This poem is based on the Goethe’s famous poem – Erlkönig.
Schubert wrote an equally famous song for piano and voice based on the poem. Here is an orchestrated version (not orchestrated by Schubert). For those who don’t speak German (I do, by the way) this comes with English subtitles.
I’ve been scouring the net for other response’s to Orr’s New York Times Article, where he asks: Where is the ambition? Where are the Great poets?
While pursuing discussion on Orr’s article over at A Compulsive Reader, another question occurred to me. Why is it that practically no poets after the moderns seem to be widely read, remembered or recognized by the general, non-poetry reading public. Almost everyone I ask (who maybe reads three or four poems a year) knows of Robert Frost, can name a poem by him and maybe even recite a line or two. No one, (during my unscientific survey), could do the same for any poet of the later generation.
The one clear difference between Frost, Cummings (and Eliot in some cases) is that they wrote Poetry that utilized meter and rhyme to varying degrees. There’s no dispute that meter and rhyme are mnemonic aids. The trick of rhythm and rhyme begins before writing, with the oral tradition. So, the fact of Frost’s popularity is, I think, indisputably linked (though not fully dependent on) his use of meter and rhyme. His poems are memorable in ways that Ashbery’s poems simply are not.
There aren’t a lot of Border bookstores or Barnes & Noble bookstores in the smaller malls of the Midwest. Instead, there are shops like Waldenbooks (now owned by Borders), that cater to the very general public. I used to shop at Waldenbooks – the only bookstore close by. I know all about their poetry section. It usually only had four or maybe five books in it. Waldenbooks, unlike Borders and Barnes & Noble (which are still primarily located in urban and metropolitan areas), only buy what they know they can sell. That said, they are a top-notch barometer of what the wider population typically reads on a daily and weekly basis.
Here’s what I never found on any of their shelves: Language Poets, Avant Gard, Black Mountain Poets, Objectivists, Beats, etc… none of the various “schools” after the moderns. If anyone reading this can tell me whether this has changed, let me know. While I was shopping at Waldens, the only free verse poet they stocked was Walt Whitman. Period. The other poets were Robert Frost, Christina Rosetti, Elizabeth Barret Browning, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, his major plays, maybe Keats, maybe Tennyson.
What do all these poets have in common?
With the exception of Whitman, none of the poets are free verse poets.
Why has the generation of free verse poets that followed the moderns largely failed to appeal to the wider, non-poetry reading, public – why have they failed to capture their imagination and inspire them? Or let me put it another way: Why have they failed to be salable?
If popular appeal is a part of (G)reatness – then the last generation of poets have failed.
In reading the various responses to Orr’s article, almost every individual volunteered a list of poets who Orr could have or should have mentioned. But I can’t think of any two bloggers who agreed on a poet.
A Failure of Aesthetics? Poetry is more than content.
My hunch is that Orr is equating (G)reatness with popular recognition and appeal, which is why he passed over all the poets other bloggers have variously mentioned. That said, Orr studiously avoids defining much of anything – asking more questions than he answers. He avoids defining what he believes to be (G)reatness in style which, it would seem, ought to be part of the equation. His description is artfully noncommittal:
Generally speaking, though, the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical. It’s less likely to involve words like “canary” and “sniffle” and “widget” and more likely to involve words like “nation” and “soul” and “language.”
I’ll go a step a further.
A poet can’t be (G)reat unless his or her poetry is stylistically (G)reat – and by stylistically (G)reat, his or her poetry must stand apart from prose. It’s not enough to have “great thoughts”. At least in the wider literary marketplace, poetry is judged in part by how and to what degree it differentiates itself from prose. AR Ammons’ poetry attains a level of complexity comparable to that of Stevens, but he lacks Stevens’ melodious line and flare for metaphor and imagery. His poetry is more like a compressed prose. Meanwhile, the poems widely considered to be Stevens’ best are also, frequently, his most metrical and metaphorical- Sunday Morning and The Idea of Order at Key West.
Shakespeare’s ideas, as Robert Shaw pointed out, are frequently pedestrian, but his language could elevate proverb to profundity. Poetry is more than content. That’s the realm of the novel (which isn’t to say that some novelists aren’t better stylists than others) but that’s not why the broader public reads them. Poetry has to be more than content, or it places itself in direct competition with every other work of prose. The results are, simply put, obvious and indisputable. A store like Waldenbooks is stuffed with contemporary novels while its poetry section couldn’t stop a screen door.
When poets adopted free verse, they surrendered the one quality of poetry that, up until then, differentiated it from every other form of writing. And it’s not just rhythm and rhyme that were rejected, but rhetoric and the building of ideas out of metaphor. Walt Whitman, while he rejected rhyme and metrical pattern, remained an intensely rhetorical and figurative poet. In contemporary poetry there is frequently nothing that distinquishes a poem from any given prose paragraph.
Mary Oliver is perhaps among the most salable of modern poets. Her poetry is rich with figurative language, image and metaphor, all immediate and accessible. Her poetry uses language in a way that a novel doesn’t.
Who knows whether Oliver will be counted among the (G)reats?
Maybe her stature will be comparable to Andrew Wyeth, who was favored by the wider public while being largely rejected by art critics, curators and collectors who couldn’t help but interpret Wyeth’s popularity as a rejection of their own increasingly unpopular aesethetics. As it is, I have an uncertain sense of Oliver’s overall popularity.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, while it may be held in high regard by fellow poets, must be special-ordered in most smaller book stores while Robert Frost’s poetry can be found in any number of permutations, including children’s books.
Can the contemporary aesthetic of free verse be (G)reat?
Have the poets of the last hundred years legitimized their own aesthetics?
If wider public appeal is any indication, the answer is No. The poets of the last generation have failed to produce a genre that in any way competes in the marketplace of modern literature. It has failed to inspire the wider public. Rather, the marketplace continues to favor a poetry that is not prose or “lineated prose” – but that is differentiated from prose in all the ways rejected by the generation following the moderns and contemporary poets.
The seventh day would be their last together. Already, the road met its first branch, at which some would depart. They all had saved their finest meats and wines for this night and their servants, some hunting game while others built the fire and prepared the spits, worked together and looked forward to the final tale as much as the merchants. At last, Lao Chi stood, his purple robes glowing warmly by the firelight.
Lao Chi’s Story
I was born where the Yangtze meets the Han river. Now I only wish to return there. I yearn for my family and all I think on are my little daughters playing the reeds I have cut into flutes for them. As perhaps you know, the reeds blossom every autumn in the great valleys of the Yangtze and Han rivers. I would trade all my wood and ivory, copper and gold, to hear my daughters play for me tonight. Here is an old story that makes me homesick.
Shir-li’s favorite pond was in a village by the banks of the Yangtze. She was a swan. When the villagers saw her they often said to one another: “In our next lives perhaps we will be like her.” Shir-li, however, dreamt of becoming like them. She remained one autumn even after the wind had driven away the last leaves. The villagers worried for the swan. They sent for the monk, Hui-nêng. “The swan has forgotten her true nature,” they said to him, “she forgets to flee when winter approaches.” The great monk came to the village.
He came in the evening and sat by the pond. The villagers who brought him wine and dried fish said that he and the swan spoke. Hui-nêng remained until dawn and left before anyone else had woken. The swan was gone. The villagers rejoiced but were also surprised. A naked woman lay beside the water. Her skin was as white as a swan’s feathers. All were astounded. The woman was quickly taken into a home and made warm with wine and incense. When the villagers asked from where she had come she could only answer: “Shir-li.”
The Silken Thread
The villagers did not know what to do at first. Then one among them taught her to weave and Shir-li’s skill soon surpassed the best. As one new to the world she learned easily. When Shir-li ran out of thread one day her companions, an elder woman of the village, laughed at her. “You should use your hair, Shir-li,” she said, “it is the most beautiful I have ever seen and I’ll bet it is as strong as any silken thread.” The woman cut a long strand which fell to Shir-li’s waist. Shir-li gasped. A strange and beautiful song entered her heart.
The song foretold the old woman’s life. When Shir-li finished the old woman whispered: “You are a spirit. I will tell no one.” Yet it wasn’t nightfall before the village knew. Two young lovers were the first to come to Shir-li. The girl offered Shir-li her most precious dress which Shir-li accepted. Then the girl cut a long strand of Shir-li’s hair. The strange and beautiful song came again foretelling a happy life. The lovers kissed when they heard this. Shir-li gasped dropping the dress the girl had given her. This kiss was beautiful and Shir-li suddenly wished to understand it most of all.
The Painted Fan
The villagers wanted to protect Shir-li but they could not keep her songs a secret. On a day in November, having been a year since becoming a woman, Shir-li was suddenly taken from the village and brought before the Emperor. He asked who she was. When she made no answer he asked her if she would marry him. He was moved by her beauty. “You may share in anything I possess,” he said, “and have whatever you desire.” Shir-li touched her lips but the Emperor did not understand her gesture.
The Emperor gave her a house in his garden. “The house is yours,” he said, “but you may not leave the garden.” He also had a little girl brought to her. “Her name is Tsing-Pai,” he said, “and she will be your servant.” One day he brought a painted fan made by his finest craftsmen. He said: “When this fan is folded it is like life.” Then the Emperor unfolded the fan and held it to the light. “It is called lovers at Lotus Stream,” he said. “You can unfold life, like this fan, and see what we are blind to.” Shir-li saw that the lovers were kissing. She touched the painting where the lips of the lovers met but even then the Emperor did not understand. “Marry me,” he said, “for with you there is nothing I cannot do.”
The Jade Quill
The Emperor brought gifts. Yet each time he also took a strand of Shir-li’s hair to cause her to sing to him. His armies triumphed. The lands of his empire increased. One day the little girl, Tsing-Pai, said to her: “Do you not know why the Emperor comes to you?” Shir-li could not answer. “He comes because he wishes to know the future,” the girl said, “and many women and men suffer because of his greed. Do you not know how his armies overtake the country? My father pledged my service to the Emperor because he feared him. He signed my life to the Emperor with a jade quill. What is a jade quill worth? Does it weep? Does it laugh? Does it dream? I do all these things but what was I worth to my father? He would rather have his jade quill than me. It believes that is where his wealth lies.” Shir-li wept.
When the Emperor came to her that day he was followed my many men. They were dressed in robes throated with gold and silver. Each held a gift. “All these things,” said the Emperor, “if you will marry me.” Shir-li held Tsing Pai’s hand. She looked at the jade the sandalwood carvings, vases, paintings and calligraphy. Then she took a strand of her own hair. She knelt beside Tsing Pai and wrapped it round the girl’s smallest finger. Then, with the suddenness of understanding, she kissed. She kissed the girl’s forehead. “What choice is this?” asked the Emperor. “I offer you my wealth, myself, and my kingdom and you choose this girl!” Then, finally, Shir-li spoke. She whispered: “I choose love.”
The Ivory Jar
“You will never leave this garden,” said Tsing Pai one afternoon. “The Emperor will keep you here as though you were a butterfly in an ivory jar. The walls of the garden are too steep to climb. I am too small for you to stand upon my shoulders.” Shir-li and the girl walked hand in hand along the length of the garden wall. When the moon rose with the coming of night Shir-li finally knelt beside a brook. She kissed the girl again, smiling. Then she took a blade from her robe and began to cut her hair. And as she did so her hair was carried off by the brook. “Why do your hands tremble?” Tsing Pai asked. She took the blade from Shir-li’s hands, who could not finish. When the last strand of Shir-li’s hair was cut the girl gasped. Before her was a beautiful swan.
Shir-li grasped the girl’s wrist in her beak and pulled her onto her back. Then her powerful wings lifted them both into the air. They soared over the garden wall. The girl hid her eyes in Shir-li’s back. Nor did she look up again until it was morning and a great sea appeared below them. Shir-li carried the girl to a seaside village. When the villagers saw the girl brought by the swan they thought she was a spirit of good fortune and treated her as kindly as one of their own children. Shir-li did not remain long. Autumn had followed them closely. Yet before she left, never to be seen again, Shir-li lifted the tip of her wings to the girl’s lips as if to kiss her. Tsing Pai, though she was never certain, thought that Shir-li laughed as she next rose into the air.
The Autumn Reed
When Tsing Pai was old enough she searched for Shir-li. She arrived in autumn at the village Shir-li had once described. The monk Hui-nêng, now old with only a wisp of hair, sat by the river’s bank playing a reed flute. Tsing Pai bowed. She said: “This is the voice of Shir-li.” “The reeds are beautiful in autumn,” Hui-nêng answered. Then Tsing Pai saw the river’s banks covered by the white blossoming reeds. “Where do they come from?” she asked. “They are Shir-li’s hair,” he answered. Then she asked: “What do you know of her?” “Listen to the swans,” he answered, “they sing now, but only of their own passing.”
Here Ends Lao Chi’s Tale
Perhaps, the traders said to one another, we will chance to meet in the spring when we return to India. Let us collect tales this winter, to tell each other should we meet.
From the time that I was a child, I have wanted to do something spectacular.
When I was in grade school and watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, I wanted to be a great astro-physicist. As a young teenager I wanted to be like Bach and Mozart. Then, when I was a sophomore in High School, I saw a video of Robert Frost reading. From that day on, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to be a great poet. In fact, I wanted to be among the very greatest.
I’ve never thought small.
I wasn’t good with numbers. I wasn’t a good composer. I’m a good carpenter. But poetry…
“In 2005, Poetry magazine published a round-table discussion entitled (naturally) “Ambition and Greatness,” in which participants were alternately put off by the entire idea of “capital-G Great”
I remember reading the round table discussion Orr describes. I remember wanting to write to the magazine but deciding the frustration would only be compounded by being ignored (or so I decided rightly or wrongly). Orr writes that no one questioned “the implicit premise that greatness isn’t something American poets can take for granted”. And this was the very last thought that occurred to me. As everyone politely corresponded, my very first thought was this: Why in the hell doesn’t anybody just say: ME!I want to be Great! I am a GreatPoet!
As far as I recall, no one (not even respondents in later issues) claimed those laurels. So far, though I’ve searched the Internet, there is still no one who has said, in defiance: Me! I want to be a Great Poet! I remain dumbfounded.
But I understand.
In college, many years ago, I wandered outside with another poet. Just the two of us. It was midwinter. We leaned into a recess of a stone facade. He was a kind of rival-poet. In the dark, the two of us alone, I wanted to confess. I shared with him something I’ve never shared with anyone else since then – until this post. I said to him:
“I want to be a Great Poet.”
“Not me,” he said. “I just want to be recognized. A professorship in Chicago would be nice.”
I felt like a fool.
I once asked a Chinese co-worker what the Chinese equivalent of Red Riding Hood was. What was their most popular folk tale? There was a tree full of monkeys, she said. One day one of the monkeys decided to see the world. He climbed to the topmost branch and slowly, carefully, poked his head through the canopy. And then she said to me: That was the monkey shot by the hunter.
I get it.
Today, I’m that monkey.
Since nobody at Poetry Magazine had the nerve, desire or arrogance, I’ll be the one.
I’ll not only climb to the top of the tree but I’ll take a flying leap.
I am going to be among the greatest of English Language Poets.
Orr quotes poet David Wojahn as noting that Lowell was “probably the last American poet to aspire to Greatness in the old-fashioned, capital-G sense.”
He was. (Past Tense.)
And Orr quotes Donald Hall as writing: “It seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition — a modesty, alas, genuine . . . if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense.” What poets should be trying to do, according to Hall, was “to make words that live forever” and “to be as good as Dante.”
I’ve met Donald Hall. I’m not afflicted by a modesty of ambition. I have been afflicted by an absence of opportunity and a slow, methodical creativity. I don’t write quickly. I write each word and line as though it were my last. I can’t fathom how other poets can produce book after book (though I don’t slight them for it). I don’t write quickly.
I know that there will be many who read my poems and dismiss them. I respect that and expect it.
Orr writes: “[A Great Poet] is somebody who takes himself very seriously and demands that we do so as well. Greatness implies scale, and a great poet is a big sensibility writing about big things in a big way.”
Yes. And that’s exactly what I do.
I want to produce work that is “exquisite in its kind”. I want to write poetry that is memorable and that, once heard, is hard to shake loose.
And to all this I add one more thought:
I don’t want to be the “best poet” or the “greatest American poet”. If you are a poet and are reading this: I want you to be a Great Poet too. I’m not out to be a better poet than you or any other poet. No. I am out to be better than myself. And that’s going to take a lifetime…
Once again winter has not caught us in the mountains. Let us admire the moon. She keeps the skies clear. Is it not true that our poet Li Po drowned when he tried to embrace the moon’s reflection in water? My father used to recite a poem (I can only recall the beginning); it was in autumn, on a night like this, when the moon is brightest. We shook laurel blossoms down. We made dumplings. We powdered rice and peanuts and rolled them with sesame. Then we drank wine, as we do tonight, and peered at the moon. This is how my father’s poem began:
It must have been beautiful
As the first of those evenings when frost
Gives way to petals;
When their fall is mingled
With the meeting of moths rising toward the light.
Or was it “the melting of moths”? But this is what my story is about — the moon and moths.
The Crescent Wing
Su Shir had seen the princess. It had been a mistake. He told no one. It was forbidden to look on the royal family. The great palace itself was walled and hidden to the view of any man or woman. Su Shir made paper. His skill throughout Beijing was unmatched. Yet now, when he was not fashioning the paper for which he was commissioned, he used it to craft tiny animals. One day when he knew the princess would be passing he left a paper crane in the street. It was forbidden to remain in the streets when the royal family passed.
The princess saw the paper crane. She asked that it be picked up and given to her. When she peered at it closely she was delighted by it. Yet none among those who accompanied her knew by whom it had been created. She put the paper crane into a pocket of her robe. Many days passed before she noticed it again. She laughed for now for it seemed to her a trifle. When evening came she held it to the flame of a candle. “Ah,” she said, “do you see the beautiful green flame it makes?”
As Su Shir slept that night a nightingale came to his window. She sang to him as he dreamed. “The princess is an idle girl who has burned your paper crane.” When Su Shir awoke the next morning he recalled the nightingale’s words as though he had dreamt them. “I am a idle craftsman,” he said, “who shall remember me whether or not I make paper crane’s for an idle girl?” And each day after he had finished his chores he crafted tiny cranes and such was his skill and artistry that they were imbued with life. “Seek light my little ones,” he said to them.
When he lay down to sleep the tiny cranes flew through the windows of Su Shir’s home and into the starlit night. They flew above the city and over the palace walls. And when they came into the princess’s palace room they flew into the flames of her tiny candle. One by one they vanished in a burst of green flame. The princess marveled at these tiny creatures and stayed awake long into the night to watch them fly into the flames.
When one night the princess’s father discovered the paper cranes he grew furious. “Find the maker,” he cried, “and bring him to me!” After the passing of a week the Emperor’s guards returned with Su Shir. They brought him before the Emperor and the little man trembled. He fell to his knees and bowed daring not to look. “Tell me why you send these paper cranes to my daughter?” he demanded. “For I have looked on your daughter,” he answered fearfully, “and I loved her.”
“Do you not know it is death to do so?” demanded the Emperor. “I do,” answered Su Shir. “Yet my daughter asks that I do not take your life,” said the Emperor. “I will take your sight instead.” Then Su Shir was blinded. The guards carried him outside the palace and threw him into the street. He might have wandered through the streets and never found his way if it were not for the nightingale. The bird sang to him and as he followed her song she led him back to his house.
He lay down then and did not rise again the next day nor in the week following. He might have remained so had not a visitor come to him in the night. The sound of small feet and a young girl’s voice woke him. “Do not cease to make your moths,” she said, “for though you must not send them to me, it was not for me you made them, poor man, but for love.” Then Su Shir felt a tear strike his cheek. The princess wept. He felt her kiss his closed eyes and then his lips. Then she left and Su Shir rose from his bed.
He worked all night. He knew by finger’s touch which papers were the finest. He crafted a thousand of the tiny moths and before he slept he opened the doors and shutters of his house. “Go,” he said. “Go out.” Then they flew into the night. The princess did not see them. They did not fly over the palace walls. They saw the moon and they flew after the moon until their paper wings became like crystalline tear drops. In autumn, when they finally reached the moon, they were countless in number and their wings made the moonlight seem almost as bright as day. And the princess, in her father’s garden, could see the white blossoms on the laurel tree at night. Then the moths shed their wings and the wings fell like flakes of snow and fell each year thereafter, as each year more moths flew to the moon and shed their wings.
Here Ends Tsi Tung’s Tale
Ah, now I recall how my father’s poem ended.
Li Po leaned into the water
Drunk with drink and fellowship,
To scoop the moon into his hands;
To bring it to his lips
And finally sip the liquid of its light….
Let us look at the moon tonight, my friends, and think on who will remember us when we are gone.
Milton’s blank verse is exceedingly conservative and easy to scan. It’s a testament to Milton’s skill as a poet that his beautiful language and careful phrasing triumphs over his monotonous meter – in many cases subtly disrupting it without violating it. It’s a miracle, really. (For an example of a poet who didn’t pull it off, read Spencer’s Fairy Queen.) It was as if the experimentation of the Elizabethans, let alone the Jacobeans, had never occurred. Milton came of age in an exceedingly conservative era- poetically. Meter, in those days, was as dominant then as free verse now, and as unadventurous. Just the fact that Milton wrote blank verse (when everyone else was writing heroic couplets) was an act of defiance.
Most of the trouble surrounding Milton and scansion (for modern readers) comes down to differences in pronunciation – some of it has to do with historical changes; and some, if you’re American, has to do with differences in British and American pronunciation (especially problematic when reading Chaucer).
I cooked up a table that, with its “scientific” terminology, gives you an idea of Milton’s metrical habits and preferences. I haven’t gone line by line to exhaustively prove the accuracy of my table, but I can assert, for example, that Milton (despite claims to the contrary) never wrote a trochee in the final foot. Here’s an extract, to that effect, from my review of M.L. Harvey’s Book Iambic Pentameter from Shakespeare to Browning: A Study in Generative Metrics (Studies in Comparative Literature):
A more egregious example of misreading, due to changes in habits of pronunciation and even to present day differences between the continents, comes when Mr. Harvey examines Milton. Words like “contest” and “blasphemous” and “surface” (all taken from Paradise Lost) were still accented on the second syllable. “Which of us beholds the bright surface.” (P.L. 6.472 MacMillan. Roy Flannagan Editor.) Mr. Harvey, offering an example of a “very rare `inverted foot’” (the credit for its recognition he gives to Robert Bridges) gives the following line: “Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim Prostrate (P.L. 6.841) In fact, Robert Bridges and Mr. Harvey are both mistaken in reading the fifth foot as inverted and one need not be a seventeenth century scholar to recognize it. Webster’s International Dictionary: Second Edition, in fact, provides the following pronunciation key. (pros [stressed] trat [unstressed]; formerly, and still by some. Esp. Brit., pros [unstressed] trat [stressed]). Any laboratory of Americans, nearly without fail, would also misread this line, and so the danger of overwhelming empirical evidence!
On to my table… Each division represents an equivalent foot in an Iambic Pentameter line.
Here is one of my favorite passages, already alluded to in a previous post – Iambic Pentameter Variants – I. To simplify matters, I haven’t marked any of the Iambic feet , I’ve only marked variant feet or feet that, for one reason another, might be read incorrectly.
Elision, a standard practice in Milton’s day and more or less assumed whether marked or not, eliminates the vast majority of Milton’s “variant” feet.
Glorious, if treated as a three syllable word, would make the second foot Anapestic, not criminal, but if you can elide, you should.
This elision might make some metrists squirm. Given just how conservative metrical practice tended to be in Milton’s day, I would be inclined to elide these two vowels. Given how Milton can barely bring himself to so much as use a feminine ending in the final foot, I seriously doubt he expected readers to treat this foot as an anapest. My advice is to elide it.
The final example of elision, above, is the word Spirits. Interestingly, Milton seems to treat this word opportunistically. In line 466, for example, he treats spirits as a two syllable word. In other lines, throughout Paradise Lost and in the latter line, he treats the word as a monosyllabic word. This sort of inconsistency in pronunciation is found as far back as Chaucer, as with his pronunciation of the word sweete – sometimes one syllable, sometimes two. Such inconsistency is permitted once one has obtained a poetic license.
Reading with the Meter
Modern readers may sometimes be tempted to read as though they were reading prose. Sometimes, though, poets play the line against the meter, wanting us to emphasize certain words we might not otherwise. That’s the beauty of meter in poetry. Milton, as with all the great poets, was skilled at this sort of counterpoint:
In the line above, the modern reader might be tempted to stress the line as follows:
Mean, or in her summ’d up, in in her containd
This would be putting the emphasis on the words in. In free verse, ok, but not Iambic Pentameter and especially not with a metrically conservative poet like Milton. Milton wants us to put the emphasis on her. Maybe the line above doesn’t seem such a stretch? Try this one:
Any modern reader would put the emphasis on Bone and Flesh:
Bone of my Bone, Flesh of my Flesh, my Self
But they would be missing the point of Milton’s line – the closing mySelf! That is, it’s not the Bone or Flesh that amazes Adam, it’s that the Bone and Flesh are of his Bone and ofhis Flesh. His Self! This contrapuntal exploitation of the meter is a master stroke and to miss it is to miss Milton’s genius. If it’s read in this light, stressing the prepositional of might not feel so strained or artificial.
Pentameter at all costs!
Milton’s obeisance to the demands of Iambic Pentameter aren’t always entirely successful.
This, to me, is a reach, but it’s probably what Milton intended and even how he pronounced it. Practice it with studied e-nunc-i-a-tion and the line may make a little more sense. An alternative is to read the line as Iambic Tetrameter.
Given Milton’s metrical squeamishness, I seriously doubt that, in the entirety of Paradise Lost, he decided, for just one moment, to write one Tetrameter line. There are other alternative Tetrameter readings, but they get uglier and uglier.
That said, ambiguities like these, along with the examples that follow, are what disrupt the seeming monotony of Milton’s meter. His use of them defines Milton’s skill as a poet. Roy Flannagan’s introduction to Paradise Lost (page 37) is worth quoting in this regard:
Milton writes lines of poetry that appear to be iambic pentameter if you count them regularly but really contain hidden reversed feet or elongated or truncated sounds that echo meaning and substance rather than a regular and hence monotonous beat. He builds his poetry on syllable count and on stress; William B. Hunter, following the analysis of Milton’s prosody by the poet Robert Bridges in 1921, counts lines that vary in the number of stresses from three all the way up to eight, but with the syllabic count remaining fixed almost always at ten (“The Sources” 198). Milton heavily favors ending his line on a masculine , accented syllable, with frequent enjambment or continuous rhythm from one line to the next… He avoids feminine feet or feet with final unstressed syllables at the ends of lines. He varies the caesura, or the definitive pause within the line, placing it more freely than any other dramatist or non-dramatic writer Hunter could locate (199). He controls elisions or the elided syllables in words most carefully, allowing the reader to choose between pronouncing a word like spirit as a monosyllable (and perhaps pronounced “sprite”) or disyllable, or Israel as a disyllable or trisyllable.
Extra Syllables: Milton’s Amphibrachs (Feminine Endings & Epic Caesuras)
The amphibrach is a metrical foot if three syllables – unstressed-stressed-unstressed. In poets prior to the 20th Century it is always associated with feminine endings or epic caesuras. In the passages above, Milton offers us two examples, one in the second foot (by far the norm) and one in the first foot.
This would be an epic caesura. The comma indicates a sort of midline break (a break in the syntactic sense or phrase). Amphibrach’s, at least in Milton, are always associated with this sort of syntactic pause or break. Epic Caesuras and Feminine Endings are easily the primary reason for extra syllables in Milton’s line. Anapests make up the rest, but they are far less frequent and can be frequently elided.
This would be a much rarer Epic Caesura in the first foot. Notice, once again, that the amphibrachic foot occurs with a syntactic break, the comma.
Differences in Pronunciation
If you just can’t make sense of the metrical flow, it might be because you aren’t pronouncing the words the same way Milton and his peers did.
Most modern readers would probably pronounce discourse and dis’course. However, in Milton’s day and among some modern British, it was and is pronounced discourse’.
This one is trickier. In modern English, we pronounce attribute as att’ribute when used as a noun and attri’bute when used as a verb. Milton, in a rather Elizabethan twist, is using attributing in its nominal sense, rather than verbal sense. He therefore keeps the nominal pronunciation: att’tributing.
The arch-Angel says to Adam, as concerns Eve:
Dismiss not her…by attributing overmuch to things Less excellent…
It’s phenomenally good marital advice. In other words. Don’t dismiss her by just tallying up her negative attributes, to the exclusion of her positive attributes. There is more to any friendship, relationship, or marriage than the negative. Think on the positive.
Some of Milton’s metrical feet are simply ambiguous – effectively breaking the monotony of the meter. In the example below, one could read the first foot as trochaic or as Iambic:
I chose a trochaic foot – the first option. If this foot had been in the fifth foot (or the last foot of the line) I would have read it as Iambic. Milton doesn’t write trochaic feet in the fifth foot. In the first foot, however, trochaic feet aren’t uncommon and in this instant it seems to make sense. I don’t sense that there’s any crucial meaning lost by de-emphasizing by. Perhaps the best answer, in cases of metrical ambiguity, is to consider at what point in the line the ambiguity is occuring.
Similarly, I read the following line as having a spondee in the fourth foot:
One could also read it as trochaic or iambic. Iambic, given the metrical practice of the day, is far more likely than a trochaic foot – especially, given Milton’s practice, this close to the final foot. I scanned the foot as spondaic. Spondaic feet, in Milton’s day, were considered the least disruptive variant foot and so were acceptable at just about any point of the line.
My Favorite Passages
The passages excerpted above just about cover every metrical exigency you will run into in reading Milton. The other reason I chose them is because they’re, well, juicy. I love them. I especially like the following lines for their sense of humor (and, yes, Milton does have a sense of humor).
What boyfriend or husband hasn’t had this experience? No matter how rational we think we are, all our intellectual bravado crumbles to folly – men are from Mars, women are from Venus.
Did Adam & Eve have sex? Why, yes, says Milton, but it wasn’t pornographic. That came after the fall:
Lastly, and most importantly, is there sex in heaven (or do we have to go to hell for that)? Milton gives us the answer:
If you enjoyed this post and found it helpful, comment! Let me know. And if you have further questions or corrections, I appreciate those too.
Not much this week. A couple of posts by me. Mostly discussions on various forums (such as Poets.Org) which, though interesting, are too changeable to reference.
If any readers would like to recommend sites or blogs please do! Feel free to recommend your own blog or poem if you like but please don’t post your poem in the comment field (provide a link and the first lines).
Definition: Terza rima is poetry written in three-line stanzas (or “tercets”) linked by end-rhymes patterned aba, bcb, cdc, ded, efe, etc. There is no specified number of stanzas in the form, but poems written in terza rima usually end with a single line or a couplet rhyming with the middle line of the last tercet.
Dante Alighieri was the first poet to use terza rima, in his Divine Comedy, and he was followed by other Italian poets of the Renaissance, like Boccaccio & Petrarch…
Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem. I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing…
Theodore Roethke lived from 1908 to 1963. He died the same year as Robert Frost, though much younger when he died – only 55. Though he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, the Waking, his reputation these days remains overshadowed. Two good books that both offer brief biographies on Roethke, Michael Schmidt’s the Lives of the Poets and David Perkins A History of Modern Poetry, cite Roethke’s inability to establish his own voice as contributing to his relative obscurity….
Below you will find a compliation of snippets I have found on the internet which will help you understand poetry better. I know it is a lot to take in. Let me know if anything confuses you. Please be sure to look this over a few times, and especially read the bit about poetry and modernism at the end…
First you’ll need to read or listen to poetry. This is not a requirement for writing poetry, especially if your writing just for your enjoyment, however most all publish worthy poems are written by those who read or listen to poetry regularly…
Of course that’s from Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, and I quote it in the post heading because the pop-sci book on human genetics I’ve just started, Bryan Sykes’ The Seven Daughters of Eve, quotes it without acknowledgement in the second paragraph of the prologue…
According to Google, this was posted on the 18th, despite being an older interview. The interview is a good read.
Often the bronze texts are not very “poetic” in our twentieth-century sense of the word. They are short on beautiful poetic metaphors. In breaking free of rhyme and meter, twentieth-century poets and critics said, “We’re not so interested in the sound of verse; poetry isn’t composed to the metronome; what counts is imagery, that is the point of using free verse.” In all this perfectly justifiable poetic revolution, we have lost track of what was important in an earlier revolution, namely the discovery of rhyme which was so important for early Chinese poetry…
This website and its posts aren’t recent, but is new to me.
She sat facing backwards on the train to Crewe,
watching herself shrinking in the distance
while familiar landscapes flickered past the window,
though not in black and white.
They had been, once –
with hairline cracks that burst upon a screen,
where Mother, tightly-permed and nyloned,
clicked her heels through unconnected scenes…
And I wrote a new poem this week, in Iambic Dimeter.
Having noticed several searches on Frost’s Mending Wall (probably one of the most famous poems he wrote) I thought I would take a look at the poem. I’ve looked at several of my books on Frost and none of them extensively analyze the poem. The archetypal meaning of the wall is straightfoward and expounded on by the speaker of the poem. Perhaps the most insightful comment was Richard Poirier’s in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Poirier makes the observation Frost’s “genius as a narrative poet is in part his capacity to sustain debates between people about the nature of the ‘homes’ which they very often occupy together.” Mending Wall is an ideal manifestation of that genius, just as Home Burial is.
As an aside, it is also worth noting how few poets take an interest in writing narratively or even in voices other than their own. In the most recent issue of Measure, a biannual journal that publishes “formal” poetry, I could only find one poem indisputably written in a voice other than the poet’s – “Moliere’s Housekeeper”. The overwhelming majority were first person with the remaining few being second and third person. Not a single poem was written in the manner of a debate between two separate voices. Robert Frost is truly unique in this respect.
Having just analyzed Frost’s Birches, I was struck by the difference, in metrical style, between Birches and Mending Wall. My first thought was that Birches must have been written later (if not much later) than Mending Wall. Where Mending Wall is extremely conservative in its use of variant feet, Birches shows a much greater freedom and flexibility. As is the habit with most poets , when young they will try to master the game strictly by the rules – both to learn the rules and to prove to themselves and to others that they have the right stuff. Frost himself bragged that his first book, “A Boy’s Will”, proved that he could write by the numbers. That done, he quickly learned how to bend the rules.
I still think that Birches must have come later but William Pritchard, Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, recounts that when Frost wrote to Bartlett (a publisher) in August of 1913 “about a book to be called, tentatively, New England Eclogues, made up of ‘stories’ form between one to two hundred lines, he sent along a list of eleven poems, one of which bore the title “Swinging Birches.” Pritchard, echoing another biographer (John Kemp) speculates that Frost didn’t include Birches in the first book because the tone, more philosophical “and sage”, would have set it (too much) apart from the other poems “rooted in the realism of experience”. Page 103.
So… I’ m left clinging to my theory on the basis of meter alone. Which isn’t a wholly reliable way to date poetry. But there you have it. One last interesting note. Lea Newman, who I mentioned in a previous post, writes in her book Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry, of a children’s story Frost wrote for Carol and Lesley. In reference to elves and a spell, she quotes the following passage from the story:
Their backs were to the wall so that when a stone fell off it they were taken by surprise. They hardly turned in time to see two little heads pop out of sight on the pasture side. Carol saw them better than Lesley. “Faries!” he cried. Lesley said, “I can’t believe it.” “Fairies sure,” said Carol.
What Newman doesn’t observe is that even here, two voices (Frost’s children) are in debate. One sees fairies, the other doesn’t. Not only were the seeds of magic and elves present in this children’s story, but also the presence of two distinct voices in debate. It’s easy to imagine how, rightly or wrongly, these first thoughts gradually evolved into the famous poem. Newman mentions, additionally, that Frost himself never firmly identified himself with one speaker or the other. There was a little of both speakers in himself – and the poem could in some ways be taken as an internal debate.
Here is what Frost himself said, 1955, at Bread Loaf:
It’s about a spring occupation in my day. When I was farming seriously we had to set the wall up every year. You don’t do that any more. You run a strand of barbed wire along it and let it go at that. We used to set the wall up. If you see a wall well set up you know it’s owned by a lawyer in New York — not a real farmer. This is just about that spring occupation, but of course all sorts of things have been done with it and I’ve done something with it myself in self defense. I’ve gone it one better — more than once in different ways for the Ned of it — just for the foolishness of it. [The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frostp. 231]
To show just how divergent the metrical usages are between the two poems, I’ve color coded the scansion of Mending Wall and Birches. Trochaic feet are in red, Spondees are purple, Anapests are blue, and Feminine Endings are green, Phyrric feet are yellowish.
Frost reciting Mending Wall:
The meter does little in terms of acting as counterpoint to the line. (The scansion, by the way, is based on Frost’s own reading of the poem.) One might conjecture that the regularity of the meter, if it wasn’t simply for the sake of writing Iambic Pentameter, was meant to echo the stepwise, regular, stone by stone mending of the wall. After all, there is no flinging of feet from the topmost spindle of a birch. There is no avalanching or crazed ice. There are no girls on hands and knees throwing their hair before them over their heads to dry them. The work of mending wall is slow, methodical, hand roughening work. This, of itself, may explain the careful regularity of the meter.
There are some nice touches worth mentioning, touches that might escape a reader unaccustomed to reading blank verse (Iambic Pentameter). First:
The temptation, including my own, is to read the first foot as Trochaic |But at|, but Frost clearly reads it Iambically. He reads the first foot quickly. It’s a craft that many “professional” metrists don’t take seriously enough – perhaps because they’re not poets themselves. The meter of poets who write metrically shouldn’t be taken for granted. All too often, it seems, metrists insist that the English language, as it is spoken on the street, trumps any given metrical pattern. Don’t believe them. A poet who writes metrically does so for a reason.
The sweetest metrical touch comes in the following line:
Most of us would read the third foot as |I could|, putting the emphasis on I, but Frost reads the foot Iambically and the pattern reinforces the reading. Putting the emphasis on could gives the line a much different feel, then if one emphasized I. To me, Frost’s reading sounds more mischeivious. Frost specialized in this sort of metrical subtletly, emphasizing words that might not normally recieve the ictus. It’s also a specially nice touch because just several lines before Frost used the word could as an unstressed syllable.
One could conceivably stress could in the line above, but that would be subverting the Iambic pattern.
Lastly, another effect of the regular iambic pattern is to especially contrast the first trochaic foot in the poem’s seminal line:
Some-thing | there is | that does | n’t love | a wall
It’s an effect that subliminally draws attention to the eye, catching the ear. It’s a line that disrupts the normal “foot on foot”, “stone on stone” pattern of the poem. And it is doubly effective because the line occurs twice. If the effect wasn’t noticed the first time, it will be the second time.
The author Mark Richardson, in one of my favorite books on Frost, The Ordeal of Robert Frost, finds that the two trochees in this first line and in the four lines “contribute subtly to the theme of these lines”.
Something| there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes |gaps ev|en two can pass abreast.
“How much better”, he asks, “to describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered.” To me, given that only 2 out of the 20 feet are variant metrical feet (and the spondee is really only marginal) I’m not persuaded that they’re all that disordered. I’m more apt to apply that observation to the following lines:
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones |under |his pines, |I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make |good neighbors’. Spring is |the mischief in me, and |I wonder
In these lines, 5 out of the feet are variant. Two trochaic feet and three feminine endings. I think these lines make a stronger case for the juncture of meter and meaning. There is a sort of excitement and mischievousness in the tone of the speaker reflected, one could argue, in the disruption of the meter. As Frost reads it, these are the most irregular lines in the poems – the moment when the two men exchange words.
Interpreting Mending Wall: (June 19 2009)
I’m adding this section because I should have written it from the beginning. But what prompted me to write it is the fascinating reading from an acquaintance of mine. He is the Director of a New England private school and in his most recent newsletter, he wrote the following about the poem:
The more I read and teach this poem. the more I find the speaker to be a condescending jerk. After inviting the neighbor to repair the wall, a tradition that clearly brings the speaker pleasure, he then makes fun of him for caring about the wall. First he assures his neighbor that his apples trees will not cross the wall to eat his pine cones. Then he imagines making an even more preposterous suggestion — that it is “elves” and not frost heaves that have toppled the wall — but decides not to mention it since his neighbor is not clever enough to come up with such an idea on his own… He ends the poem with an insult, confiding to us that the neighbor is “an old stone savage armed”.
The point being made is that the speaker’s humor comes at the expense of his neighbor. “Wall mending becomes an opportunity not to talk with his neighbor, but to sneer at him.” This is prejudice, he adds.
My own take is that there is certainly some humor at the neighbor’s expense, but the speaker of the poem gives the neighbor the final word. In other words, the poem doesn’t end with these words:
He moves in darkness as it seems to me
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
It ends with the aphorism – Good fences make good neighbors. This is what the reader of the poem walks away with. There is a weight and seriousness in this last line, like the stones being placed back onto the wall, that undercuts the speaker’s glib humor.
Tyler Hoffman, in his book, Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry (another one of my very favorite books on Robert Frost and dirt cheap at Amazon), actually acknowledges some of my acquaintances reservations concerning Mending Wall’s speaker. Hoffman’s observes that Frost’s own conception of the poem initially confirms the impression of the speaker’s dismissiveness. Hoffman writes:
In 1915, when the tone [of the neighbor’s aphorism] is fresher in his mind, Frost advses that this instance should be heard as expressing ‘Incredulity of the other’s dictum’ (CPPP 689). But how much sarcasm is entangled in the in the speaker’s quotation of his neighbor’s statement? The tone is held in suspension, allowing us to imagine it is said with either a shrug or a sneer.
(…) none of the imaginable tones is flattering to the neighbor: when we hear it one way, we condemn him as smug and self-congratulatory; when we hear it another way, we write him off as a blockhead (“an old-stone savage armed”).
According to Hoffman, Frost’s acquaintance, Reginald Cook reported that Frost used to stress “I’d rather he said it for himself” in the lines:
I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
There were evidently tonalities and “sentence sounds” that Frost lost track of as a result of repeated readings. Hoffman relates that Frost himself said (in reference to the poem’s central aphorism): “You know, I’ve read that so often I’ve sort of lost the right way to say, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’ See. There’s a special way to say [it] I used to have in my imagination, and it seems to have gone down. You say it in two different ways there.”
What’s interesting about Frost’s statement is that it confirms what many readers probably sense (or may not), that there is a shift in tone from the start of the poem to the finish. The speaker’s own attitude toward his neighbor changes. Does the poem end sarcastically or does it only begin sarcastically and end with a different sort of respect. It seems that the speaker of the Mending Wall wants his neighbor to be more playful or more open to a kind of intentionality in the world’s workings. Human beings do more than build barriers. We cannot separate ourselves from the vagaries of life that, sometimes, seem almost mischievous, tearing down our most ingeniously devised walls. The speaker wants his neighbor to say it for himself. But if one reads the poem in this sense, then it seems as though the neighbor really does move in a kind of darkness. He comes to represent that part in us that refuses to give ourselves up to a world we cannot, ultimately, control. It’s not exactly elves, but maybe something like elves. Call it impishness, perhaps.
But there’s another aspect to this poem, and that’s in knowing which character is really Robert Frost, if either. In the Road Not Taken, Frost describes the following experience:
I felt as if I was going to meet my own image in a slanting mirror. Or say I felt as we slowly converged on the same point with the same noiseless yet laborious stride as if we were two images about to float together with the uncrossing of someone’s eyes. I verily expected to take up or absorb this other self and feel the stronger by the addition for the three-mile journey home.
This sort of experience characterizes much of Frost’s poetry – Frost in conversation with himself, divided in his own beliefs and assertions. Many of his poems are like argumentative engagements with himself. Frost himself said as much:
“I make it a rule not to take any ‘character’s side in anything I write” [RF & The Politics of Poetry p. 108]
It’s a theme that Mark Richardson recognizes in his book The Ordeal of Robert Frost. Mending Wall, he writes: “perfectly exhibits the balance he sought between dispositions of conformity and formity. The speaker… allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring…” Then Richardson adds:
…the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So, if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place… [p. 141]
Driving the point home, Richardson closes his argument with the following:
The speaker of “Mending Wall” is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies…. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism [Something there is that doesn’t love a wall] to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.
Here from The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, is Frost himself. Frost was responding to the president of Rollins College.
He took both my hands to tell me I had written a true international poem. And just to tease him I said: “How do you get that?” You know. I said I thought I’d been fair to both sides — both national [and international]. “Oh, no,” he said, “I could see what side you were on.” And I said: “The more I say I the more I always mean somebody else.” That’s objectivity, I told him. That’s the way we talked about it, kidding. That’s where the great fooling comes in. But my latest way out of it is to say: “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That’s man. [pp. 231-232]
George Monteiro, the essayists from whose article these quotes are taken, adds that Frost took Mending Wall “very much… as a fable.”
The Poet and his Poetry (September 25 2011)
Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions, just that it’s another possible way to understand it.
One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.
My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.
It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.
Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.
Etherealizing By Robert Frost
A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.
If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.
Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.
Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.
With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.
What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:
I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.
Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world. In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.
To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler. Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.
Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “gaps even two can pass abreast”.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.
The hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.
But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
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 offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.
Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.
A Comparison to Birches
In terms of the degree to which the meter differs between Mending Wall and Birches, I thought I’d post my scansion of Birches for comparison:
Something I mentioned in my previous post on Birches, is how the variant feet emphasize and reinforce the narrative of the poem. Having color coded the variant feet, Frost’s skillful use of meter is all the more visible. The most concentrated metrical variation occurs where the narrative describes motion – movement and spectacle. This is no mistake. Poets learning to write metrically (and there must be a few of them in the world) would do well to study Frost carefully.
If you enjoyed this post or have further questions, please let me know.
September 14, 2009.I remember making posters when I was a kid. The more I concentrated on the spelling, the more likely I was to get it wrong. It’s not Tetrameter but Trimeter. (This post was originally titled Roethke & Waltzing Iambic Tetrameter.) My thanks to Joy at Welcome to Way Down Under for catching this mistake. Sometimes we just need a little help from friends.
Theodore Roethke lived from 1908 to 1963. He died the same year as Robert Frost, though much younger when he died – only 55. Though he won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, the Waking, his reputation these days remains overshadowed. Two good books that both offer brief biographies on Roethke, Michael Schmidt’s the Lives of the Poets and David Perkins A History of Modern Poetry, cite Roethke’s inability to establish his own voice as contributing to his relative obscurity. His style ranges from an early rugged meter and rhyme, to a Yeatsian diction and subject matter mid-career, to a more elemental and Whitmanesque freedom of line and expression shortly before his death (though he never wholly abjures form in poetry). Schmidt writes: “His dependence on other poets for structure, mythology, and actual style shakes our trust in the poet; but no one can deny the original power of the poems that seek to make him whole.” On the other hand, what Roethke generally did not adopt, unlike some of his contemporaries and successors, was the “abandoning of traditional forms and the contingent world in favor of the seductions of the unconscious and of dream.” Reothke’s best poems are strongly grounded in the real, present and natural world.
My Papa’s Waltz
My Papa’s Waltz may be one of Roethke’s best known poems. It’s written in an Iambic Trimeter that Roethke skillfully varies according to the subject matter of the poem – a counterpoint unavailable to free verse poetry.
I’ve bracketed the first and third quatrains (or stanzas) because they offer something very deliberate. The feminine endings of dizzy and easy (slant rhymes), in the first stanza, and knuckle and buckle, in the third, masterfully reproduce the halting and drunken rhythm of his father’s waltzing. (Without being limping iambs, the lines create a similar feel.) The words themselves both reinforce and are reinforced by the meter – dizzy in the first stanza; the painful interruptions of knuckle and buckle in the second.
The other reason for bracketing both stanzas is that they are both strictly about Roethke’s dance with his father.
Another metrical touch is the trochaic foot in the second line of the second stanza:
The trochaic foot skillfully emphasizes the disruption of the pans as they slid from the kitchen selves. This isn’t an easywaltz, things are backwards and upside down. The trochee in the second line is echoed by the near-spondee of the stanza’s fourth line:
As with his mother’s countenance, the meter too is disturbed.
Before the boy is whisked off to bed, the metrical pattern of the poem is disrupted one last time:
The second foot of could be read as an out and out spondee:
In either case, the meter disturbingly echoes the slap of his father’s palm on the boy’s head, disrupting the meter of the poem, the waltz, and any joy the boy takes in the father’s drunken attention. The only real anapestic variant in the poem occurs in the second line of the poem’s final stanza – with a palm. Though I shy away from giving poets too much credit for qualities (such as vowel & consonant sounds) inherent in the English language, I think that Roethke’s anapest, in this stanza, was deliberate. He could have written – With palms|cracked hard| by dirt. I think the line would have worked that way. My reading is that the anapest nicely reproduces the hard, swinging whack of the father’s palm on the boy’s head.
And yet, through all these things, the boy still “clings” to his father’s shirt when he is waltzed off to bed. Even the rough attention of a drunken father is a “love” that the boy clings t. This is perhaps the most poignant, to me, conclusion of the poem. Despite the hard and painful dance of his father’s waltz, it’s not a dance that the boy wants to surrender.
Be sure and let me know if you enjoy these readings.