Culling the Poetry Classics: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Happy Valentine's Day! I've got quite the treat for all you hopeless romantics out there. Hopefully you weren't too discouraged by the rough start this column got off to last month with the über-New Englander Robert Frost. I've got another American for you—and another New Englander, actually—but a woman this time, one who was obsessed with love in all its many forms and facets. Does she survive the culling, though?

The Poet

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950); American; born in Rockland, Maine. One of the most celebrated American poets, both here and abroad. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize (the year before Robert Frost, as a matter of fact) and the Frost Medal. Applauded for her brazen exploration of female sexuality in her poems, among other progressive political and ideological stances for her time. Died in Austerlitz, New York, of a fall down a flight of stairs (likely caused by a heart attack) at the age of 58.

The Books

Millay was prolific from a very young age—her poems began to see publication in her early teens—and she published a steady stream of collections beginning in her mid-20s. The volume I read was Collected Poems: Edna St. Vincent Millay (Harper, 1956), which was first put together by Edna's younger sister and literary executor Norma Millay shortly after the poet's death. One interesting feature of this collection is that it segregates all of Edna's sonnets, placing them at the back of the book, which is where they were usually found within the original collections. Disregarding this publication quirk, the volume includes the following, in order of presentation:

Do you make anonymous death and/or rape threats to feminists? Do you have a small penis and not know how to use it? Edna St. Vincent Millay ≠ perfect for you.
  • Renascence (M. Kennerly, 1917), Goodreads rating of 4.24, personal rating of 4;
  • Second April (M. Kennerly, 1921), Goodreads rating of 4.28, personal rating of 4;
  • A Few Figs from Thistles (F. Shay, 1920; expanded edition published 1921), Goodreads rating of 4.16, personal rating of 4;
  • The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (F. Shay, 1922 [as The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver]; republished 1923), Goodreads rating of 4.27, personal rating of 4;*
  • The Buck in the Snow (Harper, 1928), Goodreads rating of 4.16, personal rating of 4;
  • Poems Selected for Young People (Harper, 1951);**
  • Wine from These Grapes (Harper, 1934), Goodreads rating of 4.19, personal rating of 4;
  • Huntsman, What Quarry? (Harper, 1939), Goodreads rating of 4.04, personal rating N/A;
  • Make Bright the Arrows (Harper, 1940), Goodreads rating of 3.53, personal rating N/A;
  • Mine the Harvest (Harper, 1954), Goodreads rating of 3.72, personal rating N/A;
  • Fatal Interview (Harper, 1931), Goodreads rating of 4.57, personal rating of 3.

*denotes Pulitzer Prize winner
**I couldn't find much information on this title, and only seven poems from it were included in the volume, so I assume that it was some kind of book of selected poems that happened to include a handful of new works.

The Highlights

As is true with any poet, several of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems are much better/more recognizable/more accessible than the rest. I've picked out a few of the best:

You'll Love Her

Have you ever been in love? Have you ever wanted to be in love? Are you in love now? Were you recently in love, but more recently jilted? Have you ever felt love that is fleeting? Painful? Hilarious? Depressing? A waste of time? Have you ever planned to love someone temporarily? Are you very openly bisexual in a time when such things are frowned upon? Would you consider yourself to now or at any point in your past and/or future be guilty of taking "a string of lovers"? Do you like nature and New England but hate Robert Frost? Do you like sonnets but hate Robert Frost? Do you like American poetry of the early 20th century but hate Robert Frost? Do you hate Robert Frost? Edna St. Vincent Millay = perfect for you.

You'll Loathe Her

Do you hold tightly to the patriarchy because you are scared to death of what female empowerment would do to your fragile psyche? Do you make anonymous death and/or rape threats to feminists? Do you have a small penis and not know how to use it? Edna St. Vincent Millay ≠ perfect for you.

Read It or Leave It

I had (and am in fact still having) a great time with Edna. As you can see from a brief scan of those Goodreads numbers, ESVM's collections are mostly very well received by readers, and I am no exception. Whereas some poets lean heavily towards the "depressed because of life" end of the sadness spectrum, she's a fan favorite among the "depressed because of love" crowd. Her poems are dark and witty and passionate and snarky and, above all else, bold. Edna did not give one single fuck. She wrote "Renascence" when she was a teenager. She often called out her friends and other poets for their terrible love advice. She wrote about depression, suicide, and death in very matter-of-fact terms, often jokingly, but in such a way that the joke became how anyone took life seriously at all knowing that it was guaranteed to end someday. My favorite of her poems, "Lament," is hilarious, but in a way that makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry.

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.

"Listen, children: your father is dead. Hate to break it to you, but that's how it is. If you want you can have his keys. Now eat your damn breakfast, Anne."

In every single poem, you can tell that Edna St. Vincent Millay just did whatever the fuck she wanted in life and had a blast doing it. She was very openly a feminist, a bisexual, and a serial romantic. She had all kinds of lovers and affairs, flirted with death and depression, and didn't even bother to question why women couldn't express themselves openly: she just did it, and fuck anybody who couldn't hang. Her Collected Poems is like an autobiography of several hundred women falling in love with several hundred different people, adventures, and aspects of life. It's impossible to stop reading her poems, because the next one could take you literally anywhere. I got through six of her collections before I had to finally stop to write this column, seven if you count Poems Selected for Young People, and I can't wait to read the rest. The only reason I didn't finish is because I kept going back to read poems like "April" over and over again.

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

This poem is heavy. It's very dense, very poemy—and yet, April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers. I will never write a line that perfect. She's basically summing up this deep poem about existential dread and the stupidity of man by saying, "Wtf April? What's your deal?"

Then sometimes she just can't even with these morons in her life, like in "Humoresque."

"Heaven bless the babe!" they said.
"What queer books she must have read!"
(Love, by whom I was beguiled,
Grant I may not bear a child.)

"Little does she guess to-day
What the world may be!" they say.
(Snow, drift deep and cover
Till the spring my murdered lover.)

"Ugh, I killed my dude—hope no one finds him. In the meantime, please shut up with this baby talk." Anything can happen in these poems. Not only that, but the poems themselves come in all shapes and sizes and rhythms and rhyme schemes. Millay wrote a ton of sonnets, but she varied rhyme scheme a lot, and the rest of her poems cover the whole spectrum of form. It blows my mind that everyone was going completely nuts for Boring Bobby Frost at a time when Lady Vincent was dropping poems like these left and right.

The Final Verdict

I had read a handful of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems before this month, mostly the really famous sonnets like "What my lips have kissed, and where, and why" and "I think I should have loved you presently," but I hadn't heard much else about her, so I could not have been more pleasantly surprised by how consistently wonderful her work is. She was the perfect follow up to Robert Frost, who was a bit of a disappointment, because I can unabashedly recommend her to absolutely everyone. Her themes are universal and often rather mundane, but her approach is vibrant and passionate, her metaphors are unique, and her wit is incredible. I want to be her best friend. Go read some Edna St. Vincent Millay. It can be a bit depressing, but in the best way possible.

Next Month!

Join us next month for a special St. Patrick's Day edition of "Culling the Poetry Classics"! We'll be taking on our first non-American AND our first Nobel Prize winner: the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. If you'd like to read along, just grab any collected edition of his work. I'll be reading the Wordsworth Editions volume.

Also, don't forget to make suggestions below in the comments for other classic poets that you'd love to see culled—and if you have a small penis, make sure to talk shit about/prove the need for feminism in the comments!

Brian McGackin

Column by Brian McGackin

Brian McGackin is the author of BROETRY (Quirk Books, 2011). He has a BA from Emerson College in Something Completely Unrelated To His Life Right Now, and a Masters in Poetry from USC. He enjoys Guinness, comic books, and Bruce Willis movies.

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AnnieNeugebauer's picture
AnnieNeugebauer from Texas is reading Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Volume 5 February 12, 2015 - 2:05pm

This was a good one! I couldn't help but chuckle at the Robert Frost bit. I don't hate Frost at all -- I adore several of his poems -- but I have to admit that I found myself oddly disappointed when I read beyond his "classics." Millay, on the other hand, gets better and better the deeper I go.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart February 13, 2015 - 11:07am

Great article! I don't read much poetry--old or new, but I have loved Edna since I first read "I, being born a woman and distressed." The woman was a genius, and everything she wrote is still relevant today. Thanks for remembering her!