in my opinion
Here’s a poem I’ve been meaning to write about.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the gems, one of the masterpieces of the latter 20th century. There’s not a word out of place. I’m sure there are more but (because I spend more time writing than reading) I don’t know about them (unless other readers tell me).
First, to the poem itself, then I’ll take a closer look at it. The poem is number 20 in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book A Coney Island of the Mind, a book considered by many to be his finest.
rhyme in free verse
The expressive power of rhyme is something many free verse poets either don’t get, don’t want to get, or lack the talent to realize (in my opinion). But there are poets writing in this genre who do get it and Ferlinghetti is one of them. The poem above is rich in end-rhyme and internal rhyme, and the rhyming isn’t gratuitous.
It adds expressive power and underscores the meaning of the poem. It makes the poem more memorable. Here is the same poem. I’ve highlighted the end rhymes and internal rhymes that strike me as the most important. There’s no significance to the colors except that like rhymes are similarly colored.
The first thing to know about good rhyme is that it doesn’t have to end-rhyme – especially in free verse. Metrical poetry can use internal rhyme as well, but the advantage that free verse offers is the freedom of its line lengths. The freedom allows a poet like Ferlinghetti to place the rhyme exactly where he wants them.
The words among and gum are assonant rhymes, meaning that only the vowel sounds rhyme.
In a metrical poem, if Ferlinghetti had wanted to keep these rhymes as end rhymes, he probably would have had to drop some syllables. And that brings to mind another little secret (which I’ll let you in on). This “free verse” poem has a metrical poem hidden inside it.
If I move some lines around, watch what happens. Watch this:
1.) The pen|nycan|dystore| beyond |the El
is where | I first fell |in love |with un|real|ity
Jelly|beans glowed |in the se|mi-gloom
of that| septem|ber af|ternoon
5.) A cat |upon |the coun|ter moved |among
the li|corice sticks |and toot|sie rolls |and Oh |Boy Gum
Outside |the leaves |were fal|ling as |they died
A wind| had blown |away |the sun
A girl |ran in |Her hair |was rainy
10.) Her breasts |were breath|less in |the lit|tle room
Outside |the leaves |were fal|ling and |they cried
Too soon! |Too soon!
In terms of Iambic Rhythm, this poem is more regular than Keats! I read lines 1,5,7,10 & 11 as Iambic Pentameter. And I read lines 3,4, 8 & 9 as Iambic Tetrameter. Lines 2 & 6 are alexandrines (6 foot lines rather than 5 foot lines). The red represents a trochaic foot. The blue represents an anapestic variant foot and the green would be a feminine ending (just as with all my scansions). I chose to scan the final line as Iambic Dimeter. (This isn’t the only way to scan these lines but reflects what makes sense – to me.)
All in all, this poem could easily be a regular stanza in a larger traditional poem. Many, though not all, of Ferlinghetti’s poems in A Coney Island of the Mind are “subversively” metrical. And many younger poets would do well to learn by it. The techniques of traditional poetry are still available to all poets, even those who write free verse. They’re not exclusionary – though one might quibble as to whether Ferlinghetti’s poem is truly “free verse”.
What’s truly sweet about Ferlinghetti’s rhymes is how he withholds the rhyme suggested by gloom and noon to the very end of the poem.The other rhymes find their companions either within two or three lines, El & fell, that & cat, among, gum & sun, glowed, oh & blown; or the rhymes occur within the same lines, outside & died, breasts and breathless. The internal rhymes breasts and breathless are a masterful touch. (The alliteration underscores that moment when the boy sees something besides candy, better than candy, and like candy.)
Only gloom and noon remain unrhymed, but the ear has been primed.
And it’s when the poem closes that gloom and noon are rhymed. The effect is one of framing and also of completion. The rhymes subliminally reinforce the poem’s closure, especially the repeated soon. In a sense, Ferlinghetti has created a pattern that seeks closure both in subject matter and form.
This is what rhyme can add to a poem.
And this is what is missing in so much free verse – the subtle parallelism of rhyme, meter and meaning.
imagery and meaning
or the other reasons the poem is a masterpiece
The pennycandystore beyond the El
From the very first line we’re reminded of innocence and simplicity. What could be more benign than the pennycandystore? And what is the El? It probably refers to one of the elevated subway lines of New York City’s transit, but it could also refer to the “L” of Chicago, also called the “El” (by some Chicagoans). If I were the betting kind, I would put my money on New York. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers (just north of New York City) and so (one would expect) would have been familiar with New York City subway system as a child, (although this assumes that the poem as autobiographical.)
On the other hand, though the title of the book would seem to locate the poetry in New York City, some of the opening poems locate the speaker in California. Additionally, Ferlinghetti tells us that the book’s title is taken from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life, making the title more an idea than a place. I’ve noticed that readers from Chicago assume that Ferlinghetti is describing the “L” in Chicago while readers from New York assume it’s New York.
To make matters worse, there has been more than one “El” in New York. There’s the Ninth Avenue “El”, there’s the “El” station which was demolished in 1940 (but which Ferlinghetti must have known), and then there’s the “El” of Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens. To me, the demolished El station seems a likely candidate; but it doesn’t matter. If Ferlinghetti wanted us to know, he could tell us. As of writing this, he’s still around.
is where I first
fell in love
What does the poem mean by unreality? The poem gives us some clues:
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
the licorice sticks
and tootsie rolls
and Oh Boy Gum
Was it the jellybeans glowing in the semi-gloom? But there’s little else “unreal” in the description. Here’s how I read it: The poet is a boy when he walks into the pennycandystore. Reality, to him, are the glowing jellybeans, the licorice sticks, the tootsie rolls and the Oh Boy Gum. The jellybeans glow, like beacons. But another kind of reality (and unreality to the boy) begins to swirl around him. It’s in the semi-gloom of that septemeber afternoon. It’s the cat upon the counter, moving like a huntress through the boy’s “reality”, through the beckoning jellybeans, licorice sticks and “Oh Boy Gum”. Oh Boy… Ferlinghetti’s choice of candy is no mistake. This is candy for a boy. This the stuff that makes a boy say, oh boy…
Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun
But unreality will not be delayed; and there is more dying than just the leaves. The boy’s reality, his pennycandystore, is also dying. The sun, and all that it has represented to the boy, is being blown away by a wind – and that wind is more than just a literal wind. Something else is about to dissolve the boy’s reality – and unreality:
A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room
Need I say more? Ferlinghetti says it best, and I can’t think of any boy who hasn’t had that same experience, that same breath-stopping, heart stopping, unreal instance when we see “a girl” for the first time. She has run in and she carries, into the little room, all of the unreality the boy had, until this moment, been unaware of. Her hair, the rain that sheds the leaves and has blown away the sun, and her breasts. And what is breathless in the little room? Her breasts? Him? The little room? Where are the jellybeans? – the licorice, tootsie rolls or “Oh Boy” gun? They are gone, like so much else. Gone.
Outside the leaves were falling
and they cried
Too soon! Too soon!
The poem moves us out of the pennycandystore. There’s no need to tell more. Where a lesser poet might have remained inside the store, telling us more than needs description, Ferlinghetti’s touch is masterful – genius. We know. The boy is gone, in love with an unreality, the sudden unfathomable and breathlessly indefinable beauty of a girl. The pennycandystore, with all its little childish realties, is gone. Outside, the falling leaves cry: Too soon! Too soon!
From Ferlinghetti’s Populist Manifesto Number 1
Where are Whitman’s wild children,
where the great voices speaking out
with a sense of sweetness and sublimity,
where the great new vision,
the great world-view,
the high prophetic song
of the immense earth
and all that sings in it
And our relations to it –
to the street of the world once more
And open your minds & eyes
with the old visual delight…
- If you like this post, check out Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A Review of Poets & Anthologies and Erotic Haiku: Of Skin On Skin. In the former you will find three more collections of erotic haiku reviewed: Erotic Haiku by Rod Willmot & authors, Haiku for Lovers, and Cold Moon: Erotic Haiku of Gabriel Rosenstock. The latter reviews a new collection of erotic haiku by George Swede and Terrry Ann Carter.
coquette: Sensual haiku
My writing of Haiku has fallen off of late.
But I want to get back to writing more. And to get myself warmed up, I’m reviewing three splendid collections.
Eroticism and haiku are a perfect fit. Just as the haiku is the art of indirection, so too erotica. Whereas the explicit is an imaginative endpoint, the best haiku are a suggestive starting point for the imagination. Suggestiveness is all – allusion, inference, and association. And when haiku fail because they were made too explicit, eroticism fails for the same reason: eroticism becomes pornographic.
❧ Jeffrey Winke
What does the reader imagine? Does he or she imagine that the poet is unbuttoning his lover’s blouse?
Or maybe he sits at a café and can’t help notice a woman’s blouse – three of her buttons, not just unbuttoned, but undone. Where has she been, with whom, and doing what? – he might ask himself. Winke’s haiku invites the imagination, suggests the erotic.
Winke’s slim book, like his haiku, bespeaks care and experience. The backmatter informs us that he co-edited the first small press North American Haiku anthology, the Third Coast Haiku Anthology. He’s also published a separate book of haiku called What’s Not There: Selected Haiku of Jeffrey Winke (I picked up the last used copy at Amazon). If you can’t find his book, visit Byte Studios – the presentation of his haiku, some of which are from coquette, are pretty cool and you can also contact Winke directly.
Don’t buy coquette expecting hours of reading. There are two to three haiku per page but each haiku, if you give it a little time, can suggest a world of eroticism. Just read one and savor it. As to the pages themselves, the layout is spare but thoughtful.
The shadowy images that accompany the haiku quietly comment but remain as subtly suggestive as the poems themselves. All in all, this little collection is caviar for the general. Buy it if you like haiku. Buy it if you like eroticism. But don’t if you are looking for something more explicit.
Venus in view
Venus in View was not what I was expecting, but I like it and I’m glad I picked up.
Rather than a collection of erotic haiku, you will find six haibun. One of Japan’s greatest works of literature is a haibun – Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the North. In a nutshell, haibun is the genre in which prose passages combine with haiku. Basho’s Journey to the North is a narrative account of his journey through northern Japan, interspersed with haiku, and Brynne McAdoo’s haibun are short erotic narratives interspersed with erotic haiku – Electric Fence, Breastless, Anosmia Affair, Haiku Rendezvous, Halloween Haibun, Nor’easter Coming.
Brynne MacAdoo, by the way, is the author’s pseudonym. She lives two lives, the author tells us. “By day she is a high school teacher, and in her shadow life, she writes erotic haiku under this pseudonym.” How did she think up the name? Brynne means “strong woman” while the “surname is borrowed from her grandmother, a renegade 1935 beauty queen.
McAdoo’s haibun are, by turns, humorous, wistful, salacious and thoughtful. Eroticism isn’t the goal, but the backdrop against which her small stories and poems appear. The protagonist in each narrative is a woman, and the men in each story frequently leave something to be desired – women who choose to read McAdoo’s book can expect to have their been there, done that moments, recognizing some of the men who have passed through the lives – or maybe even stayed too long.
But what might have been altogether too one-sided in the hands of a lesser poet, is made gracious by the poet’s own self-deprecating sense of humor. If her feet are stepped on, it’s because she picked the wrong dancer. Indeed, some of the haiku are really more senryu-like, a form as old as the haiku but which revels in human foible and are often humorous (if darkly in the hands of their original Japanese masters).
first & last date –
back from the ladies room
my blouse buttoned higher
If you’re collector, like me, this little book is worthy. Add it to your collection of erotic poetry. If you’re a woman in need of commiseration, look no further.
“It’s been nearly a year since I’ve seen him. I even moved, not leaving a forwarding number.
you don’t know
where I live but still
i leave the porch light on
Our phone conversation is short, nothing much exchanged except when and where we will meet, a secret spot: a cheesy cabin restaurant with an artificial fireplace. It is another place neither of us has been to and will never go again. I make sure I wear a black, fringed sweater he’s never seen, a new shade of lipstick, Scarlet O’Hara Red.”
Compiled and Edited with Translations into Japanese by Hiroaki Sato
Sato’s book, rather than being by a single author, is a collection of erotic haiku. Some of the names, like Charles Trumbull & Lee Gurga, will be recognizable to followers of American haiku. The haiku, being by a variety of authors, also vary in tone. Some are more suggestive than the others and some are explicitly unembarrassed, though Sato has been careful to choose haiku that nevertheless uphold the form’s suggestiveness.
The book is also filled with line-drawn illustrations of the most simplistic sort – deliberately amateurish. I love them. They compliment the haiku without turning them into Haiga – which would detract from the creators’ original intent – haiku that speak for themselves. Some of the drawings are out and out explicit and on a different blog I might be tempted to reproduce one or two. As it is, the image at right will give you their flavor.
only her left nipple
becomes erect — Lee Gurga
Sato, a resident of New York, translator and essayist, writes for the Japan Times and was president of the Haiku Society of America from 1979 to 1981. In the backmatter of the book, he discusses the Senryu-like qualities of erotic haiku.
What? Erotic haiku? You mean erotic senryu, no? Haiku sing of seasonal transitions, senryu of human foibles, such as erotic stirrings, don’t they? ¶ Yes, that is the usual distinction made. But when you think of the history of Japanese verse — the tanka splitting into the upper and lower hemistiches, thereby creating the renga, which, in turn, spawned the hokku, then the haiku—you realize that there was difficulty from the outset in making a distinction between haiku and senryu by subject matter. “Love,” an important subject in tanka, was not only inherited by renga, but renga masters such as Minamoto no Sozei (died 1455) and Nishiyama Soin (1605-1682) have left “Love Hyakuin,” in which each of the one-hundred units dealt with “love.”
Then, after reminding readers that eroticism can find historical precedent in classical Japanese literature, he makes the curious argument that English haiku, unlike Japanese haiku, is free (read: has no rules). He writes: “So, to define haiku in English, you must say ‘it is that which the person who wrote it calls haiku.’ No, I’m not joking.” Sato may insist that he’s not joking but, fortunately for the rest of us (and according to those who were involved in the project), he seems to have had a very clear grip on what constituted haiku when collecting them for his anthology. Even if he’s not joking, I don’t take him seriously.
In his choices, he did a gorgeous job.
mouth open skyward
on her tongue raindrops
of my love — Jukka Saario
Of the three books, this book will be the most difficult to find. It appears to be out of print and Amazon’s resellers are trying to retire on its resale value. Be patient. If you wait long enough, as I did, a reasonably priced copy may show up. Wait, buy it, and you won’t regret it. My own feeling is that the book is a gem of poetic eroticism, the best collection of erotica haiku available, but I don’t recommend paying more than $30 dollars for it unless you’re the type who just has to have it for your erotic collection. Wait, and you won’t feel as though you’ve paid too much for too little. (The book was originally priced at $9.95.)
with the lilacs she comes out
❧ Brynne McAdoo
Erotic Haiku & Senryu Online
There are also bloggers and online poets who are trying their hand at erotic haiku and senryu. The sites, obviously, aren’t for the under aged or the prudish. For the rest, you may enjoy what you find.
Remittance Girl, among the most talented of erotic writers on the Internet, has tried her hand at haiku.
The Erotic Writer is a relatively new blog.
Cernuus is also a relatively new blog whose Senryu you might enjoy:
And here are some erotic haiku by Steve Mount
And here is a collection of erotic haiku at AHAPoetry.
Lastly, you can find my own erotic haiku at right: Categories/Haiku/Erotic.
Enjoy. And if you can recommend other sites or books please do so. I and other readers will thank you.
- For readers who had been waiting for this final post, if any, sorry it took so long. The Let Poetry Die post just about buried me. For those to whom this post is new, this is the third and last entry annotating Robert Frost’s Home Burial. The first post is the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 1-18 .
“And I suppose I am a brute…”
Home Burial isn’t the only poem in which Frost explored grief and bereavement. Another famous poem is Out, out, which closes:
And they, since they
Were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs.
For many readers it’s a chilling close to a boy’s death. And I suspect that there was something like this in Frost himself – the hard pragmatism of the living. In a time when a day wasted could be a day without food, extended bereavement was an indulgence.
The quote which begins this section comes from a letter by Frost, in which he continues:
“And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies.” [Robert Pack, Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost p. 160]
The death of any child is a strain on any marriage; and the death of Frost’s first son was one that the poet took especially hard:
[Frost] blamed himself for not calling the doctor, who might have saved the boy’s life. We see this guilt refracted through the wife’s eyes in the poem, for she blames her husband for his detached self-reliance… [ Karen Kilcup, Robert Frost and Feminine Literary Tradition, p. 68]
Whether or not Elinor (Frost’s wife) blamed Frost for the death isn’t known (at least to me). It might have been enough that Frost blamed himself. The poet’s ability to convincingly portray the wife shows that he was fully aware of how he might be (or have been) perceived. This “hard pragmatism” which Frost both acknowledged and defended can also be found in the brief poem The Lesson for Today. As with the poem For Once, Then, Something, Frost seems to directly respond to his critics, readers and, perhaps, even to his closest friends and family – acquaintances who may have accused Frost, himself, of the hard callousness he portrays in Home Burial:
We are all doomed to broken-off careers,
And so’s the nation, so’s the total race.
The earth itself is liable to that fate
Of meaninglessly being broken off.
(And hence so many literary tears
At which my inclination is to scoff.)
I may have wept that any should have died
Or missed their chance, or not have been their best,
Or been their riches, fame, or love denied;
On me as much as any is the jest.
I take my incompleteness with the rest.
God bless himself can no one else be blessed.
O hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
It’s a recurring theme and, frankly, one with which I’m sympathetic. In certain ways, one could almost insert this poem into Home Burial, rather than the husband’s less considered response. It’s doubtful the wife’s retort would have been changed by it. Frost’s emphasis on individuality, self-reliance and self-determination extended into politics, where he had little sympathy for FDR’s New Deal. In some ways, Home Burial could be read as symbolizing the perennial conflict described by cognitive linguist and professor of linguistics, George Lakoff. He divides the liberal and conservative impulse between the “nurturant parent model” and the “strict father model”. Wikipedia summarizes his relevant views as follows:
Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model that he calls the “strict father model” and has a family structured around a strong, dominant “father” (government), and assumes that the “children” (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible “adults” (morality, self-financing). Once the “children” are “adults”, though, the “father” should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the “nurturant parent model“, based on “nurturant values“, where both “mothers” and “fathers” work to keep the essentially good “children” away from “corrupting influences” (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc.). Lakoff says that most people have a blend of both metaphors applied at different times, and that political speech works primarily by invoking these metaphors and urging the subscription of one over the other. [Wikipeida • December 15, 2009]
The grief of the nurturant mother can hardly be assuaged by the authoritarian, pragmatic father. As Kilcup repeatedly points out, even though the husband seems to make concessions, such as offering to keep “hands off”, the power to make the offer and agreement is assumed to be his (and by implication the authority to revoke it remains his). The husband’s “offer”, according to Kilcup, hardly equalizes the power in their relationship.
“When he begs her not to go, he seems to Poirier “not without gentleness.” Yet the voice of power can afford to be gentle. If language and communication fail the couple in this poem, the poet’s language does not fail to communicate with the reader–not only the threat to masculinity engendered by the wife’s attitude but, as important, the damaging limitations imposed on her by patriarchal culture. [Kilcup p. 70]
Kilcup is insightfully sensitive to the politics of sexual persona in ways that other critics and readers have not been. She writes that “at first the female protagonist occupies a physically superior position, at the top of the stairs, but the husband soon remedies their inverted status, ‘advancing toward her,’ while she ‘sank upon her skirts'” [p. 68]. Reading Kilcup’s response to the poem, when compared to male critics, poets and readers, is to experience the poem’s sexual politics replayed in the writing of its male and female critics.
It is no wonder, rightly or wrongly, that some might have considered Frost “a brute”.
A Note on the Meter
Frost was always very proud of his skill as a traditional poet. While my scansions may not reflect how Frost himself would have imagined his poetry, my scansion is a poet’s scansion. (And I write my own poetry in the same spirit). For example, I disagree with poets and readers who scan “extra feet” into Frost’s lines. My feeling is that Frost took too much pride in his craftsmanship and knew too well how the Iambic Pentameter line could be varied without having to break the pattern. (Though, as a practical matter, an extra syllable is still an extra syllable no matter what it’s called.)
Besides that, the meter of traditional poetry grows out of a long convention – a convention many (if not most) modern poets are unaware of because they lack the training or even curiosity. They didn’t grow up with it the way Frost did. For instance, in the line that follows, many modern poets and readers might scan the line as follows:
I can |repeat |the ver|y words |you were |saying
Such a scansion “accurately” reflects how the line is spoken and where the ictus falls within each foot, but it ignores the tradition (or conventions) in which Frost was writing. The Iambic Pentameter line (Blank Verse) is defined as much by its five foot line as by its iambic feet. I find it much more likely that Frost imagined the line above as a five foot line, rather than as a clumsily written six foot line ending with two trochaic feet. I scanned it as follows:
I can |repeat |the ver|y words |you were saying
This makes the final foot a variant foot – an anapestic feminine ending. The feminine ending (the amphibrachic final foot) was a firmly established variant foot extending back to Shakespeare and Sidney. Until the moderns adopted a more Elizabethan sense of meter, poet’s rarely flirted with an anapestic final foot. Frost’s innovation was to not only deploy the anapest in the final foot, but to do so with a feminine ending (an extra unaccented syllable).
The husband’s angry statement:
And it’s come to this,
 A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”
Is followed quickly by the wife’s first extended response. She answers scornfully:
“You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”
“You don’t know how to speak…” she answers. But she’s speaking figuratively. What does she mean? Obviously, her husband knows how to “speak”. By what follows, we begin to get some sense of what she means. The speech she refers to is more than just words, but body language, demeanor – all the subtle cues that reveal us without words. The reader may be reminded of the poems beginning, of her sensitivity (perhaps over-sensitivity) to her husband’s body language. How she cowered under him as he “mounted” the stars – her expression of terror. (A feminist might counter that the wife isn’t “overly sensitive”, but that the husband lacks self-awareness. And there’s an argument to made for either.)
It isn’t until line 86 that she first mentions “talk” – speech in the sense that her husband understands. Most of the passage is a description of his actions – his body language. This is the speech that he has gotten all wrong – a language that he doesn’t know how to speak. While the husband gives primacy to words, the wife (in a way that certainly reflects broader gender differences) gives primacy to gestures. “If you had any feelings,” she asks, then stumbles, her words almost incapacitated by her grief and outrage: How could you make “the gravel leap and leap in air, leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly….” Her description is obsessive in its detail and repetitiveness. Her ability to use words, herself, is almost incapacitated by her obsessiveness with signs.
The passage is ripe for the semiotician – one who studies semiotics. The passage is nothing if not a conflict in sign processes, signification and communication.Wikipedia breaks Semiotics into three branches.
- Semantics: Relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata
- Syntactics: Relations among signs in formal structures
- Pragmatics: Relation between signs and their effects on those (people) who use them
I’m not a Semiotician, but I don’t think one has to be to imagine how each of these branches could be applied to the dispute between the husband and wife. The wife, after all, draws a relationship between her husband’s actions and what they denote that is very different than what the husband might imagine or might have intended. Is she right in doing so? There are surely as many different ways to experience grief as there are people.
In describing how he dug the grave, she might as well have been describing the murder of her child – as if each thrust of the spade had been the cut of a knife.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
She asks the question as though symbol and intent were one and the same. As if to draw home the equation of her husband’s perceived thoughtlessness with a kind of murder, she says:
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”
I can’t help being reminded of Robert Frost’s poem Out, out and his allusion to Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” “You could sit there,” she the wife in Frost’s drama, “with the stains on your shoes…” As if the stains were the blood of her murdered child. How could you not want to scrub the stain away, she seems to be asking, as though the stains somehow revealed a presumed guilt. How could he talk of “everyday concerns” and worst of all, how could he stand the spade, as though it were a murder weapon he should hide away, at the entryway for all to see? – and worst of all, where she could see it.
- And don’t miss the nice metrical touch, the headless lines that parallel the accusatory emotional content(in which the first unstressed syllable is omitted creating a monosyllabic foot):
You | could sit | there with the stains on your shoes
You | had stood | the spade up against the wall
Randall Jarrell also senses the feeling of the judge and the judged (or the criminal):
–all these things give an awful finality to the judge’s summing up… the criminal’s matter-of-fact obliviousness has the perversity of absolute insensitivity: Judas sits under the cross matching pennies with the soldiers. The poem has brought to life an unthought-of literal meaning of its title: this is home burial with a vengeance, burial in the home…
- Note: I haven’t been reading these other commentaries until I’ve written my own interpretation, so it’s interesting to see how my readings parallel those of other commentators.
Jarrell reads in the wife’s criticism the unstated vision of the husband as Judas. He adds:
That day of the funeral the grieving woman felt only misery and anguish, passive suffering; there was nobody to blame for it all except herself. . . . the woman’s feeling of guilt about other things is displaced onto the child’s death. Now when this woman sees her husband digging the grave (doing what seems to her, consciously, an intolerably insensitive thing; unconsciously, an indecent thing) she does have someone to blame, someone upon whom to shift her own guilt… as she blames the man’s greater guilt and wrongness her own lesser guilt can seem in comparison innocence and rightness…
In his book The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication, Mordecai Marcus focuses on the wife’s own failure to read her husband’s speech (though Marcus doesn’t explicitly express his ideas in these terms). She herself doesn’t “know how to speak”. She misreads the husband’s language of deed and gesture as indifference, even callousness. She cannot comprehend her husband’s grief if only because it’s not like her own. And in this sense, the wife’s accusations could as easily apply to herself. She is as blind to his language as he to hers.
Here she projects her own insistence on his unfeelingness onto images of his burial activities, not seeing that he buried the child himself to maintain his intimacy with it, to make it a part of his past, and to work out his own griefs. The spade and the stains on his shoes, which she took for signs of indifference, show his bond to the processes of life and death, just as his everyday talk after digging the grave was a way of holding back pain. But he is either incapable of an analytic answer or too stubbornly proud to offer one, so instead of protesting that she misunderstands, he can only toss out grimly oblique anger. She revels in the fact that everyone must die alone, and sets herself up as a philosopher, condemning humanity’s supposed insensitivity to everyone else’s grief and proposing the impossible task of changing the world.
Jospeh Brodsky, Homage to Robert Frost explicitly perceives the same connotations that I did:
I am afraid she sees a murder weapon: she sees a blade. The fresh earth stains either on the shoes or on his spade make the spade’s edge shine: make it into a blade. And does earth “stain,” however fresh? Her very choice of noun, denoting liquid, suggests—accuses—blood. What should our man have done? Should he have taken his shoes off before entering the house? Perhaps. Perhaps he should have left his spade outside, too. But he is a farmer, and acts like one—presumably out of fatigue. So he brings in his instrument—in her eyes, the instrument of death. And the same goes for his shoes, and it goes for the rest of the man. A gravedigger is equated here, if you will, with the reaper. And there are only the two of them in this house. [pp. 44-45]
The husband’s reply is one of helplessness. What can he or anyone do against a curse. A curse implies magic and magic implies the irrational.
“I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”
Notice too, how the meter of the line echoes the wife’s (another headless line this time emphasizing I):
I | shall laugh | the worst laugh I ever laughed
His wife persists:
“I can repeat the very words you were saying:
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! 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.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”
- “in the darkened parlor”: Until the invention of the funeral parlor, the Victorian parlor was the room in which the finest furniture was kept, social gatherings were held, and bodies lay in state before they were buried. In the parlor rooms of wealthier Victorian families, musical instruments, like pedal organs or spinets were frequently found. After the advent of the funeral parlor, the Victorian parlor room became the modern living room.
I can repeat the very words you were saying, she says, but she fails to read the language of her husband’s grief. She ridicules his talk of a birch fence concluding that “You couldn’t care!”
Is the husband really that callous? I don’t think Frost means us to think so. If anything, the husband’s talk of the rotting birch fence could have been an oblique reference to his own son. Three foggy mornings and one rainy day. How did his son die? Was it three feverish mornings and one deadly day? A man’s best efforts, the best home that he can build, can’t save his own son’s life. Karen Kilcup, Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition, also observes the irony in the wife’s accusation that the husband cannot speak:
…his language wounds powerfully, and, however unwittingly, he, not she, is the metaphor maker, the poet who speaks of fences when his heart aches. When the wife accuses, “‘You can’t because you don’t know how to speak,'” she is unable to hear the pain and beauty in his lament… [p. 71]
A farmer’s life is a constant communing with the earth. Perhaps the farmer wanted to bury his own son as a way to subconsciously grieve and acquiesce to the cycle of birth and death from which he makes his living. What good comes from the wife’s persistent denial of the world implicit in her phrase : “the world’s evil”. For the farmer, this is no way out of grief but he hasn’t the words to express himself.
Above all, the wife’s obsessive reading of gesture (the very opposite of a King Lear who fails to comprehend anything beyond words) is revealed in her description of “friends” who “make pretense”. She describes how they “follow to the grave”, but she doesn’t believe their sincerity. She doesn’t trust the world of symbol, sign or gesture. She both distrusts it and trusts it too much – perceiving manner and gesture as literally things. How dare anyone “make the best of their way back to life and living people”? As if her observations taught her that death was an indifference to all but her – that no one but her suffered or grieved and that the only way to grieve was to explicitly renounce the world. “I won’t have grief so,” she cries.
In the same letter alluded to at the beginning of this post, “And I suppose I am a brute,” Frost preceded this comment by describing his sister Jeanie’s reaction to the upheaval’s wrought by WWI:
She has always been antiphysical and a sensibilist. I must say she was pretty broken by the coarseness and brutality of the world before the war was thought of…. I really think she thought in her heart that nothing would do justice to the war but going insane over it. She was willing to go almost too far to show her feeling about it, the more so that she couldn’t find anyone who would go far enough. One half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad. ¶ And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies. As I get older, I find it easier to lie awake nights over other people’s troubles. But that’s as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity. [Selected Letters of Robert Frost pp. 247-248]
The similarity between Frost’s portrayal of the wife, and his description of his sister, is hard to miss. Couple this with Lea Newman’s own observations from Robert Frost,The People, Places, and Stories Behind His New England Poetry (unfortunately OP and ridiculously overpriced by resellers):
In a letter to another friend, J.J. Lankes, he revealed how differently Elinor reacted [to their son Elliot’s death]: “I refused to be bowed down as much as she was by other deaths.” In commenting on “Home Burial,” Frost credited the husband with being “more practical and matter-of-fact about death than the woman.” But the most convincing echo from Frost’s real-tragedy is his use of the phrase “the world’s evil.” The wife in the poem issues this blanket condemnation using exactly the same words Elinor did over and over again after Elliot’s death. [p. 80]
It’s no wonder Frost never, to my knowledge, read this poem in public or recorded it. Too much struck too close to home.
“There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up?
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!”
The husband’s attempt at consolation sound wishful – almost desperate. But maybe he was right. Maybe the heart had gone out of it. But then, oblivious to the source of his his wife’s grief, he blurts: “Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!” At once, he betrays himself and recalls the world of gestures that she despises. She doesn’t want to be like those “friends” who “make pretense”. She won’t conceal her grief. She cries:
“You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you——”
And we are back to the beginning of the poem. She won’t be the conduit of her husband’s progeny. The home burial of her son won’t also be her own home burial. Substituting home for bedroom, I could have easily written in the previous post:
The home is a place of necessity where she conceives and raises his progeny and where, in all likelihood, she and some of her progeny will die. The size of the bedroom and graveyard are comparable. The sleep of the bedroom and the graveyard darkly mirror each other. The birthing that happens in the one, is darkly reflected by death in the other. She wants no part of the coldly pragmatic, matter-of-fact world her husband seems to inhabit – a world described by simple necessity.
The end of the poem sheds light on the beginning. The world which the wife inhabits is one of “pretense” and she wants no part of it. She perceives the gesture of procreation in its most literal sense. The bedroom and the home threaten to bury her and her grief as they have buried her child. Procreation would be a pretense, a victory for the world’s evil and she won’t give it another chance. She will conquer the world’s pretenses, evil and indifference with, if nothing else, her grief.
Her husband tries to stop her:
“If—you—do!” She was opening the door wider.
“Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
 I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”
- Notice the metrical tour-de-force in line 104 (the spondaic feet couldn’t have the same disruptive effect in a free verse poem where there is no pattern to disrupt) :
Karen L. Kilcup’s decidedly feminist reading of these closing lines is a dark one:
….The husband’s “sentence” that concludes the poem–“I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!”–represents both desperate plea and the final, overt expression of the menace that has underscored his speech throughout the poem. Structurally as well as semantically, the poem enacts the enclosure of the feminine self and feminine speech; to read this last line as merely desperate is seriously to underread the danger that the husband poses. Echoing the voice of cultural authority, he becomes both judge and author of his wife’s fate: house arrest. [Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradition p. 72]
The problem I have with Kilcup’s reading is that while there may be truth to what she writes, her interpretation threatens to too narrowly define the poem (and Frost’s intentions), ironically, in the same way that the wife too narrowly defines her husband’s grief (or lack of grief). Yes, the husband’s gestures may appear threatening, but there is also the risk of seriously overreading “the danger that the husband poses” – of reading his gestures too literally. After all, Frost gives us no reason to think that the husband has ever, in actuality, physically abused his wife. If Kilcup wants to insinuate that the threat is serious and real, then she does so for reasons external to the poem. After all, are we to trust the wife’s interpretation of her husband’s “threatening” gestures while, at the same time, admitting (as Kilcup does) that she might not correctly interpret the language of his grief?
Kilcup’s closing interpretation also implies that the wife is the ultimate victim. I won’t dispute that this may have been true for women in Frost’s day, but this isn’t what Frost’s poem is about and undermines the balance Frost has tried to achieve. There is more than one victim in Home Burial.
By contrast, here is Robert Pack’s closing thoughts on Home Burial:
The failure to allow mourning to be transformed into catharsis leads not only to melancholy and gloom, but also, in Frost’s poem, to misanthropy. Indeed, the wife’s mourning, her faithfulness to death, exacerbates her hostility toward her husband and further perverts the sexual tension between them into a contagious hatred that seems likely to lead to overt aggression. This aggression is implicit in the husband’s final words… [Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost p. 104]
In Pack’s closing thoughts, we have two victims, not one. But even in Pack’s reading, he takes the threat of overt aggression to be a real one. But perhaps the most nuanced reading is Richard Poirier’s:
…her grievances are not and cannot be the equivalent of her grief, and so she necessarily rejects what to her cannot help but sound like condescension. Her movement out of the house, out of discord, and into a literal “extravagancy” on the road leads again to his assertion of masculine threat and will, though this is now so tempered by an evident love and toleration and concern that the threat sounds more like a plea and an admission of helplessness. [Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing p. 134]
If the poem had ended with an exclamation point , I will!, then I might be inclined to doubt Poirier’s reading, but it ends with a dash, I will!—
There is a lack of finality. If the threat of force were real, then why wait? The husband could easily bar his wife from leaving. But he doesn’t. Implicit in his “threat” to find her is the fact that he won’t prevent her from leaving. If he’s not going to use physical force then what does that leave him? Threats? Cajoling? Pleading? The implicit admission of helplessness? She has, as other readers have commented, unmanned him.
All he can do, as Randall Jarrell writes, his throw his weight around.
If anything, the poem ends in a kind of stranglehold in which both are each others’ victim.
- Extracts from some of the books referenced in my posts can be found at The University of Illinois.
❧ Up in Vermont • February 1 2010