Tuesday, September 2, 2008

one of the boys

Edna St. Vincent Millay never described herself as a feminist, and the truth is that she said some pretty awful things about her sex. That said, she let her husband handle the housekeeping, and she never shied away from anything just because it was considered unwomanly. Thanks to her undeniable poetic talent, her strikingly expressive voice, and her unusual beauty, she was able to live a life that was impossible for most women at the time. The darling of not just the literary community but the whole country, she was celebrated as much for her girlish appeal as for her strong and individual writing, but in truth it was the contrast between the two that made her so irresistible.

A lush and a womanizer, living off money borrowed from her publisher and cuckolding husband with a wide assortment of lovers, even moving out of her home to live with a poet many years her junior, she spent the last years of her life in a state we’d decry in a man. But there’s something all too appealing about a woman who embraces her vices, who grasps wholeheartedly all the privilege her talent and circumstances afford her, who lives, and it’s hard to phrase this any other way, like a man. She was a pretty and brilliant bad girl, the kind of character you can’t take your eyes off, equal parts seductive and heartbreaking.

Heartbreaking not just because her story ends in tragedy, not just because she dies beloved but broke, addicted to opiates and drink, but also because of the first two things I mentioned. Despite being an inspiration to many young women and a hardworking advocate for young, gifted poets, she didn’t learn from her own example. Or perhaps she simply didn’t want to admit the fact that her clothes were discussed as much as her books, or that her libertine ways helped feed the national fascination that helped sell those books. It’s all conjecture, of course, but it’s hard not to imagine that being the subject of such constant examination must have been exhausting, must have made her realize the contrast between coverage of her life and work and that of her contemporaries. But she, so daring, so flirtatious, so ahead of her time, and so direct in so much of her correspondence, never told the world that more was required of her simply because she was a woman.

If it’s not obvious, I just finished reading her biography. The year it came out, everyone and their sister gave me a copy, because apparently it was the perfect gift for me. Despite the near-unanimity of the gift, it took me a while to get around to reading it. Instead, I dutifully thanked them, returned the extra copies, and shelved one copy to read later. Seven years later, I finally read it, and though I’m not generally into biographies, it actually was a pretty damn good gift. If you don’t know me (and if that’s the case, seriously, what are you doing reading my blog? You’re probably the first.), you may not be aware how easy it is for me to identify with a pretty, young, outspoken poet who grew up in Maine and likes to cause trouble. But it’s very easy, and that’s why I’ll treat her life as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. The moral: speak up. Even more.


myrrh said...

Not to mention a brilliant writer whose hidden vice is making it all look easy.

Excellent post. Makes me want to read the biography... Nancy Milford's Savage Beauty, no?

liz said...

you're awfully sweet.

and yes, that's the one.