Six Takes on Edna St. Vincent Millay

This feature came about as a result of the Edna St. Vincent Millay panel at the Poetry by the Sea Conference, May 24-28, 2016, chaired by Lesley Wheeler, and including panelists Anna Lena Phillips Bell, January Gill O'Neil, and A.E. Stallings.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) changed the course of American poetry, especially for women, both in terms of her poetry and her life. My favorite poem of hers is "Dirge without Music":

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the
        laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant
        and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do
        not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses
        in the world. (9-12)

As a writer of sonnets, I admire her ability to use form; at the same time, I admire her ability to express strong emotion. Being more inclusive in terms of women's experience and its value is one of the main reasons Mezzo Cammin was founded.

Many years ago, when I studied with Donald Justice at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, we were asked to assemble our own versions of Matthew Arnold's touchstones. Don and I agreed on many poets, but we held different views about Edna St. Vincent Millay. He was taken aback by my choice from "Dirge without Music." At the time, I was surprised, but perhaps, in many ways in Millay's life and work, we are all "taken aback." Yet the way we interpret our sense of surprise has changed. I appreciate Millay more and more as I get older, as I take further risks, and as more and more women poets take their seats at the literary table of excellence.

For extensive information about this extraordinary poet, see the Edna St. Vincent Millay essay, written by Kathryn Voorhees, available on The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project.

Kim Bridgford
June 2016

Anna Lena Phillips Bell


On a line from Sonnet XXXVI

Dear Millay, how weird to hear your voice,
all trilled and earnest, 1930s, canned,
like watching the way a hermit crab walks, precise
and stippled steps along the sea-wet sand,
inhabiting a shell like other shells
I've found—wave-worn and empty, still they show
their fiercest pink, and held to the ear, each spills
the echo of a good I-told-you-so.
The hermit crab's not awkward but refined
to her chosen spiral. Walking a straighter line,
we wait for the emerging eye and claw,
surprised each time, delighted, not dismayed.
Why can't we feel the same enchantment now,
hearing your words inhabited, Millayed?

Anna M. Evans

Across the Blackened Vine

for C.

I think of Edna's last great love affair,
the subject of her Fatal Interview
still beautiful at forty with that hair,
the sultry older woman—but she knew
her passion for the boy would bring her tears,
that he would tire of her and need a girl.
I see her pacing Steepletop, her fears
like plumes of cigarette smoke, rise and curl.

And yet, she never flinched from Love, her muse.
The poetry, the sex, were all too true.
We cannot live in fear of what we'll lose
while living in the moment, as I do.
And when the poems turned into goodbyes,
she said the words and memorized his eyes.

Jean L. Kreiling

What to Learn from Vincent

(after Millay's "What Lips My Lips Have Kissed")

She laughed at love's respectable conventions;
eschewing games, refusing to be coy,
she never hid desires or intentions,
not caring that she might scare off the boy.
So be it—she would rather have a man
who shared her forthright, fearless inclinations,
whose pleasures could proceed without a plan
for ceremonies or certifications.
She hardly knew what lips her lips had kissed,
or where, or why—and yet she did confess
that she was haunted by sweet ghosts; she missed
their summer songs in winter's loneliness.
Dispensing with disclaimers and defenses,
brave hearts break rules, and damn the consequences.

Jenna Le

How to Annoy a Feminist Poet

Once, I told a male poet that I view
Millay as brilliant, and he laughed, "I'm quite
fond of a subset of her oeuvre, too,
certain little rhymes that she wrote on slight
topics…. Her 'schoolgirl poems,' I like to call 'em,"
and all at once, I felt extremely cross
that Ms. Millay, who penned great verse on solemn
grown-up subjects like sex and death and loss,
had been reduced in this male poet's mind
to just an archetype of schoolgirlhood,
prized only insofar as she aligned
with his idea that women's writing should
be pleasant, harmless, decorative, blessed
with charm but not with depth: a poetess.

Lee Nash

And all the storms

That your heart gave way in the end, my dear,
is no surprise. You were not wearied suddenly,
rather four seasons brought their storms to bear
and left you out to weather, or nearly.
That your soul was satisfied with Beauty's
harvest, we do not know, but saw you'd leave
Love's feast for a steady draft of the Muse's
cup. You knew what you and she could weave.
And is this a contradiction?
A work of fiction? Would anyone regret
proving the power of Love's addiction?
A good quick end, stubbed out like a cigarette,
the still-warm ash of life's affairs
flicked down a flight of uncarpeted stairs.

Lesley Wheeler

Song of the Emmenagogues

Vincent drank a potion Mother had concocted and walked and walked and walked.
Norma Millay, quoted in Savage Beauty

I tell everybody how my mother feeds me on nettles and thistles, the heartless old thing.
from Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay

She was caught, fallen, over her time,
a blossomy month on the road.
Think and think twelve miles a day,
up and down hills near Shillingstone.

        Mugwort, nasturtium, rue,
        primrose, angelica, parsley.

The sun's clock ticked into summer
and down. Bigger than her sorrow.
Unmothering flower crouched in grass.
Scour the paths tomorrow.

        Henbane, gentian, all-heal,
        hyssop, thyme, bitter apple.

Some herbs provoke a woman's courses.
Says the book: decoct in wine.
The blue-petaled one, darling of Venus,
draws forth the undreamed-of child.

        Tea of the raspberry leaf. Ginger,
        cohosh, tansy, pennyroyal.

Refusal grew of her weeks in Dorset,
blooming from red-rooted alkanet.
Rhymes with secret, the pretty weeds whisper.
Thatch hushes the cottages yet.

Lesley Wheeler

Millay at Forty-Nine

The freckled rover of weedy road and wave-
edge holed up for the winter in pajamas.
Pain knotted the hours but their vivid hues
relaxed when morphine pricked her blues. The way
to spring is so worn down, the warp's exposed.
Draw fretted blinds against the river views,
Fifty-Second Street's involved design. Gaze
inward at the rug: one arch, one rose.

Early sun can bleach the best, most vivid
pattern. Funds were tight, career come loose,
so she recorded verse in a faded voice.
It should have been a coup, her Collected
, but the preface was beyond her.
The wool too bright. Too much skill to squander.


Poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) published many books of poetry including Renascence and Other Poems (1917), the Pulitzer Prize winning The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1922), and the sonnet sequence Fatal Interview (1931). She also wrote several verse plays and the libretto of one of the few American grand operas, The King's Henchman (1927). Notorious for her controversial attitudes towards female sexuality and feminism, Millay was married to Eugen Boissevain for 26 years.

Anna Lena Phillips Bell's manuscript Ornament was awarded the 2016 Vassar Miller Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from the University of North Texas Press in spring 2017. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in places including the Southern Review, 32 Poems, Southern Poetry Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, and the Hopkins Review, and her projects include A Pocket Book of Forms, a travel-sized, fine-press guide to poetic forms. The recipient of a 2016 North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship in literature, she is editor of Ecotone and Lookout Books, and teaches at UNC Wilmington. She also calls Appalachian square dances in piedmont North Carolina and beyond. Find her online at todointhenewyear.net.

Anna M. Evans's poems have appeared in the Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, Rattle, American Arts Quarterly, and 32 Poems. She gained her MFA from Bennington College, and is the Editor of the Raintown Review. Recipient of Fellowships from the MacDowell Artists' Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and winner of the 2012 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers' Choice Award, she currently teaches at West Windsor Art Center and Stockton University. Her sonnet collection, Sisters & Courtesans, is available from White Violet Press. She blogs at annamevans.com/wordpress.

Jean L. Kreiling's first collection of poems, The Truth in Dissonance (Kelsay Books), was published in 2014. Her work has appeared widely in print and online journals, including American Arts Quarterly, Angle, The Evansville Review, Measure, and The Raintown Review, and in several anthologies. Kreiling is a past winner of the String Poet Prize and the Able Muse Write Prize, and she has been a finalist for the Frost Farm Prize, the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, and the Richard Wilbur Poetry Award.

Jenna Le is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), which was a Small Press Distribution Bestseller, and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Anchor and Plume Press, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations appear in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, Measure, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. in mathematics and an M.D., and she works as a physician.

Lee Nash lives in France and freelances as an editorial designer for a UK publisher. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in print and online journals in the UK, the US and France including Angle, Haibun Today, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Orbis, Poetry Salzburg Review, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, The French Literary Review, The Interpreter's House, The Journal (UK), The Lake, The Miscreant and The World Haiku Review. You can find a full bio and a selection of Lee's poems on her website: leenashpoetry.com.

Lesley Wheeler's poetry collections Radioland and The Receptionist and Other Tales contain many references to Millay's work, and she discusses the poet's radio broadcasts in Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present. Wheeler's poems and essays appear in Ecotone, Crazyhorse, Poet Lore, and many other journals. She teaches at Washington & Lee University in Virginia and blogs about poetry at lesleywheeler.org.

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