Sexual Healing: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sexual Autonomy, and Freedom // Trina O'Gorman

Sexual Healing: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sexual Autonomy, and Freedom // Trina O'Gorman

"I Too beneath Your Moon, almighty Sex" 

I too beneath your moon, almighty Sex, 

Go forth at nightfall crying like a cat, 

Leaving the lofty tower I laboured at 

For birds to foul and boys and girls to vex 

With tittering chalk; and you, and the long necks 

Of neighbours sitting where their mothers sat 

Are well aware of shadowy this and that 

In me, that's neither noble nor complex. 

Such as I am, however, I have brought 

To what it is, this tower; it is my own; 

Though it was reared To Beauty, it was wrought 

From what I had to build with: honest bone 

Is there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought; 

And lust is there, and nights not spent alone. 


“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why” 

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, 

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain 

Under my head till morning; but the rain 

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh 

Upon the glass and listen for reply, 

And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain 

For unremembered lads that not again 

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. 

Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree, 

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, 

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: 

I cannot say what loves have come and gone, 

I only know that summer sang in me 

A little while, that in me sings no more. 

- Edna St. Vincent Millay (February 22, 1892 - October 19, 1950)

It is quite possible that I was exposed to the American poet and playwright, Edna St. Vincent Millay, when I was in high school, and definitely by college. Her work is canonized, and at least one poem of her seems to be in every college textbook I’ve used to teach my own college courses. Yet, no one, not my high school English teacher nor my college English teacher presented her as Judith P. Saunders does in the book American Classics: Evolutionary Perspectives. Of Millay she writes, “...the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay invites readers to reconsider culturally ingrained assumptions about human sexuality. Many of her best-known poems features female speakers who acknowledge fervent desire; they take pleasure in physical intimacies; they pursue partners actively; they enjoy short-term liaisons; they resist attempts to restrict their erotic experience. Challenging images of women as sexually passive and disinterest beings, Millay’s unconventional portraits earned recognition — indeed, notoriety — in a favorable sociopolitical claim.” This I did not know and had I know, it might have changed the trajectory of my thinking on sexuality. 

Millay’s work, largely published nearly 100 years ago in the 20s and 30s, supported the idea of redefining general roles during the Women’s Movement. Yet today, in 2021, we still live in a society in which women deemed too sexual are still shamed, often referred to as “slut-shaming,” sometime results in the ostracization, harassment, social anxiety, depression, and even suicide of people, generally females, who are publicly humiliated by the spreading of a rumor, sexually revealing in nature, and harrassed to the point that some take their own lives. And harassment about sex isn’t just reserved for women. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have long been victims of all varieties of abuse, not fitting into the box of heteronormativity and patriarchal values, to which American culture has long taught people to prescribe. 

And sometimes when some people don’t follow the arbitrary rules about sexuality that have be ingrained in our culture, others become mean, critical, and even savage, which results in a society that has all sorts of struggles and problems stemming from human sexuality, which is a completely natural part of our identity, and the entire reason for our existence and continuation as a species, if we are to consider it on its most basic level. Importantly, it is a crucial piece of the puzzle, which when constructed, makes up the self; the self, which we should feel so comfortable and at ease visiting and getting to know better in our writing, but who often cowers in the corners of our mind, afraid to come out because of the fear of the ridicule, shame, and abuse with which society has burdened it. 

Even this essay is a departure from the many other essays I’ve written for Baum-kuchen’s essay. For some it will seem risque, maybe even inappropriate, and they will feel uncomfortable reading it, and I’m really saddened by that. But it makes it that much more important to write because I would gently argue that my entire reason for promoting personal writing, which I have been doing for years, is to not only help people heal their trauma, but to help people become the best version of themselves and the best friends they can be to themselves, and I think that comes with self-awareness, self-care, and self-love. And so, we cannot just ignore our sexual selves, which are at the very center of who we are. Agreed?

And so, with March just ending and it having been Women’s History Month, and April beginning and being National Poetry Month, I invite you to explore and respond to poetry that deals with sexuality, as a way of expanding your own ideas and heart, so that you might better love yourselves and others. To begin your exploration of sexuality in journaling, might I suggest you start with two poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was born in the late 19th century and spent some of her creative life trying to nudge us forward in our thinking about sexuality some 100 years ago, and we are still stuck, a society still mocking girls for being promiscuous, and still abusing people for being gay, lesbian, or not conforming to society’s attitudes towards gender. 100 years ago, in the halls of Vassar College, she was considered troublesome because she didn’t conform. She was boldly promiscuous and openly bisexual. And she wrote about it, beautifully and eloquently. 

Here is a list of links to a few more poems to read and respond to in writing, in your journals:

"We Two, How Long We Were Fool'd" by Walt Whitman 

"Queer" by Frank Bidart 

Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich 

Her Kind by Anne Sexton 

Love Sonnet XIby Pablo Neruda 

May your find safety in courage between the pages of your notebooks. 

With love, Trina



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