falling in love with edna st. vincent millay's "renascence"

In a couple of weeks we have various leaders from across the state sharing their favorite poems in our Evening of Inspired Leaders. This fund raiser for Mass Poetry is inspiring a series of stories from poets across the state on the first poem they fell in love with. First up is Hannah Fries.

By Hannah Fries

I loved poetry from when I was very young. It was the sounds of language that first seduced me, from the lullabies my parents sang, to Shel Silverstein, to the Little Golden Book of Dinosaurs—oh, how my tongue anticipated the heavy, dactylic arrival of the Tyrannosaurus rex, “king of all dinosaurs,” when I could shout, “What a bloodthirsty monster was he!”

But poetry was mostly childish flirtation until I fell head-over-heels for Edna St. Vincent Millay. I was in high school, tenth grade, and opted to do an honors project in English. Of course I chose to do something on poetry, and my teacher suggested I pick a couple of specific poets to read. I remember going to the bookstore and asking the owner for suggestions. He looked at the fifteen-year-old girl in front of him, made some assumptions, and handed me Sylvia Plath. She wasn’t for me, though—not yet, anyway—and I left bookless.

Back home, digging through my parents’ library, I came up with an old selected poems of Millay and, somewhat randomly, decided that was it. The first poem in the book was “Renascence.”

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay.

Mountains! Woods! Ocean! I was a New England girl, and so was she; I would keep reading. Of course, the poem quickly takes a dark turn, and what finally struck me about “Renascence” was its astonishing range of emotion. Here was a speaker who gets literally crushed by the weight of the world, who actually dares to imagine the universe splayed before her:

The Universe cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense,
That, sickening, I would fain pluck thence
But could not,—nay! but needs must suck
At the great wound, and could not pluck
My lips away till had drawn
All venom out.

I was caught up in the drama of these tumbling, anguished lines that revealed a spirit so fiercely moved by the suffering of others—“No hurt I did not feel, no death / That was not mine; mine each last breath / That, crying, met an answering cry / From the compassion that was I.”

As a teenager, I was beginning to feel frustration and confusion at the injustice and violence in the world. I felt it deeply, and it played a tug-of-war with my generally happy-kid self. My disposition leaned toward joy and my poems toward ecstatic arm-twirling in the rain. So when I read Millay make an about-face in “Renascence” and go from being buried alive to being rapturously resurrected, I felt a thrill go through me. “I know not how such things can be!— / I breathed my soul back into me.” And what brings her back is what always brought me back to myself too: nature, “a miracle of orchard breath.”

The grass, a-tiptoe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear;
I felt the rains cool fingertips
Brushed tenderly across my lips.

To me the poem’s swing of emotion—guilt, despair, horror, remorse, grief, hope, joy, gratitude—did not feel manic-depressive. It felt true to human experience as I was coming to know it. I was drawn to the spiritual awe of “God, I can push the grass apart / And lay my finger on Thy heart”—I wanted to feel it and encompass it all, right along with the poet. If nothing else, “Renascence” and Edna St. Vincent Millay made me hungrier for poetry because it flung open the door on the wild vastness it could contain (and the wild vastness within me).

The cosmic ground the poem covered seemed marvelously ambitious, and when I studied up on Millay for my project and discovered she had written “Renascence” at nineteen years old, I couldn’t have been happier. And though I also learned that just about everyone around her fell in love with her too, I wanted her for myself, for a best friend. When I learned that Arthur Davison Ficke and Witter Bynner wrote to her after reading the poem, dubious that it had been written by a young woman, and that she had responded by enclosing a picture of the “brawny male” (her sprightly red-headed self), a feminist pride kindled inside me.

Reader, I memorized it. I paced back and forth across my room, trying to hang on to all those couplets. I jogged around the block with the meter pounding in my head. When I’d finished, it took me eleven minutes to recite. And my English teacher took me out for ice cream.

~ ~ ~

Hannah Fries is a poet and editor. She grew up in New Hampshire, went to Dartmouth College, and later got an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College. From 2005 to 2014 she worked as an editor—including poetry editor—at
Orion magazine. Her poetry and prose have appeared in such places as American Poetry Review, Massachusetts Review, Drunken Boat, Water~Stone Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and she is the recipient of a Colorado Art Ranch residency. She currently works as a project editor at Storey Publishing in western Massachusetts and is also assistant poetry editor for Terrain.org. Her web site is http://www.hannahfries.com/.