Monday, March 30, 2015

Edna St. Vincent Millay was a complete badass

Shows you how much I know. I never felt much interest in Millay, not enough to investigate her or her work. But then I read in a NYTimes article that mentioned her husband took care of the domestic chores in their household, which intrigued me.

Like any garden-variety sexist I believed that Millay was merely some mid-20th century lady poet, whose work could easily be taught without fear of embarrassing the most Puritanical of high-school teachers.

Well Wikipedia set me straight:
  • The three (Millay) sisters were independent and spoke their minds, which did not always sit well with the authority figures in their lives. Millay's grade school principal, offended by her frank attitudes, refused to call her Vincent (as she wanted people to call her.) Instead, he called her by any woman's name that started with a V.
  • While at school, she had several relationships with women, including Edith Wynne Matthison, who would go on to become an actress in silent films.
  • While establishing her career as a poet, Millay initially worked with the Provincetown Players on Macdougal Street and the Theatre Guild. In 1924 Millay and others founded the Cherry Lane Theater "to continue the staging of experimental drama." Magazine articles under a pseudonym also helped support her early days in the village.
  • Millay was openly bisexual. Counted among her close friends were the writers Witter Bynner, Arthur Davison Ficke, and Susan Glaspell, as well as Floyd Dell and the critic Edmund Wilson, both of whom proposed marriage to her and were refused.
  • Millay’s fame began in 1912 when she entered her poem "Renascence" in a poetry contest in The Lyric Year. The poem was widely considered the best submission and when it was ultimately awarded fourth place, it created a scandal which brought Millay publicity. The first-place winner Orrick Johns was among those who felt that “Renascence” was the best poem, and stated that “the award was as much an embarrassment to me as a triumph." A second-prize winner offered Millay his $250 prize money.
  • In the immediate aftermath of the Lyric Year controversy, wealthy arts patron Caroline B. Dow heard Millay reciting her poetry and playing the piano at the Whitehall Inn in Camden, Maine, and was so impressed that she offered to pay for Millay’s education at Vassar College.
  • Her 1920 collection A Few Figs From Thistles drew controversy for its novel exploration of female sexuality and feminism. 
  • In 1919 she wrote the anti-war play Aria da Capo which starred her sister Norma Millay at the Provincetown Playhouse in New York City. 
  • Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923 for "The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver"; she was the third woman to win the poetry prize...
  • In 1923 she married 43-year-old Eugen Jan Boissevain, the widower of the labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland, a political icon Millay had met during her time at Vassar. A self-proclaimed feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities.
  • Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their twenty-six-year marriage. For Millay, a significant such relationship was with the poet George Dillon. She met Dillon at one of her readings at the University of Chicago in 1928 where he was a student. He was fourteen years her junior, and the relationship inspired the sonnets in the collection Fatal Interview.
Back when I was hot and heavy into writing sonnets I became interested in the work of Emily Dickinson (the epitome of the celibate lady poet in spite of her genius) and Walt Whitman (who contains multitudes) and of course the sonnets of William Shakespeare - but I completely missed Millay and her sonnets inspired by a younger man. So of course I immediately hunted them down. This is one of my favorites:

EVEN in the moment of our earliest kiss,
When sighed the straitened bud into the flower,
Sat the dry seed of most unwelcome this;
And that I knew, though not the day and hour.
Too season-wise am I, being country-bred,
To tilt at autumn or defy the frost:
Snuffing the chill even as my fathers did,
I say with them, "What's out tonight is lost."
I only hoped, with the mild hope of all
Who watch the leaf take shape upon the tree,
A fairer summer and a later fall
Than in these parts a man is apt to see,
And sunny clusters ripened for the wine:
I tell you this across the blackened vine.
Clearly this relationship was no smoother sailing than Shakespeare's with his Dark Lady, the muse of his greatest sonnets. 

I consider Millay's bisexuality to be part of her badassedness - it was not a thing easily owned in the early-mid 20th century. Will Geer, who played the grandfather on the TV show The Waltons, was another, married to a woman but sexually involved with legendary gay rights activist Harry Hay. And Geer was also a card-carrying member of the Communist party.

I often wish I could be a bisexual, and not just because it doubles your odds - it seems so much more sensible to desire people based on their personalities and "souls" than for something as mechanistic as genitalia and secondary sex characteristics. But for whatever reason I can't get my head around the idea of getting it on with another woman. I guess for me, in a non-specific sense, dick too bomb.