Today is Edna St. Vincent Millay's birthday. I know, nothing for the world in general to stop and notice, but interesting to me since, if someone asked me who my early writerly influences were, Millay would be one of them. In case you haven't a clue of who I'm talking about, here's a snippet from my Writer's Almanac email:
Born in Rockland, Maine (1892). Her mother couldn't afford to send her to college, but when she was 19, she entered a poem called "Renascence" in a poetry contest hoping to win the large cash prize. One of the judges was so impressed that he started a correspondence with her, fell in love, and nearly divorced his wife. Her poem didn't win first prize, but when she recited it at a public reading in Camden, Maine, a woman in the audience offered to pay for her to go to Vassar College, and Millay accepted.
At Vassar, she was the most notorious girl on campus, famous for both her poetry and her habit of breaking rules. Vassar's president, Henry Noble McCracken, once wrote to her, "You couldn't break any rule that would make me vote for your expulsion. I don't want a banished Shelley on my doorstep." She wrote back, "Well, on those terms I think I can continue to live in this hellhole."
She had red hair and green eyes and people had often stopped and stared at her on the street, she was so beautiful. When Millay moved to Greenwich Village after college, most of the men in the literary scene fell in love with her.
Millay wrote poems about bohemian parties and free love in her collection A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), and she became one of the icons of the Jazz Age. When she gave readings of her poetry, she drew huge crowds of adoring fans, more like a rock star than a poet. One man who saw Millay perform her own work said, "The slender red-haired, gold-eyed Vincent Millay, dressed in a black-trimmed gown of purple silk, was now reading from a tooled leather portfolio, now reciting without aid of book or print, despite her broom-splint legs and muscles twitching in her throat and in her thin arms, in a voice that enchanted."
In eleventh grade, just as I was surfacing from a really bad dive (read: an entire term of sluffing school and crying over one particular boy), my English teacher, Mrs. Simmons, assigned us a project to research a poet from our battered class anthology. No one else picked Millay (I think it's that unfortunate first name), so being my prickly self, I went against the grain and researched her.
For the project, we had to learn about the poet's life, choose one poem to share with the class and create one poster to explain the poem. (I cheated a little bit on that poster, by the way. I had zero art skills, so my friend Jennifer---who was fairly artistically talented---drew the poster under my instruction, and I colored it in with colored pencils. Am I writing this in my blog because I still feel guilty about it?)
I was in the middle of my rebellious phase. Anyone slightly rebellious appealed to me, so Edna, with her heart breaking and her affairs, her rule-breaking---both in the civil sense and in a literary one---appealed to me. Plus, I never met a redhead I didn't like. During that research project, I wanted to be Edna St. Vincent Millay when I grew up.
The poem I chose was "Well, I Have Lost You." I even memorized it for extra credit. I picked this one because the persona is so stoic. She wasn't prone to fits of desperation over losing someone she loved, and honestly: that was the first sane voice I'd heard in relation to being in love. Contrast it to the typical advice you receive from your friends when you're 17 and you'll start to see what I mean. Plus, the concept of someone losing someone else with their full consent was foreign enough to make me stop and think that every seemingly-tragic, seemingly-out-of-my-control experience might just be controllable.
Well, I Have Lost You
Well, I have lost you; and I lost you fairly;
In my own way, and with my full consent.
Say what you will, kings in a tumbrel rarely
Went to their deaths more proud than this one went.
Some nights of apprehension and hot weeping
I will confess; but that's permitted me;
Day dried my eyes; I was not one for keeping
Rubbed in a cage a wing that would be free.
If I had loved you less or played you slyly
I might have held you for a summer more,
But at the cost of words I value highly,
And no such summer as the one before.
Should I outlive this anguish—and men do—
I shall have only good to say of you.
Reading it now, much of Millay's poetry seems archaic. But I value it, still, for what it taught me. Here was real writing by a real woman who wasn't afraid to be herself. This was the first time in my life that literature reached down and turned me around the right way. Not the last time---I hope there won't be a "last time" for a long, long time. But you always remember the first.