I have written so few poetry posts over my 12 years of blogging, that I thought I might use this month, poetry month, to highlight a few of the older posts and bring some sense of order and cohesion to the few I do have.
Robert Frost was one of my first attempts at poetry appreciation in the blogosphere.
At the end of 2014, B24 started his final year of school. He was not particularly motivated (an understatement dripping with sarcasm and sadness), and despite having the ability, he chose to fluff around for most of it. In an attempt to engage him in the one subject he had some interest (English), I decided to read the six assigned Robert Frost poems with him.
Only one of us learnt a lot and ended up really enjoying the process.
The six poems were:
- Stopping By the Woods (1923)
- The Tuft of Flowers (1913)
- After Apple-Picking (1914)
- Mending Wall (1914)
- Home Burial (1914)
- Fire and Ice (1920)
Stopping By the Woods was one of Frost’s poems that I had actually heard of prior to this experience. The final lines in particular, played a significant role in one of my favourite TV dramas from the 90’s, Roswell.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.
The overarching theme for B24’s HSC year was ‘discovery’. We read all the poems with that in the back of our minds (I say ‘we’, but really I mean me). B24 discovered early on in the process that he did not like nature poems and I discovered that the only person who could motivate B24 was B24 himself. I also discovered that I preferred Robert Frost in small doses.
Meanwhile our narrator discovers, that despite temptation, or despite the prospect of our ultimate demise, he must continue on with his duties and obligations. His brief, peaceful sojourn in the woods is just that, a temporary break, to be enjoyed, reflected upon, before following through with his commitments. Work and practical living, give our life purpose. Seven years ago we concluded that,
Stopping by the Woods is a poem about choices & responsibility. The stopping man is faced with the choice of staying quietly in the woods (a romantic, easy, dream-like experience) or moving on (facing up to reality) to his “promises to keep”.
The Tuft of Flowers is a longer narrative poem about connection through time, the passing of time, and ultimately death, that comes to us all. Those who have gone before us, leave ‘a tall tuft of flowers’ for us to appreciate and admire, yet we are alone, and nature is our consolation.
Once again, work and labour feature as positive attributes in living a good life. I suspect if I had any religious leanings, it would be possible to work in some mystic, spiritual themes.
It is also a poem written in heroic couplets – a rhyming pair of lines in iambic pentameter.
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
After Apple-Picking is another longer form pastoral poem with no particular rhyming structure, a structure that is perhaps suggestive of the dream-like state of our narrator. Frost enjoyed using metaphors in his poems, referring to it as ‘the pleasure of ulteriority‘ in a 1946 essay, The Constant Symbol, in The Atlantic Monthly.
Once again, death, or the prospect of dying is at the forefront of this poem. Ageing and end of life is compared to the harvesting of apples.
But I am done with apple-picking now. Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
We didn’t really know which way to jump with this one though in 2014. We had more questions than answers. Seven years ago we wrote,
Is his ladder the bridge to the heavens? Is he questioning his faith? Spiritual discovery? Is it about aging & resting? Growing old & weary? Autumn to winter – middle age to old age? With a renewal or regrowth on the way? Does he realise he’s aging/dying? Looking back on his life – with regrets? or disappointment? Apples (biblical) – loss of innocence? Perhaps he is searching for wisdom – picking the fruit of knowledge? Inner discovery? Or harvesting – storing away the knowledge he has already accumulated? Pondering the choices of his youth? What does it mean that he is dreaming or in that dream-like, almost asleep stage? Is this his sub-conscious speaking? His natural state?
Mending Wall is one of Frost’s more well-known poems. I have seen references since that now link this poem to the more modern concern of ‘the coddling of the American mind’, where students are asking to being protected from arguments they find challenging, much as the neighbour wishes to be protected from incursions from the other side of the wall.
The poem certainly has an isolationist sentimentality, an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude. Frost explores the idea that this segregation is habit, following conventions of old, and that when challenged, the neighbours prefers to fall back on tradition. Boundaries are seen as a from of containment but also as a safe place for growth and creativity to flourish.
It is possible to see the world divided into two types – the builders and the breakers – the rule followers and the rule breakers. Or maybe, we are simply back at one of Frost’s favourite places, the idea of work and productivity as being the glue that keeps our community together.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense.
Frost uses a loose kind of blank verse – an unrhyming verse in iambic pentameter lines – whereby he alters the traditional rhythm of the lines to reflect the natural speech of the narrator. He is using a formal, known poetic device in his own way, for his own purposes. He is both wall-breaker and wall-mender!
In 2014 we wondered “Is he discovering or rediscovering the mores and traditions of his society? Is the ‘discovery’ the journey he takes with his neighbour each year to mend the wall? The importance of connection & shared endeavour? Perhaps he is discovering what his relationship is to his fellow man (the neighbour)? Breaking down the barriers?“
Home Burial is considered to be a dramatic lyric poem. Dramatic poems are like a soliloquy, one person’s attempt to tell a story. Rereading it reminded me of how sad this poem is. The loss of a child is always a tragedy, but in this case the tragedy is compounded by the parents inability to accept the other parents way of grieving.
One wonders how personal this poem really was. The Frost’s lost their first born son, Elliott at age 8 in 1900, due to cholera. Their daughter, Elinor died the day after her birth in 1907.
The nearest friends can go With anyone to death, comes so far short They might as well not try to go at all. No, from the time when one is sick to death, One is alone, and he dies more alone. Friends make pretense of following to the grave, But before one is in it, their minds are turned And making the best of their way back to life And living people, and things they understand.
Seven years ago we discovered that “Home Burial is an incredibly sad poem. The tragedy that is the death of a child is compounded in this case by poor communication & a lack of empathy. We can see the grief and sorrow oozing from both parents, but sadly, they cannot see it in each other. We discover in Home Burial how important open communication, listening and accepting difference is in maintaining healthy relationships.”
Fire and Ice was the main poem B24 and talked about at the time because we both linked it to our viewing of the first few seasons of Game of Thrones. Would we prefer to die by fire (dragon) or ice (white walker)?
Apocalyptic shows were popular and ubiquitous during the boys’ teen years. Dramatic death scenarios – universal and individual – were common dinner time conversations. Fire and Ice felt very modern and topical as a result. Will our unbridled passions be the end of the world, or our hate? Will global warming cause us to incinerate or will an intergalactic disaster block the sun and freeze us to death like the dinosaurs?
1920 would have had a similar vibe for Robert Frost. After WWI and the Spanish Flu, the world was still on tenterhooks. Death was everywhere and had affected everybody one way or another. The end of the world not only seemed nigh, but very, very possible. Previously, the end of the world had been associated with divine displeasure, Frost saw that the biggest threat actually came from human beings. We were/are our own worst enemies. There is no hope.
Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice. From what I’ve tasted of desire I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate To say that for destruction ice Is also great And would suffice.
By the time we finished these six poems, I realised that Robert Frost and I were probably not going be to lifelong friends. I could appreciate some of his shorter pieces and the occasional passage spoke to me (as they say). However, I found his tone verging on the paternalistic and puritan.
He is often considered to be ‘everyman New England folksy’ but I found him to be pretty bleak and moralistic most of the time. For my taste, his religiosity was too ponderous, and even for one, who reads widely about death and dying and grief, I found Frost’s preoccupation with death in these six poems, unrelenting and hopeless.
At the end I asked B24 how they approached these poems in class, his response was that he completely ignored the four long poems (yes, our parent/teacher nights were also pretty bleak and hopeless!) and just focused on the two shorter ones. He said “I still hate poetry, but I got good marks in my assessment because with poetry you can just make shit up!!”
- Robert Frost was born 26th March 1874 and died 1963.
- He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times (1924, 1931, 1937 & 1943).
- He was a special guest at JFK’s inauguration, where he wrote a poem especially for the occasion.
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.