POETRY

Millay and Loy: Two Iconic Feminist Poets

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Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry, had her finger on the pulse of the early twentieth century when it came to Mina Loy and Edna St. Vincent Millay. According to Loy’s biographer Carolyn Burke in Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, Monroe said of Loy in the 1920’s, “I may never have fallen very hard for this lady’s poetry, but her personality is irresistible.” Monroe had unqualified praise for both Millay’s work and her personality. In the August 1924 edition of Poetry, Monroe suggests that Millay “may perhaps be the greatest woman poet since Sappho.” She concludes, “Wilful, moody, whimsical, loving and forgetting, a creature of quick and keen emotions, she has followed her own way and sung her own songs. Taken as a whole, her poems present an utterly feminine personality of singular charm and power; and the best of them, a group of lyrics ineffably lovely, will probably be cherished as the richest, most precious gifts of song which any woman since the immortal Lesbian has offered to the world.” On the other hand, Monroe wrote in her review of Loy’s 1923 book of poems Lunar Baedecker [sic] that Loy’s “utterance is a condescension from a spirit too burdened with experience to relax the ironic tension of her grasp.” Monroe may have found Loy’s personality fascinating, but she found her poetry too ironic and condescending.

This was typical for Loy, whose work was more appreciated by avant-garde modernist figures such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Duchamp than by the general public. Where Millay’s sentimentality and femininity works to a feminist advantage, Loy viciously, satirically, and unsentimentally attacks her subjects with a more modernist feminism. Although readers rarely forget with Loy that her verse was written by a woman, feminine is not a word much, if ever, encountered in relation to Loy’s writing. As Roger L. Conover writes in his introduction to the collection of Loy’s poems he edited, The Lost Lunar Baedecker, “Mina Loy is not for everyone. It is not by accident that her work has been misplaced. ‘Difficult’ is the word that has been most often used to describe her. . . . She is contrary, she is antimetric, and certainly she is indecent. Her first readers found her so, and most contemporary readers still do. You become either a sworn believer or a fast enemy.” Loy was a stubborn individualist who refused to court an audience or to work toward definitely securing her place in history.

Loy describes an affair, most likely her affair with the prominent futurist Giovanni Papini in Songs to Joannes, later ironically titled simply Love Songs. The witty brutality of some of Loy’s lines still hits us today. For example, she shocked her readers, including Amy Lowell who called Love Songs “lewd and lascivious,” with the following initial stanza of her poem about a failed love affair:

Spawn    of     Fantasies
Silting the appraisable
Pig Cupid   his rosy snout
Rooting erotic garbage
“Once upon a time”
Pulls a weed    white star-topped
Among wild oats     sown in mucous membrane

The image of Cupid as a pig means to startle us with the suggestion that our sentimental attitudes toward our relationships are the stuff of fairy tales. Relationships are only sexual, according to Loy in Love Songs. Throughout the long poem, Loy continually suggests that men and women cannot be as one because such a state would require self-annihilation. In this sense, the speaker of Love Songs has much in common with T.S. Eliot’s “J. Alfred Prufrock” whose self-consciousness and inescapably ironic disposition make him inviolate and desperately aware of it as he watches the women with whom he cannot connect come and go talking of Michelangelo.

Similarly, Loy writes in her “Feminist Manifesto,” “The feminist movement as at present instituted is Inadequate.” Loy writes:

Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not –seek
within yourselves to find out what you are
As conditions are at present constituted, you have the choice
between Parasitism, & Prostitu-
tion –or Negation

Loy enjoins women to leave off looking to men for ways to define themselves. Women should not define themselves against men or men’s expectations for what women should be. She encourages self-definition. Her brand of feminism urges women to maintain intellectual, sexual, and financial independence from men in order to avoid feeling as if they are “parasitic” wives, sexually liberated “prostitutes,” or non-entities with no opinions or ideas. Loy goes on to suggest that women should abolish notions of the “impurity of sex” and should stop looking for “a comfortable protection instead of an intelligent curiosity & courage in meeting & resisting the pressure of life sex or so called love.” Loy wants women to realize their independence by renouncing women’s supposed fragility. To her, independence was of utmost importance for women whether they were in relationships with men or not.

As with Love Songs, Loy’s ideas in her “Feminist Manifesto” suggest the only place men and women can be equal is in bed: “Men & women are enemies . . . The only point at which the interests of the sexes merge—is the sexual embrace.” She urges women to destroy their desire to be loved and to destroy the feeling of personal insult when a man loses his affection for her and becomes interested in another woman. Loy suggests in Love Songs and in her manifesto that women should be self-reliant in every way possible—fascinating for an early twentieth century woman coming from a London of Victorian values.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have Edna St. Vincent Millay. Despite her unconventional personal life, Millay was hugely popular in her day, not only becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, but also having her rhymed verse memorized by numerous fans fresh off the presses. Some of Millay’s most famous lines come from her “Fig” poems in which she is deliberately flippant. Her poem “First Fig” reads, “My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends— / It gives a lovely light!” In the punctuation alone we see a youthful, exuberant personality. The hyper-dramatic pause indicated by the hyphen and the conclusive exclamation mark indicate a carpe diem attitude toward health, sanity, death, and “proper” sexual behavior for a young woman. They are thrilling lines—lines that defy all conventional attitudes toward a long life lived moderately. Similarly, her “Second Fig” reads: “Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand: / Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!” Again, the punctuation is dramatic, the meaning defiant. She enacts the New Woman in her cheery independence.

Nonetheless, much of the literary criticism available about Millay characterizes the poet as naïve and sentimental. She is called the “sentimental daughter” by Suzanne Clark and is said to present herself as “Desire incarnate” by Cheryl Walker. Interestingly, these perceptions of Millay may arise from negative associations with her being what was called in the early twentieth century a “New Woman.” Her popularity arose because she fashioned herself as a commodity for public consumption -- the tiny poetess with a booming voice in flowing robes. Image control started early, as her biographer Nancy Milford notes. In Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Milford writes of Millay during her years at Vassar: “She was a girl who wanted to be beautiful, and well liked and powerful in her class. And she set out to be just that.” Millay, in her self-conscious construction of image, provides an apt example of an ambitious woman performing the role of the New Woman to get ahead in her career, at least in the early and middle stages of that career.

In the last few decades or so, there has been a renewed interest in Millay. This renewed interest may be due to the strength of Millay’s poetry; but it may partially be due to her very alliance with commodity culture and the cult of personality. The recent post-feminist tendency to continue “selling” the sexualized female body to the male gaze and the problems that come along with objectification of women’s bodies could be playing a part in an interest in this most bohemian of New Women. Millay sold herself to the public, and in 2013, that’s something we understand. While I think there is some truth to this idea, I also think the return to Millay has something to do with her feminist sensibility. Today feminist sensibilities sit alongside sexual objectification despite their seeming incongruence. Millay was both a feminist and a sexual fetish, which could make studying her at this post-feminist moment particularly fruitful.

Millay led a bohemian lifestyle. She had affairs with both women and men and, later in her life, conducted a long affair with George Dillon with her unique husband’s consent. Millay’s star quality made her a visible and powerful voice in politics when she chose to be, and she knowingly made potential sacrifices to her craft and reputation in order to support her political opinions. Millay fought for The Masses when they were charged with treason; she marched and was arrested for Sacco and Vanzetti; she fought the Lindberghs for suggesting we make peace with Germany rather than fight against fascism.

Millay was, in my view, a profoundly political celebrity who used her poetry and her life to encourage empathy for the less fortunate, which is, we would like to think, one of the most radically feminist moves toward action one can make. That is, if women have not learned anything about the importance of empathy with minorities by being nearly a majority and still dominated and subverted, then what have we learned? Millay seems to have inculcated this lesson into her own person and to have been far more sophisticated than she is given credit for in her undertaking to encourage humanitarian gestures and freedom for women. Millay, despite her star quality, was a distinctly and critically feminist New Woman and this aspect of her body politics should not be forgotten.

Loy wrote from the margin of the avant-garde, the margin of feminist activity of the day. She repeatedly shows the underlying problems of patriarchal myths, such as women being naturally sentimental, dependent, and uninterested in sex. Her very style, her logopoeia, as Ezra Pound called it, proves by example the unsentimental intelligence, irony, and humor of which women are capable. Millay, on the other hand, as a New Woman and no modernist, provocatively challenged patriarchal norms in her poetry through other means – the seemingly contradictory means of playing the femme fatale, the sentimentalist, and the political activist within one lifetime and within one oeuvre. Where Millay embodied the cheerily independent New Woman, Loy proved more of an icon of the modernist moment. What both poets shared was that they moved the problem of female identity into the public domain.

Amanda J. Bradley has released two poetry collections from NYQ Books: Oz at Night in 2011 and Hints and Allegations in 2009. She has published poetry and essays in many journals. Amanda is a graduate of the MFA program at The New School, and she holds a PhD in English and American Literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She teaches literature at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, New York on Long Island.

Where Millay embodied the cheerily independent New Woman, Loy proved more of an icon of the modernist moment. What both poets shared was that they moved the problem of female identity into the public domain…