The Animal Tales! • The Fourteenth of Several Fables

14. Better Idle
A Fable That Follows: One Part Genius

Fox C ~ Fox Gets the Goose (Block Print)All day, the farmer muttered to himself: “If not this then that, not that then this.” Maybe the fox had the right idea: easier to steal chickens than raise them. “Ol’ Jack Smith took a few unwarranted shots at me!” Then he said to himself: “Jack owes me some chickens for that! Aye!” The farmer went that night and stole four of Jack Smith’s chickens. The next morning he slept late and so didn’t notice when Smith’s wife came for advice as to how foil a fox.

When the farmer returned the next night, he soon heard Jack Smith’s wife at the door of the coop. He leapt onto the nearest shelf. “Well, well, well,” she said, “you all look like chickens but I see that one has lost his feathers. Are you ill?” The wife took the chicken by his nose, squeezed until he opened his mouth and poured some castor oil down his throat. “That will help!” she said. Once she left, the wretched farmer staggered out of the chicken coop, coughing and choking. “Such a racket!” said Jack Smith’s wife and she came out of the farmhouse.

When she saw the fat old chicken doubled over in front of the coop, she took a rug beater from the laundry line. “Can’t stand up straight?” she asked. “You need to improve your circulation!” Then she whacked him on the behind with the rug beater. Off he ran, and old Jack Smith’s wife followed him as far as the barnyard fence. “Now you’ll lay a good egg or two!” she called after him. The next morning the farmer sat uncomfortably on the porch. “Will you be hatching any new plans, husband?” his wife asked sweetly.

“Humph!” he answered irritably. “Better idle than ill-employed.”

The Animal Tales! • The Thirteenth of Several Fables

13. One Part Genius
A Fable that follows: Better Nothing for Thanks

The fox soon ate more chickens. The farmer could not bear it. “Genius is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration!” he bellowed. “Then you shall sweat yourself out of all nine parts!” his wife shot back. “And we shall see!” answered the farmer. “I’ll have his skin and you shall make me a hat!” Then neither spoke again but ignored each other, like bad neighbors with a good fence.

That evening the farmer went to his neighbor. (If he couldn’t catch a fox, he’d fool his wife, at least.) The farmer thought he’d seen the neighbor’s nose before (a little long) but he said anyway: “I’ve come to buy a fox’s pelt from you.” “I just happen to have one!” answered the neighbor. “What will you want for it?” asked the farmer. “I wouldn’t mind if your wife cooked my six chickens.” “It’s a bargain!” said the farmer. The farmer put on the fox’s pelt and the neighbor took his chickens to be cooked by the farmer’s wife.

After the neighbor ate his chickens and was gone, the farmer burst in. He was sweating from head to foot and pale as a June tomato. “That was the fox you cooked for!” said the farmer. “And where have you been?” asked his wife. “Why I’ll tell you! Jack Smith’s been shooting at me this whole night!” “And why would he do that?” asked his wife. “‘Cause that fox stole Jack’s chickens!” “I swear!” his wife snorted. “And what were you dressed like a fox for?”

Then she said,

“Stupidity is nine parts perspiration and one part inspiration!”

Be it known that this fable is followed by: Better Idle

AA for Poets

…and I don’t mean Alcoholics Anonymous

Though more than a few poets might benefit. The anonymous program I’d recommend would be Adjectives Anonymous.

Poets frequently send me their poems (which I enjoy) and the one flaw that seems almost universal is an addiction to adjectives. There are oodles and oodles of examples across the internet, much of it from beginning poets but plenty from older poets and poets who should know better. I won’t pick on any of the younger poets. Every poet deserves a break when they’re just starting out. I’ll do better. I’ll use myself as an example  – something from one of my very early poems.

Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
Gone are the pinks of the water lily
Adoring the lake’s azure reflection;
Gone — the deep lucence of a turquoise sea —
Wistful memories to ease dejection.
Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees,
Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
….The shadings are stark on a winter’s day,
Though budding colors are never far away.

Thomas Lux

This is the “sonnet” that I showed to the poet Thomas Lux. He wouldn’t let me study poetry with him (he was only teaching graduates), but told me one thing that made this poem the last of my juvenilia. He said: “There’s a difference between writing poetically and writing poetry.”

And that’s the best advice any poet can give an aspirant. When you can recognize the difference between writing poetically and writing poetry, you will begin writing your first poems.

Many of us, when we first begin writing poetry, believe that poetry differs from prose in its evocative power. That’s only partly true. Prose can be equally evocative. But there’s also an element of compression and in this respect the best poetry does differ from prose. The prose writer has time. The poet, generally, doesn’t. The best poets create a world with a handful of words.

What is the shortest route to descriptive evocation and compression? – the adjective. Beginning poets (and bad poets) use adjectives with a vengeance. Let’s look at my own poem:

Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
Gone are the pinks of the water lily
Adoring the lake’s azure reflection;
Gone — the deep lucence of a turquoise sea —
Wistful memories to ease dejection.
….Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees,
Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
….The shadings are stark on a winter’s day,
….Though budding colors are never far away.

11 adjectives (“winter’s day” would be a possessive adjective). The words in blue are complements (thinly veiled adjectives) [complement as opposed to compliment]. Throw this into the mix and there are, effectively 21 adjectives. That’s way too many. By comparison, here’s Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
..If this be error and upon me proved,
..I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

5 adjectives. Which is the better sonnet? Shakespeare’s sonnet is poetry. Mine is poetic. Notice how much Shakespeare accomplishes with a minimum of adjectives. He has something to say. (Not having anything to say sometimes leads to an over-reliance on adjectives.) The thing to notice is that Shakespeare’s sonnet is tremendously evocative through the use of figurative language – and that isn’t synonymous with adjectives. If you don’t know the difference, or haven’t thought about it, now’s the time.

Here are a few, among many, sites that describe Figurative Language:

Shakespeare’s genius resides in figurative language. Metaphor came easily to him; and he made extended use of personification. In fact, almost the entirety of Shakespeare’s sonnet rests on the personification of Love. Here’s a sonnet by Robert Frost:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
..In the capriciousness of summer air
..Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.

Frost makes use of 10 adjectives. The difference is in their importance to the content of the poem. Take out the adjective silken and the poem is lost. But who camps in a silken tent? The whole notion of a silken tent is a poetic contrivance – and Frost means to play on that contrivance, analogy and metaphor. Sunny summer is a nice piece of alliteration (a facet of figurative language) that perfectly captures the bright ease and playfulness of the woman he is describing. In other words, these aren’t just adjectives for the sake of description. He takes the whole a bit further through alliteration – creating mood as well as description.

The phrase supporting central cedar slows us down, but meaningfully so. The alliteration echoes the ‘s’ of silken and the ‘s’ sounds of sunny summer. To my ears, I’m constantly reminded of the sound of silk brushing silk; and I don’t doubt that Frost was fully aware of this affect. Think about the other adjectives. They all begin with the sibilant sound of ‘s’. Countless begins with a hard ‘c’ but ends with less.

My point is that though the beginning poet may argue that Frost uses many adjectives, he uses them with tremendous skill and purpose. These words don’t just fill the meter. They don’t just describe for the sake of description. They serve a thematic purpose. By way of comparison, try the poem as follows:

She is as in a field a canvass tent
At midday when a cool refreshing breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its strong and anchored wooden pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any hempen cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By endless unseen ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
..In the capriciousness of summer air
..Is of the least bondage made aware.

But, more to the point, you don’t need adjectives to write great poetry. Here is some of the greatest poetry ever written.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

But what about Keats? Keats was my model in my early twenties. Here is one of his most famous sonnets:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,..
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,..
And so live ever-or else swoon to death.

15 adjectives. If Keats can do it, why can’t you? – you might ask. It’s not enough to say that Keats was a genius and you aren’t. Who knows, maybe you’re a genius too. Go for it. The point is that the artistry (the craft) of the great poets isn’t an ineffable mystery. You can parse it, examine it, and understand it.

Of all the poets (the great along with those of any talent) Keats made the most imaginative use of adjectives (and that’s good because adjectives were all the rage during this period).  (I’ve mentioned the following elsewhere but there’s no harm in repetition.) Keats was a tireless student of Shakespeare, and of all the techniques he appreciated, anthimeria topped the list. Anthimiria is the substitution of one part of speech for another. Sister Miriam Joseph, in her book Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, calls anthimeria a figure of grammar that, more than any other, “gives vitality and power to Shakespeare’s language, through its packed meaning, liveliness and stir.” (p. 62)

She goes on:

In the following examples, adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives, nouns as adverbs, verbs as nouns.

  • report That I am sudden sick. Quick and return! (A&C, 1.3.4)
  • shap’d out a man Whom this beneath world (Tim., 1.1.43)
  • All cruels else subscrib’d (Lear, 3.7.65)
  • his complexion is perfect gallows (Tem., 1.1.32)
  • Kingdom’d Achilles in commotion rages (T&C, 2.3.185)
  • It more imports me Than all the actions that I have foregone
    Or futurely can cope. (TNK, 1.1.172)
  • betwixt too early and too late (H8, 2.3.84)
  • goodness, growing to a plurisy,
    Dies in his own too-much. (Ham., 4.7.118)
  • And many such-like as’s of great charge (Ham., 5.2.43)
  • What you shall know meantime Of stirs abroad (A&C, 1.4.81)
  • To ransack Troy, within whose strong immures (T&C., Prol. 8)
  • I true? How now? What wicked deem is this? (T&C, 4.4.61)

Most striking are the verbs. As Alfred Hart, who recently made very careful and admirable studies of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, observes:

Most Elizabethan and Jacobean authors use nouns freely as verbs, but they are not very venturesome. . . . The last plays of Shakespeare teem with daringly brilliant metaphors due solely to his use of nouns and adjectives as verbs . . . . they add vigour, vividness and imagination to the  verse . . . almost every play affords examples of such happy valiancy of phrase.

Shakespeare uses prounouns, adjectives, and nouns as verbs.

  • If thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss (TN, 3.2.48)
  • And that which most with you should safe my going,
    Is Fulvia’s death (A&C, 1.3.55)
  • Shall dizzy with more clamour Neptune’s ear (T&C, 5.2.174)
  • a hand that kings Have lipp’d (A&C, 2.5.29). . . . . . . . . . . (pp. 62-63)

And so on… check out the book if you want to see more examples. One of my favorites? This passage from Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4 Scene 12:

O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more:
Fortune and Antony part here; even here
Do we shake hands. All come to this? The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d,
That overtopp’d them all. Betray’d I am…

Does it get better than that? Maybe, but I haven’t read it. Modern poets could learn from this, but most have no clue. It isn’t the sort of thing that’s taught at MFA programs. But  this is the stuff that fired Keats’s imagination (along with Milton, Browning, Tennyson, Shelley and others).

The vigor of anthimeria is what Keats was aiming for when he deployed adjectives like “eternal lids“, “moving waters“, “priestlike task“, “soft-fallen mask“, “ripening breast”, “tender-taken breath”. Not all of these qualify as anthimeria and some are more novel (or original) than others, but Keats was striving for novel juxtapositions that would more powerfully suggest and evoke.

So, if you want to use Keats in defense of adjectives, then you’ll need to up your game. Make your adjectives sudden, quick and unexpected. Don’t write things like “clear, blue sky” or “white, puffy clouds”. These are extreme examples, I know, but as long as young poets are learning to write, they’ll show up.

Then again, maybe you should avoid adjectives altogether, at least for a time. Shortly after showing my sonnet to Thomas Lux he asked me to write a poem with no adjectives. That was when I wrote the poem The Evening Coming. A couple of adjectives snuck (I refuse to write sneaked) into the first stanza, but after that I was adjective free. When Lux first told me I ought to write a poem without adjectives, I was like a drunk being told to get off drink. I didn’t take it well. None of the poets with whom I’ve corresponded take it well. (I’m good at reading between the lines – it’s what I do.) That’s why there may be a place for intervention. To wit, here are the twelve steps of Adjectives Anonymous:

1. We admitted we were powerless over adjectives—that our poems had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore our poetry to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our poems over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless adjectival inventory of our poems.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our poetry’s wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove the adjectives.
8. Made a list of all persons we had poetically harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all (somehow).
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (no throwing your poems, brick and apology attached, through the windows of your erstwhile readers).
10. Continued to take poetic inventory and when they were wrong promptly admitted it and corrected them.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry on without adjectives.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to adjectivolics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Try writing poetry with no adjectives, or try limiting your poetry to one or two adjectives per poem.

Bottom Line: If you can’t write poetry without adjectives, you might never learn to write poetry with adjectives.

  • After I wrote this post, I discovered this little gem by Richard Lawson. If you’ve read this far, you might enjoy it.

❧ Another god-damn Villanelle


Guess what! This was translated into French (unbenownst to me). How apropos. Now this vile poem can afflict the selfsame nation that afflicted us with the Villanelle. You can see the original here. Or click below:

Continue reading

the Annotated Home Burial • Lines 71-106

  • 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 Frost’s letter, 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:

Major Themes of RFWe 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. [WikipeidaDecember 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 it 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 (and extra unaccented syllable).


The husband’s angry statement:

And it’s come to this,
[70] 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 had stood the spade"

[71]“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
[80]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.
[90]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:

"in the darkened parlor"

“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.
[100]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.
[110]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.
[106] I’ll follow and bring you back by force.  I will!—”

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 of 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.

❧ up in Vermont February 1 2010

Critiquing the Critic: Dan Schneider Responds

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To be honest, my first reaction is to be flattered.

That said, I still find his initial essay ludicrous and stuffed with fallacious arguments.  He made many points in response to my own assertions (he lambasted  Carlo Parcelli), but most of them are tangential to a definition of meter.  For example, he points out that I got the title of his essay wrong, true, and that there are typos in my posts, also true.  (There are also typos in his response, but does anyone really care?) He accuses me of sending him a possibly virus ridden hate-E-Mail which I don’t remember and which he, conveniently, can’t produce. (I’m calling that one, false.) He also takes issue with how I characterized his arguments. I don’t blame him, but I stand by those characterizations. However, none of this has anything to do with meter itself.

On to his assertions concerning meter.

In the entirety of his response, he provides only two (2) specimens to support his arguments.

In answer to my rhetorical question, ‘…what metrist has ever asserted that meter is composed of just two discrete stresses and that, furthermore, these two stresses are precisely the same no matter the context?’, Dan writes the following:

I will now disprove such by using two definitive texts. The first is from Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary (1964). In reference to meter (meaning poetic metrics, no other usages of the term):

1. (a) rhythm in verse; measured, patterned arrangement of syllables, primarily according to stress and length; (b) the specific rhythm as determined by the prevailing foot and the number of feet in the line; as iambic meter; (c) the specific rhythmic pattern of a stanza as determined by the kind and number of lines.

I don’t see how Webster’s helps Dan’s case. Notice that Webster’s does not assert that meter is composed of two discrete stresses or that they are the same no matter the context.  Dan’s original assertion was that:

“meter is the theory (claiming origin by several cultures) that spoken language consists of 2 primary vocalizations of a sound- i.e.- stressed & unstressed.”

And this definition, as a very general one, isn’t necessarily wrong. But he then calls that definition into question by writing that:

In fact the dualistic notion of mere stressed & unstressed sounds is- in practice by its many proponents- almost always so loose as to be meaningless anyway, as metrics should really redefine its definitions as greater & lower stress(es) (with a plenum of in-betweens), since (obviously) a truly unstressed syllable would be silent.

In other words, (according to Dan) the  “plenum” of stresses available in an accentual language contradicts the notion of “2 primary vocalizations”. But it only contradicts if one assumes that the “2 primary vocalizations” can’t be relative (or widely vary in relation to each other). Schneider’s argument only holds water if the “2 primary vocalizations” are discrete and always the same. But, as I wrote, no metrist, to my knowledge, has ever asserted the same (only, ironically, Dan Schneider). All “theories” of meter recognize that stress is relative and therefore recognize a “plenum” of stresses. They recognize that English is an accentual language, and that within the language’s “plenum” of stresses, one stress will always be relatively strong and one will always be relatively weak.

Webster’s definition in no way bolsters Dan’s contention that meter doesn’t exist. Nowhere does Webster’s definition limit meter to two discrete stresses which are always the same. The Webster’s definition  rightly asserts  that meter is a pattern of stresses (English) or lengths (Latin).

What is especially curious about Dan’s example is that Webster’s defines meter the way I do(!) and, most importantly, doesn’t question its very existence.

On to Schneider’s next example:

The oldest and most important device of Verse form, meter selects one phonological feature of lang. (stress, pitch, length) and reduces it several levels or degrees in ordinary speech (3 or 4 levels of stress; high, mid, and low pitch; various durations) to a simple binary opposition (‘stress’ vs. ‘unstress’; ‘level’ vs. ‘inflected’ pitch; ‘long’ vs. ‘short’) which may be generalized as ‘marked’ vs. ‘unmarked’.

This is from the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Dan rightly mentions that Princeton’s overview covers several pages. However, he glosses over the implications of this concession by writing:

This is very important to note, because from the start of my essay through its end, I am the person arguing that meter is a reductio ad absurdum, it is not real, and it reduces human speech to a false binary opposition. Princeton proves I’m right on that score, and says so in black and white.

(Never mind that Dan’s own example from Webster’s contradicts his claim that meter is “a reductio ad absurdum” – which is to say, it doesn’t exist.) Well, OK Dan, but, as you intimated, Princeton says a lot more in black and white. It also writes:

The traditional view had always been that m. is an arbitrary pattern imposed on words — that, as Gurney put it, “metrical rhythm is imposed upon, not latent in, sppech” (1880). It seems indubitable that meter is in some sense a filter or grid superimposed on langauge. But 20th century linguistics has shown convincingly that many aspects of poetic form are merely extensions of natural processes already at work in language itself.

One page later, and after much exegesis to support this contention, Princeton closes the section by writing:

But modern metrics also holds that strong syllables outside ictus are “demoted” and weaker syllables under ictus “promoted” under the influence of the meter. Promotion of weak syllables under non-ictus weights and slows the line, adding power. Demotion of stresses under ictus gives a quicker and lighter line. This is not a purely metrical mechanism, it shadows normal phonological process by which alternation of weak and stress, and strong and stronger, is effected atomically in polysyllables.

Apparently Dan either couldn’t be bothered to read this far or conveniently chose to ignore this portion. Princeton, in fact, not only disagrees with Dan but recognizes the binary stress pattern of the English language as a “normal phonological process”. And, by the way, did I mention it does so in black and white? Not only that, but Princeton rightly points out, as I have, that 20th Century linguistics has shown convincingly that many aspects of poetry are “extensions of natural processes already at work in language itself.” The next time Dan claims to be a man of science, take it with a grain of salt.

Dan then goes on, at some length, railing at my characterizations of his argument. None of which, curiously, supports his claim that meter doesn’t exist. He repeatedly refers back to  Websters and Princeton, neither of which support his argument.  Among other things, he writes:

This is really amazing. First, VP spends the bulk of his essay claiming that my claim that meter is a fallacy is wrong, then he cites a study (naturally, the links do not work)…

I just checked the links. They work.

Without, apparently, reading them, he both dismisses and reinterprets the science (which, did I mention, he didn’t read).

More importantly, Dan never counters the example of an artist like Eminem. As I wrote above, Rap is a “thumping example” of accentual and accentual syllabic verse.

Dan quotes Princeton out of context, ignores science, and glosses over 8 Mile. He then closes:

As I implied in the piece VP quotes, I was a mediocre formalist. Note the past tense. I am a great poet, formally and in free verse. There are poems of mine that scan perfectly, according to metric nonsense, but not because I was following metric dictates, but because any well musicked poem will, given the reductive aims of meter, scan well. It’s what is in them that matters.

So, according to Dan, meter doesn’t exist but, by gosh(!), when he wants to, he writes meter with genius!

Not that all meter isn’t “nonsense” (but his poem scans perfectly). He’s not following metrical dictates  (it’s just that a “well musicked poem” does the same thing), and not that it’s not nonsense (but it scans well). Never in the annals of “seminal” essays has a more self-contradictory paragraph been written.


I guess that’s what happens when you try to have your cake and eat it too. At the very least, readers shouldn’t be taking advice from a man who claims meter doesn’t exist, then hurriedly, as an afterthought, asserts that he nevertheless writes meter with genius. Makes you wonder who the idiot really is, doesn’t it?

By the way Dan, I prefer – Fool.

In a play like King Lear, he’s the only one who lives.