
Kate Bolick: I had a little Sorrow,
Born of a little Sin,
I found a room all damp with gloom
And shut us all within;
And, "Little Sorrow, weep," said I,
"And, Little Sin, pray God to die,
And I upon the floor will lie
And think how bad I've been!"
Alas for pious planning —
It mattered not a whit!
As far as gloom went in that room,
The lamp might have been lit!
My Little Sorrow would not weep,
My Little Sin would go to sleep —
To save my soul I could not keep
My graceless mind on it!
So up I got in anger,
And took a book I had,
And put a ribbon on my hair
To please a passing lad.
And, "One thing there's no getting by —
I've been a wicked girl," said I;
"But if I can't be sorry, why,
I might as well be glad!"
Curtis Fox: Well, Edna St Vincent Millay! I’m glad you said it was satire, and I’m glad you caught the tone of it in your reading. I think a lot of people probably did read it more straight without as much additive on it. For example, “I had a little sorrow born of a little sin”, to me that suggests a baby. That’s the metaphor! That’s a pretty serious problem she’s got on her hands if that’s the case. But you’re right, she doesn’t really feel bad about what happened.
Kate Bolick: Exactly.
Curtis Fox: But what do you think the little sin was here?
Kate Bolick: Probably sex, right?
Curtis Fox: One would think. How do you think she was absorbed culturally. A poem like this, how do you think it came into the culture and how do you think it was received? Shocking?
Kate Bolick: She doesn’t seem to have shocked as far as I can tell. That’s what’s partly so interesting about the way she was received. She was writing her poems and expressing this attitude at the exact right time. If it was earlier, it would’ve been shocking. And later, it wouldn’t have mattered, so many people did it. But she was articulating a growing sentiment exactly as women were articulating it to themselves.
Curtis Fox: She was right on the cusp of the flapper era.
Kate Bolick: Exactly. So what she was saying was radical in that it hadn’t been said, but it wasn’t so radical that it was shocking people into think that … She wasn’t too much for culture. Part of that was because she was using traditional forms to write her poems, so she was very accessible and readable in that way. She was also traveling around a lot and reading her poems in auditoriums. Her physical presence had so much to do with how she was perceived. Not only that she was appealing to look at, but she just had on all accounts so much charisma, a real star power. So she’s this tiny little pale elfin kind of woman with a ton of presence and a very resonant theatrical voice too that she used. I think that whole package made her very easy to swallow.
Curtis Fox: Let’s hear another poem. There’s one poem that she published in 1922 called “Four Sonnets”, and we’re not going to hear all four of them, I think they stand alone. Is there anything you want to say about this one before —
Kate Bolick: I just wanted to say that these sonnets appeared in her book A Few Figs From Thistles which came out 1922. I didn’t know what that phrase meant, figs from thistles. Did you?
Curtis Fox: No, I don’t.
Kate Bolick: So I looked it up, and it’s a passage from the New Testament, where Matthew is warning against false prophets. So I’ll read that, it’s Mattew 7:16. “Eeware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” So “figs from thistles”, she’s turning it on it’s head and she’s saying, I’m a bad seed.
Curtis Fox: That’s a subtle reference.
Kate Bolick: Yeah. So I’m reading the third sonnet in this series.
Curtis Fox: And it’s about fickleness.
Kate Bolick: Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love's self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger's rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you — think not but I would! —
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.
Curtis Fox: That’s a pretty good sonnet. That really works all the way through. And it’s saying something so unusual for a woman at the time, I think, to be saying.
Kate Bolick: I think even now, really.
Curtis Fox: Even now. Women aren’t supposed to harbor thoughts like this.
Kate Bolick: And in a way, men aren’t either. We all long for and believe in love’s permanence, so this kind of inconstancy that she’s praising is unusual.
Curtis Fox: In the very beginning of the poem, she’s setting herself up as basically opposed to marriage. She says “Oh think not I am faithful to a vow”, she’s saying I’m not going to take marriage seriously. “Faithless I am save to love’s self alone” so the higher value for her is not the person but it’s love itself. “Were you not lovely I would leave you now”, that’s funny because … I don’t know if she’s talking to a woman or a man, it’s not clear in the poem, but basically if you’re not good looking I would leave you right now. That’s a very bald thing to say, don’t you think?
Kate Bolick:(LAUGHING) Yes.
Curtis Fox: “Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food”, she’s saying you satisfy me sexually. “And water ever to my wildest thirst, / I would desert you - think not but I would! - And seek another as I sought you first.” So that’s the problem. She’s saying basically, I’m here for the time that you entertain me sexually.
Kate Bolick: Yeah, it’s more than that though. She’s saying that she’s in it for passion, and that when she’s there she’s feeling really passionate for you, and she’ll leave the second she doesn’t any longer.
Curtis Fox: That would be a hard person to be around.
Kate Bolick: Yeah.
Curtis Fox: But she was very attractive (LAUGHING). So that’s the first eight lines of the sonnet, and then the sonnet turns. What does she do in that second half, the “you” becomes more prominent.
Kate Bolick: She’s saying that he’s not constant. He’s as faithless as she is.
Curtis Fox: He’s like she is. We’re assuming it’s a he, but who knows.
Kate Bolick: That’s true, she was bisexual.
Curtis Fox: “And all your charms more changeful than the tide, / Wherefore to be inconstant is no care: / I have but to continue at your side.” So there’s a partnership here … In fickleness, or in devotion to passion as you say, in strong feeling. That’s a risky posture to take in life, that you must feel strongly and intensely at all times. I would think that would cause a person to run through many different relationships.
Kate Bolick: Which she did, yeah.
Curtis Fox: Which she did. If a man wrote this poem, do you think we would receive it differently?
Kate Bolick: I don’t think we would like it if a man wrote it.
Curtis Fox: Why do you suppose?
Kate Bolick: Because I think it speaks to a kind of heartlessness, or a player attitude that we don’t actually like in man.
Curtis Fox: Yeah, if a man wrote it we would think, what a dick.
Kate Bolick:(LAUGHING) Right, and a woman we’re like yeah, go girl.
Curtis Fox:(LAUGHING) There’s a double standard at work here. But nonetheless, she’s someone that went on to actually get married.
Kate Bolick: She did, and I tend to think it’s just because she couldn’t keep burning so hot, the way that she was living. She had money problems. Mostly I think it was exhausting. She met Eugene, and he was compelling and she felt safe with him. He was a feminist, he didn’t want to cramp her style and that really helped. That was the kind of man she could commit to.
Curtis Fox: And allowed her to have affairs, and encouraged affairs. Very unconventional fellow, unconventional marriage. There’s one more sonnet you wanted to read that was written much later in life in the 1930s. Tell us about this one.
Kate Bolick: So the reason I wanted to read this one is to speak to her unconventional marriage, and the fact that her longest most important relationship was with George Dylan, who was for a time the editor of Poetry Magazine.
Curtis Fox: Those editors of poetry, they’re crazy.
Kate Bolick:(LAUGHING) So she had met him in the fall of 1928 while she was in Chicago on a promotional tour for her collection, The Buck in the Snow. She was introduced to this young guy, George Dylan, he was only 22 and his first book of poems had just come out the year before. He was an associate editor at Poetry Magazine, it would be ten years later he would succeed Harriette Monroe. Millay’s biographer, Nancy Mitford, describes George Dylan as a modern Apollo, “tall and slim with black wavy hair carefully brushed back from his face” is what she writes. They became lovers immediately. A lot of passionate letters go back and forth. There’s one quoted in the biography, it’s Edna writing to George saying “Darling, I don’t know what kind of depressed, drunken, insane letter I wrote you, but I can well imagine because I haven’t heard from you, I haven’t heard from you at all”. (LAUGHING) But it was a hugely productive relationship for both of them. She wrote a ton of sonnets in the year 1929 alone, to both Eugene her husband and George Dylan. So the one I’m reading right now, it’s a collection of three sonnets so I’ll just read the first one. It was published in Poetry Magazine in October of 1930. It’s more or less saying that if George were to ever leave her, she’d be perfectly fine for having been loved by him to begin with.
Women have loved before as I love now;
At least, in lively chronicles of the past—
Of Irish waters by a Cornish prow
Or Trojan waters by a Spartan mast
Much to their cost invaded—here and there,
Hunting the amorous line, skimming the rest,
I find some woman bearing as I bear
Love like a burning city in the breast.
I think however that of all alive
I only in such utter, ancient way
Do suffer love; in me alone survive
The unregenerate passions of a day
When treacherous queens, with death upon the tread,
Heedless and willful, took their knights to bed.
Kate Bolick:(LAUGHING) And I love that for, she’s just crazy for George Dylan and it’s like, what’s done is done, I’m going to do it and it’s killing me.
Curtis Fox: There’s that one line in there, “She suffers love” … What exactly does it say? I don’t have it in front of me.
Kate Bolick: “I think however that of all alive / I only in such utter, ancient way / Do suffer love;”. Because that’s how we all feel, when we’re suffering love; nobody has suffered the way I am suffering.
Curtis Fox: What’s the difference in tone that you sense between that poem later in life than the ones we just heard earlier.
Kate Bolick: This poem to me, there’s a lot of vulnerability to it that we don’t hear in her early poems, which are about her being indifferent —
Curtis Fox: And cocky.
Kate Bolick: Yeah, cocky. Now she’s saying, you’ve conquered my fortress.
Curtis Fox: What does she say to women today that nobody else says? Or is her moment passed? Did she have a cultural moment way back in the 20s and 30s, and expressed a moment very well and created a moment in her poetry, has that passed? Is there still something valid in her emotional landscape today?
Kate Bolick: There is. What I see valuable in her is in her commitment to passion she was also being committed to high emotion. I think that today, a lot of our talk about sexual freedom is about removing sex from emotion and trying to mimic a so-called male mentality, love them and leave them. Granted, she was saying love them then leave them, but she really loved when she loved. It wasn’t just a physical thing.
Curtis Fox: There was nothing cool about her.
Kate Bolick: Exactly, exactly. She was such a big deal in her time for being unconventional, but now she reads as … there’s something really naive and innocent about her, which is really refreshing.
Curtis Fox: Kate, thanks so much.
Kate Bolick: Thank you.
Curtis Fox: That was Kate Bolick, from a conversation we had in 2013. Her essay is called “Working Girl”, you can find it on our website where you can also find other essays about Edna St Vincent Millay as well as lots of poem by her. We love getting emails with your comments and suggestions. We do read them, though it sometimes takes us a while to respond. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please leave a review in Apple podcasts and link to the podcast on social media. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.