It’s so hard to choose a favourite poem. Like a favourite book movie, or song, it depends on age, mood, time of year, time of day, personal life events, national or international events, and memories. But there are a few poems I keep coming back to in my own life. I enjoy sharing them with other people, especially when I think they’ll appreciate them. One of these poems is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I being born a woman and distressed”.
I first encountered this poem in a literature class, either in high school or college. For a teenager, surrounded by “traditional” romance – or at least the desire for traditional romance – this poem was incredibly provocative. For a budding poet who appreciated formalism more than free verse, this poem was a spark of modern thought cased in the seemingly antiquated sonnet form.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
For a long time, I thought that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a British poet, but she was an American. She grew up in Maine, went to college at Vassar, and moved to New York City where she moved in very literary circles. She married, had lovers, became involved in political protests, and was generally a very independent Jazz Age woman. She died in 1950, after falling down the stairs.
Writing was her main occupation for her entire life. She started writing poetry as a child, and as an adult wrote poetry, plays, and articles for magazines. In 1923 she became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry (for the collection The Harp Weaver). Her poetry is a mix of the emerging free verse and the older formalist style, but all of it has a very personal, passionate, sometimes sarcastic tone.
The one-night stand in sonnet form
This untitled sonnet uses a variant of the Italian sonnet form, with a rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdcdcd. In this style, the “turn” or emotional change in the poem comes after the eighth line, when the rhyme changes.
Briefly and bluntly, this sonnet deals with a one-night stand. The octet describes, almost clinically, the lust that the woman has felt for her partner. It is a sensation founded on proximity (or rather, the underused synonym “propinquity”). She is aware that it is purely a physical, and not an emotional sensation: lust will “clarify the pulse and cloud the mind”. She also knows that it’s a reaction that she has no control over: it is something that leaves her “undone, possessed.”
The sextet turns the sonnet from the lust of the one-night stand to the realizations of the next day. The physical sensations have passed, and therefore their relationship has ended. The partner, however, seems not to completely realise this, because the woman must “make it plain: / I find this frenzy insufficient reason / for conversation when we meet again.” In short, their entire relationship has occurred in this one encounter, and will not continue.
One of my favourite aspects of this poem is the treatment of feminine stereotypes. Two of them are mocked here: the idea that women can’t control their passion, and the idea that women become emotionally attached because of sex. The first couple of lines mock the first idea – you can hear the sarcasm dripping off the phrase “distressed by all the needs and notions of my kind” and the implication that women are some sort of collective animal ruled only by their hormones. The second idea is completely rejected in the sextet, when the woman blatantly abandons the partner that she has felt this “zest” and “frenzy” for.
The idea that a woman could be so in control of her relationships – before, during, and after – and positively revel in a one-night stand was a fairly new idea for the teenager that first encountered this poem. It formed a kernel of feminist thought in me that I’ve continued to explore and refine over the last decade or more – and I’ve come back to it for inspiration and entertainment many times.
(You can read the whole poem several places online, including http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/i-being-born-a-woman-and-distressed/. Information about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s life has come from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/millay.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edna_St._Vincent_Millay.)