From Snow to Snow

Last week I picked up a small book for my little Robert Frost collection:

The first photo is a little blurry. Sorry ’bout that. Found it at an antique store and couldn’t resist. Never even knew it existed. If you, like me, uselessly collect books (like this one) for no reason whatsoever, more copies at a (for now) reasonable price, can be had at Amazon. That old folding rule belonged to my grandfather. He was a Physician rather than a builder, but had a few, little, nice tools that I still use. Makes me think maybe I oughtta’ put together a little collection of my own poems like this.

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Three Ways to Write a Poem

Of Plain Poems, Figurative Poems & Metaphoric Poems

Call this post a rough draft; and there are more than these three (like Allegorical Poems) but these are the three primary ways a poem is written, I think. On and off I get queries from poets who would like my opinion on their poems. In a very general way, I can break down their poems down into three main types — the Plain Poem, the Figurative Poem, and the Metaphoric Poem; though almost all the poetry sent me falls into the first two categories. I don’t know whether these categories are original to me. I doubt they are, and I may be using the terms differently (if they’re already out there). But so be it. There are poetic masterpieces in all three categories, so I’m not going to argue that one is superior to another, but of the three types of poetry — the Plain Poem and the Metaphoric Poem are the kind I admire most. But first things first:

The Plain Poem

plain-chant 002When I first began writing this, I called this kind of poem a ‘Literal Poem’; but I decided ‘Plain Poem’ is a more poetic description, and reminds me of plain chant. Plain Poem also allows for some variation, some touches of figurative language perhaps, whereas the term ‘Literal’ invites too strict an interpretation. I have no idea what percentage of contemporary poems are Plain Poems, possessing minimal figurative language, but my hunch is that they represent fewer than one might expect, maybe only single digits. They’re very difficult to write well (or memorably). Perhaps Edwin Arlington Robinson would be its finest exponent in traditional forms. The fact of his plainness may, in some measure, contribute to his relative neglect. (It’s ironic that Ezra Pound preached the gospel of “everyday language and materials”, as Christopher Clausen put it, only to write a massive book, “The Cantos”, that becomes progressively all but incomprehensible.)

Richard Cory
by EA Robinson

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

RobinsonSome readers might object that Robinson uses a smattering of figurative language, but they’re of the colloquial, ‘every day’ sort. We don’t need editorial footnotes to understand “from sole to crown” or “fluttered pulses” or “glittered when he walked”. This is truly the language of the every day and the reader would have to stretch, or be a Helen Vendler, to read more into it than is there. The power of the poem isn’t to be found in any sort of figurative or metaphorical elusiveness. As with the majority of Robinson’s poems, it is what it is, but beautifully so. Robinson uses meter and rhyme to lend the poem direction, succinctness and to make the poem memorable. Until the very end the rhymes seem innocuous enough, and then the rhyme of bread and “put a bullet through his head” strikes like a thunderclap. As with many good rhyming poems, the reader is likely to anticipate the final coup de grâce, which gives the narrative that extra kick.

  • I’ve ready many passages of free verse poets, especially, posturing over the predictability of rhymes, but this bespeaks an ignorance of what good rhyme do. There are times when the predictable is exactly what the poet wants.

Another good example might be William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

There is such a reflexive determination to think that a poem has to mean something more than what it says. I’m not sure how much sweat and blood has been spilled over what Williams really meant. And yet, the haiku-like sublimity of the poem is self-evident and probably instinctively grasped by anyone who reads it (and needs no explanation or rationalization). This poem, wc williamsquite simply, means what it says. But what makes it so memorable? There’s no rhyme or meter, so something else is at play. In part, it’s very much its similarity to the best haiku. There’s no discourse or disquisition. In other words, a narrator doesn’t thrust himself, nattering, between the reader and the poem (an intrusion into the conversation that Williams can rarely resist). We are permitted to consider the facts as they are and draw our own conclusion — and that is how a poem is like a haiku. The next facet is the imagery. Williams has carefully chosen what to emphasize — the contrast between the red of the wheelbarrow and the white of the chickens, for example. As an experiment, substitute blue for red, or brown for white.

Red is an impish color when you think about it. It attracts attention to itself; (there’s a reason we call red cars “cop magnets”). The poetic juxtaposition of a loud color like red on a humble wheelbarrow gives it a sort of underdog status — like a red Volkswagon beetle — and endears it to the reader (maybe not universally but as a generalization I think this is probably true). After all, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. What other color could it be? (Unfortunately, my own wheelbarrow is blue, but I’m going to spray paint it red.)

And then there are the chickens. What if they had been brown? Nah. The white chickens make the wheelbarrow all the redder. The contrast is easy to imagine. But what if Williams had written white horse or, white house, or white tractor? When the reader imagines the scene, the chickens will always be smaller than the wheelbarrow; and this has the effect of making the red wheelbarrow a little bigger, and a little more important, and a little more there, like an ever present, reassuring background to the lives of the chickens. If Williams had written ‘white horse’, then that might have diminished the importance of the wheelbarrow. The white chickens give us a contrast in color and in size.

But what about a white house or white tractor? These two would have diminished the wheelbarrow’s ‘scale’ (for lack of a better term). Not only that, but we can imagine the lives of the chickens being dependent on the wheelbarrow, but not an inanimate house or tractor. The wheelbarrow is larger than the chickens, and is brought into the living ecosystem of the barnyard by being beside the chickens. In a certain sense, it’s given life by giving life.

And glazed with rainwater? Why this detail? Well, what if it had been coated with dust? My own feeling is that a coat of dust implies disuse. There are certainly farm implements (and carpentry tools) that get dusty, but that coating is always disturbed by use. I think it’s safe to say that a well-used wheelbarrow would seldom be covered by dust. The word glazed is one most commonly used in reference to pottery. When we glaze a piece of pottery we are finishing it. We are, one might say, making it beautiful and, to a certain degree, transforming it into a finished work of art or, at minimum, a usable implement. Williams choice of word is probably no accident. There’s also the sense that o much depends on the wheelbarrow that it cannot be spared even in the rain. This is an indispensable presence in a living and working environment.

But this poem is lightning in a bottle. Williams only pulled it off twice, I think. With The Red Wheelbarrow and This Is Just to Say. These two poems are justly famous and plain poems. They are plain (or very literal), easy to grasp, but in their choice of observation, like the best haiku, they successfully evoke a world of emotional associations. And this, perhaps, is the trick to the greatest poems of this kind — the art of evocation.

  • I haven’t discussed haiku, but these deceptively simply poems (and carefully literal) are some of the most evocative poems in any language.

Another example of a plain poem would be Frost’s Stopping by Woods:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Many attempts have been made to read meaning into this poem, but it is what it is. It’s beautifully simple and, in that simplicity, is profoundly evocative. This is poetry that uses language not only for its semantic content, as a way to communicate, but as an aesthetic experience in and of itself. The combination of rhyme and meter add to the memorability of the poem — a revelry in the “felicities of language” as Frost called it. William Pritchard had this to say:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant… [Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered p. 164]

There’s a certain kind of reader for whom plain poems are anathema. One of the more common criticisms leveled at Frost was that his poetry was that of the “simple, farmer poet” — as if that were bad thing in and of itself. In truth, the plainly stated poem, done well or even greatly, is an exceedingly rare accomplishment. The criticism itself says vastly more about those making it. They seem to think that the only good poem is the “difficult” poem. The 20th century is nothing if not the pursuit of obscurity/difficulty as an end in itself, and not just any obscurity, but the kind meant to evoke layers of “meaning”, elusive and implying depth, brilliance and perhaps genius. As a rule of thumb, the more ambiguous — the more interpretations available to the poem — then the better it must be. And while that sort of writing may be candy to the critic and academic, the precipitous decline in modern poetry’s audience suggests that the average reader has better ways to spend their time (rather than sort out a poet’s “meaning”). “Make it plain”, a reader might say, and the modern poet hears: “Dumb it down”. But that’s not at all what the reader is saying.

Greatness in literature has nothing to do with how “difficult” it is.

And perhaps the most remarkable 20th century writer of Plain Poems was Charles Bukowski:

we had goldfish and they circled around and around
in the bowl on the table near the heavy drapes
covering the picture window and
my mother, always smiling, wanting us all
to be happy, told me, ‘be happy Henry!’
and she was right: it’s better to be happy if you
can
but my father continued to beat her and me several times a week while
raging inside his 6-foot-two frame because he couldn’t
understand what was attacking him from within.

my mother, poor fish,
wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a
week, telling me to be happy: ‘Henry, smile!
why don’t you ever smile?’

and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the
saddest smile I ever saw

one day the goldfish died, all five of them,
they floated on the water, on their sides, their
eyes still open,
and when my father got home he threw them to the cat
there on the kitchen floor and we watched as my mother
smiled

Charles-BukowskiIn the process of writing this post, I read through about two dozen poems by Bukowski, and if he ever wrote a simile, I haven’t yet found it. I would judge Bukowski’s favorite rhetorical device to be the analogy. In the poem above, for instance, Bukowski is essentially drawing an analogy between the goldfish and the suffering experienced by himself and mother. Even then, Bukowski’s use of analogy is sparing and far from obvious. A reader may read a Bukowski poem, read a scenario which he or she has never experienced, and yet feel a commonality because the subject is nevertheless analogous to his or her own experiences. This, I think, is at the root of Bukowski’s genius — his ability to provide a context for experiences that make them recognizable and universal. In the poem Bluebird, Bukowski is again essentially drawing an analogy between his suppressed empathy and compassion and a symbolic bluebird he keeps locked in his heart.

The Figurative Poem

By this, I mean poems that use figurative language but are otherwise (or mostly) plain in their meaning. In other words, I would consider calling a Figurative Poem a ‘Plain Poem’ that uses figurative language. Figurative Poems, as I use the term, probably represent the vast majority of poetry. Nearly all of free verse is of the figurative kind. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are all figurative poems. They are by far and away the most popular and have therefore accumulated an ocean of bad examples. The term figurative (or figurative language) refers to rhetorical figure (a figure understood as any rhetorical linguistic device). A linguistic device most commonly includes, for example the simile — the favorite rhetorical figure of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry. As soon as you see a simile, you know you’re dealing with figurative poetry. Additionally, and unfortunately, it’s nearly always a sign of second or third rate poetry — almost without fail (the exceptions prove the rule, perhaps).

I know I’ve mentioned the following passage before, but I’m offering more of it because it first got me thinking about this subject (many years ago):

“Shakespeare’s style, as everyone knows, is metaphorical to excess. His imagination is always active, but he seldom pauses to indulge it by lengthened description. I shall hereafter have occasion to direct your observation to the sobriety with which he preserves imagination in its proper station, as only the minister and interpreter of thought; but what I wish now to say is, that in him the two powers operate simultaneously. He goes on thinking vigorously, while his imagination scatters her inexhaustible treasures like flowers on the current of his meditations, His constant aim is the expression of facts, passions ,or opinions; and his intellect is constantly occupied in the investigation of such; but the mind acts with ease in its lofty vocation, and the beautiful and the grand rise up voluntarily to do him homage. he never indeed consents to express those poetical ideas by themselves; but he shows that he felt their import and their legitimate use, by wedding them to the thoughts in which they originated. The truths which he taught, received magnificence and amenity from the illustrative forms; and the poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it, than the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description, and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to be captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forgot the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which its highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. [The New Shakespeare Society Publications, Series VIII Miscellanies Nos. 1-4 A Letter on Shakespeare’s Authorship of the drama entitled THE TWO NOBLE KINSMEN, by William Spalding p. 16-17]

This was published in 1876, so the language is Victorian and convoluted, and Spalding didn’t quite have the tools to express his ideas. That was to come nearly three quarters of a century later with Wolfgang Clemens and The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery. Clemens showed how Shakespeare essentially absorbs the simile into a metaphorical language — the idea that Spalding is trying to express. (My dictionary calls metaphor a compressed simile, which is a good way to think about it.) For example, Clemens shows how in Shakespeare’s earliest poetry he hadn’t yet absorbed the simile:

The particles “as” and “like” not only make the image stand out from the text and isolate it in a certain way; they also show that the object to be compared and the comparison are felt as being something different and separate, that image and object are not yet viewed as an identity, but that the act of comparing intervenes. It would be false to exaggerate the importance of such a fact, because in Shakespeare’s let plays we also find many comparisons introduced with “like” or “as”. Nevertheless the frequency of such comparisons with “as” and “like” in Titus Andronicus is noteworthy, and this loose form of connection corresponds entirely to the real nature of these image4s. If we take, for example, passages such as these:

…then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.

…that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starved snake.

we see that these images are simply added on to the main sentence afterwards, dove-tailed into the context, appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration. They occurred to Shakespeare as an afterthought, as “illustration”, as “example”, but they were not there from the very beginning as simultaneous poetic conce3ption of subject and image. [The Development of Shakespeare’s Imagery p. 22-23]

Compare this to The Winter’s Tale:

Later, in the same scene, Camillo asks him to be “cured of this diseased opinion” (I.ii. 297) and retorts to Leontes’ false assumption of his “infected” wife “who does infect her?” (I.ii. 307). The disease-imagery links up with the notion of taint and stinging things. Shortly after Camillo’s question Leontes speaks the following words which also contain dramatic irony:

Leon. Make that thy question, and go rot!
Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation, sully
the purity and whiteness of my sheets,
Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps, (I.ii 325)

In the next scene this collocation of disease, of stinging and poison becomes more obvious. Note the following by Leontes:

There may be in the cup,
A spider steep’d, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom, for his knowledge
Is not infected: but if one present
The abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider (II. i 39)

The dramatic and structural significance of this image should be noted. For it is the first time Leontes builds up a full image, all the more striking as Leontes’ hasty diction does not usually allow of the elaboration of images. The directness and realism with which this image; of the spider in the cup is presented and the way Leontes turns it into a personal experience, expressed by the laconic ending “I have drunk, and seen the spider”, bring home to us the brutal and naked force of Leontes self-deceiving obsession… [p. 196-197]

shakespeareMost importantly, notice that Shakespeare never uses “as” or “like” in these two passages. The similes have been organically absorbed into the character’s “personal experience”, not tacked on as in Titus. It’s this difference that Spalding was trying to express almost a hundred years earlier. Shakespeare, in the course of his poetic development, learned to speak through metaphor rather than by the elaboration of similes (John Fletcher, not so much). It’s in this sense that Spalding delineated the difference between Shakespeare and Fletcher’s verse:

“Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the test which tries the presence of the faculty; metaphor indicates its strength, and simile its weakness.”

  • A very simple example from Shakespeare: “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” In earlier days Shakespeare might have written: “He draweth out his argument like a spinner who draweth out his thread & etc.

The same criticism applies to all poets since Shakespeare, including the poetry of our current poet Laureate, Charles Wright (2014-). On a whim, and at random, I looked up his poetry at Poetry Foundation. The first to come up was Archeology. And what do we find?

The older we get, the deeper we dig into our childhoods,
Hoping to find the radiant cell
That washed us, and caused our lives
…………………………….to glow in the dark like clock hands
Endlessly turning toward the future,
Tomorrow, day after tomorrow, the day after that,
………………………………………all golden, all in good time.

Just as with Shakespeare’s earlier efforts, or Fletcher, Wright tacks on the simile, “appended to what has already been said as flourish and decoration”. Like will appear twice more in this short poem:

Gaze far out at the lake in sunflame,
Expecting our father at any moment, like Charon, to appear
Back out of the light from the other side,
…..low-gunwaled and loaded down with our slippery dreams.

Rather than compress the comparison of his father to Charon in the language of metaphor, Wright interrupts the narrative (amateurishly in my opinion) with the announcement of the simile, and then a little later:

Other incidents flicker like foxfire in the black

Nevertheless, at the poem’s conclusion, Wright demonstrates that he can write metaphorically (compress simile):

Sunlight flaps its enormous wings and lifts off from the back
….yard
The wind rattles its raw throat,
…………………………………but I still can’t go deep enough.

And if you ask me (and in terms of technique) this ‘compression’ of simile in the language of metaphor is the better way to write poetry (though there are obviously exceptions). Loading ones verse with similes strikes me too often as a kind of poetic shorthand — roughly equivalent to inserting a thee and a thou just because that’s what poetry is supposed to do — and frequently the simile adds little to the narrative. It’s more poetic flourish than necessity. Wright’s poem is an example of figurative poetry, though not a good one. Wright tells us what it’s about: “[digging] into our childhoods…” (so that it’s cousin to the plain poem) then uses the rhetorical figures of simile, metaphor, verbal metaphor, adjectival metaphor, etc…

But there are also beautiful examples of figurative poems that work. The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

ts eliotThe poem begins with the famous simile “Like a patient etherized upon a table”. “Muttering retreats” is both an adjectival metaphor and personification. “Like a tedious argument” is another simile describing the way streets “follow” — itself a verbal metaphor. And why do I like these similes, and not Wright’s? Because Eliots are wholly original. When before has an evening been compared to a patient “etherized upon a table”, as opposed to an evening boater to Charon? (I don’t hold a high opinion of Greek mythology’s appearance in modern poetry. It’s often plugged into a poem when having to do the work oneself would be much more difficult.) When has the layout of a city’s streets been compared to “a tedious argument”. Eliot’s simile’s are not only fresh, they add a subtext to the poem. Why the choice of etherized? What does this say about the narrator? Why compare streets to a tedious argument? — And how does this play into the narrator’s own avoidance of complications and explanations later in the poem?

The Silken Tent, by Robert Frost, is not only one sentence but is comprised, but for the first two words, of a single simile! The sonnet is the simile:

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.

She is like a silken tent, says Frost, and from there the sonnet elaborates. Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 116 would also fall into the category of the Figurative Poem:

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-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering 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.

The whole of the poem is an example of personification, in which Love is endowed with personality, intent, and conviction. The figure itself is called prosopopia: “(Rhet.) A figure of speech in which an inanimate object or abstract idea is represented as animated, or endowed with personality…” Shakespeare was extremely adept at using this figure (a common one during his era); and his skill, above and beyond that of his contemporaries, was surely attributable to his dramatic genius. In essence, the inanimate became characters. Take a look, for example, at the following brief passage from King John, at the way Shakespeare so beautifully personifies grief:

“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”

And this also reminds me of Richard Wilbur’s extraordinary poem Love Calls Us to the Things of This World, wherein the morning breezes are, in a sense, animated and endowed with the personality of angels. One might justifiably dispute whether this is really personification (since Wilbur never attributes the angel-like behavior to the breezes, but rather distinguishes the angels and air by saying that the “morning air is all awash with angels”) — perhaps more accurate to call the angel-like behavior of the breezes a poetic conceit (in the sense of an extended metaphor that nearly governs the whole poem).

Love Calls Us to the Things of This World
Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
··············Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

···Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

···Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
·······································The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
And cries,
··············“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
··············keeping their difficult balance.”

richard-wilburThe poem, as I read it, comes very near to being what I would consider a Metaphoric Poem. I’d say it falls in the far spectrum of figurative poems, but still a Figurative Poem, because the poetic conceit of the angels is framed by the reality of eyes opening “to a cry of pulleys”. The conceit is framed by the reality of the “morning air” at the beginning and the thieves, lovers, and nuns at the close. It’s is brought ‘down from its ruddy gallows’, back into the difficult balance of the real world.

  • The conceit is itself considered a trope. The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms writes that “In general usage, most poets and critics use the term to indicate, as Coleridge proposed, any language that aspires toward the state of metaphor.”

The Metaphoric Poem

I’m trying to coin a new term and I’ve sweat over it. As far as I know, this type of poem hasn’t really been given a name. It’s not just poetry that uses metaphor, or a conceit, but a poem that, in its entirety, is a metaphor for something else. So, I settled on Metaphoric rather than Metaphorical. I’ve checked all my poetry dictionaries. I’ve Googled the term. I checked my Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry, and the term “Metaphoric Poetry” isn’t used in any specific way. So, I’m claiming it to mean something very specific. As I judge it, a poem may be metaphorical simply by using metaphor, but what distinguishes the Metaphoric Poem is that the poet doesn’t, or only in the most oblique way, give the reader any indication that the poem is really about something other than its apparent subject.

To me, the metaphoric poem is the pinnacle of poetic accomplishment. The poem can have the appearance of a Plain Poem or a Figurative Poem, but is really, in its entirety, a beautifully modulated, extended metaphor on what can be an altogether different subject. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in fact, Robert Frost more or less invented and perfected this kind of poetry, though it’s tempting to go back in history, point to other poems, and say that this or that poem was never really about X, but about Y. We have become somewhat accustomed to this way of reading and critiquing poetry, but I’d assert that this way of thinking about poetry is really a very late development. For instance, I had a reader write the following after my post on Ann Bradstreet’s poem, Before the Birth of One of Her Children:

“…when Bradstreet writes about the dangers of childbirth in Before the Birth of One of Her Children, this could also be read as the dangers women face when publishing their work”

That’s reading Bradstreet’s poem as a Metaphoric Poem. My response was that this is probably anachronistic. Bradstreet was a contemporary of John Donne and near contemporary of Shakespeare. There’s no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that poets wrote or thought this way prior to the 20th century. In every poem that I’m aware of, the conceit, or metaphor, or analogy, is framed as a poetic construction within the poem. The reader is always made aware of the poet’s “misdirection”. In all of John Donne’s poems, for example, there’s no confusion as to what the poem is about (setting aside the usual interpretive challenges). He famously constructs elaborate conceits, but we always know that he knows that we know what the conceit is really about.

Not so with Robert Frost.

For years he was accused of being “a simple, farmer poet”. The accusation, as accusations usually do, revealed more about the critics. In short, despite considering Frost a 19th century hold-over, it was in fact the critics who were behaving like 19th century readers — reading all poems as Plain Poems or Figurative Poems. The day that readers and critics realized that Frost might have been fooling them all (all along) can actually be dated very precisely. While it’s not the birth of Metaphoric Poetry, it might be the birth of it’s broader awareness. It happened at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in 1959, on the evening of Frost’s 85th birthday. It happened when, to the shock and consternation of all those gathered, Lionel Trilling called Frost a “terrifying poet”. (Trilling, embarrassed by his own comment and worried that he’d insulted Frost, reportedly left the gathering early.)

Trilling opened the world’s eyes to the possibility that yes, all along, they’d been reading Frost with outdated expectations. As Frost said himself, as if to drive home the point that he wasn’t just writing about “nature”: “I am not a nature poet. There is almost always a person in my poems.”

Even when there isn’t.

As a nice essay at FrostFriends.Org puts it:

“Frost uses nature as metaphor. He observes something in nature and says this is like that. He leads you to make a connection, but never forces it on the reader. Read on a literal level, Frost’s poems always make perfect sense. His facts are correct, especially in botanical and biological terms. But he is not trying to tell nature stories nor animal stories. He is always using these metaphorically implying an analogy to some human concern.” [Frost and Nature ~ March 7 2015]

But then Frost had already been telling the world as much. In The Cambridge Companion to Robert Frost, Judith Ostler begins her contribution entitled “Frost’s Poetry of Metaphor” with the following paragraph, quoting Frost at the outset:

“‘Metaphor is the whole of poetry.’ ‘Poetry is simply made of metaphor… Every poem is a new metaphor inside or it is nothing.’ Such are the burdens Robert Frost placed upon metaphor, and on himself as a poet. He went even further in his claiming that metaphor is the whole of thinking, and that, therefore, to be educated by poetry — note: by poetry — is to be taught to think.” [p. 155]

 Why did it take so long for readers to realize that Frost had been ‘fooling’ them? He was cagey in life, and cagey in his poetry.

A Drumlin Woodchuck

One thing has a shelving bank,
Another a rotting plank,
To give it cozier skies
And make up for its lack of size.

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.

Robert-Frost-TFWith those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.

All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.

We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.

And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),

If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,

It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

I hesitate to call this a Metaphoric poem, as the narrator gives away the game (if the joke wasn’t already painfully obvious) with a wink and a nod to “my dear”. You could read it as Frost’s commentary on his own art and persona with a sly pun on Thoreau in the closing rhyme of thorough/burrow. To read quite a good essay on the significance of the pun, visit Two Woodchucks,or Frost and Thoreau on the Art of the Burrow by Fritz Oehlschlaeger.

“Further suggestion that the woodchuck be seen as a poet figure can be found in the somewhat submerged tension between the poem’s playfulness and the seriousness of the matter at hand. The woodchuck’s jocularity nearly causes us to forget that his survival is at stake. While the burrow provides him a wonderful possibility for fanciful comparison to his counterpart at Walden, it also serves the mundane but equally important purpose of saving him from the hunters.” [p. 5]

And there’s more at stake than that. Who are the hunters? Could they be his critics? Think of Frost’s uncanny poem this way: The burrow as his poetry and the two entrances are two ways (among many more we suspect) to enter therein — a “two-door burrow”. As soon as you try to catch Frost by hunting down one crevice, he’s out the other. While pestilence and war rage, and notably “the loss of common sense”, Frost remains cagey enough not to be cornered. He won’t be caught up one side or t’other.

There are a good many of his poems that are ‘two-door burrows’. The most famous example might be “Stopping by Woods” and its many interpretations. At the two extremes are notions of the poem as a simple and beautiful lyric on the one hand and a suicide poem on the other. It may have seemed that Frost grew impatient with readers trying to identify the meaning of the poem, as if they all tried to come in at the same door, but he’d also never say what a poem wasn’t. Frost, in the end, always wanted to keep his burrow a “two-door” burrow

“Mending Wall” and “Birches” can both be read as Metaphoric Poems and I’ve offered a reading of Birches and Mending Wall suggesting how (though my interpretations may or may not reflect Frost’s thinking). The trick in Metaphoric Poetry is in knowing how to be understood or how not too be too obscure. The poet writes to be understood (unless you’re a John Ashbery).

WE make ourselves a place apart
··Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
··Till someone find us really out.

’Tis pity if the case require
··(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
··The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
··At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
··Must speak and tell us where they are.

‘Revelation’ is from Frost’s first book of poetry and reveals him, early on, searching out the balance between hiding “too well away” and having to “speak the literal to inspire”. Frost, much later in life, addresses this same question in the Metaphoric Poem For Once Then Something. In it, Frost cannily addresses the accusation that his poetry is shallow by using the very device, the Metaphoric Poem, that his critics stubbornly and shallowly misread. It’s an elaborately constructed tour-de-force, and perhaps a little too much so, not being among his better known or understood.

But now that I’ve made the argument that Frost was the first to deliberately write Metaphoric Poetry, there is a genre of poetry that anticipates Frost by several centuries (in some cases) — the nursery rhyme. Many of these poems mean something entirely other than their ostensible meaning. They were written in a time when speaking freely, and too freely, could be a life and death matter. “I Had a Little Nut Tree”, for instance, is speculated to be about the visit of Joanna of Castile to the court of Henry VII, though I happen to disagree with that 19th century assertion. “Little Boy Blue” is said to parody the life of Cardinal Wolsey. “Hey Diddle Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle”, is thought to originate with Queen Elizabeth. The cat is Queen Elizabeth, who was known to greatly enjoy dancing to the fiddle at Whitehall Palace (throughout her reign). The moon is said to represent the Earl of Walsingham (who she skipped over, choosing to remain unmarried) and the dog was the Earl of Leicester (jeered in the poem as a laughing dog) because he “skulked at the Queen’s flirtatious behavior”, asking to leave the Court for France [Origins of Rhymes, Songs and Sayings, p. 157-159]. Nursery rhymes could be seen as related to the fable and apologue (being symbolic, metaphorical and archetypal in nature). The notion that Frost was the first to write metaphorically is not what I’d assert; but I think he was the first to make the poem the metaphor, as it were.

So, the next time you write or read a poem, these three categories might give you another way to approach it.

And that’s that.

up in Vermont: March 7 2015

Poets don’t improve…

“As I tell in the entry for October 22, 1952, he had asked me what I had been doing and I said I had been trying to make my poems better. Disdainfully he asserted that poets don’t improve, they only change. A poem must be written in one impulse, at one sitting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove that rides on its own melting. But a moment later he admitted that it had taken Grey eighteen years to complete his Elegy. I think Frost, if put in a corner, would concede that spontaneity sometimes has to be labored for.” [p. 85]

I laughed because I didn’t originally read this in terms of a poet improving or changing a given poem, but as a sardonic comment on their overall development.  I think there’s something to be said for that misinterpretation. The great poets (along with the mediocre) seem to be born with something that doesn’t improve, but only changes—and that invites a withering debate as to what we mean by change and improve. I won’t go there. Truth gets blurred in generalities, and I think it’s okay to enjoy the truth a little blurred. Certainly, the sly critique could be applied to a whole generation of poets who haven’t so much improved poetry, as changed it. I suspect the ever canny Frost would agree.

On Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking

      My long two pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
      Toward heaven still,
      And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
      Beside it, and there may be two or three
5     Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
      But I am done with apple-picking now.
      Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
      The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
      I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10    I got from looking through a pane of glass
      I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
      And held against the world of hoary grass.
      It melted, and I let it fall and break.
      But I was well
15    Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
      And I could tell
      What form my dreaming was about to take.
      Magnified apples appear and disappear,
      Stem end and blossom end,
20    And every fleck of russet showing clear.
      My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
      It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
      I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
      And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
25    The rumbling sound
      Of load on load of apples coming in.
      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
      Or just some human sleep.
Frost reciting After Apple-Picking:

·

  • Interestingly, in Robert Frost’s reading (or memorization) of the poem, the line: “Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…” is spoken as “Cherish in hand, let down, and not let fall.”

After Apple-Picking is one of Robert Frost’s great poems and among the greatest poems of the 20th century. The first thing I want to do is to revel in the structure and form of the poem. I’ve seen several references made to Rueben Brower’s analysis of the meter in this poem, and all the frostsources concur in calling Brower’s analysis a tour-de-force. I have not read Brower’s analysis and won’t until I’ve done my own. I love this sort of thing and don’t want my own observations being influenced. So, if there are any similarities, I encourage you to conclude that fools and great minds think alike. Here we go. First, T.S. Eliot:

“The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. Is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse… We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”

Eliot could have been describing Frosts’s After Apple-Picking (though he doesn’t say). Despite the appearance of free verse (which it is) Frost’s poetry moves toward and away from a regular meter, and into and out of rhyme, so that the arrhythmia of free verse  and the rhythm of meter co-exist and beautifully blend.

After Apple-Picking (Scansion)

  • Unmarked feet are iambic. Yellow is pyrrhic (which I will never learn to spell). Purple is spondaic. Red is trochaic. Green is an amphibrachic foot (called a feminine ending when closing the line).

Worth noting is that the poem is, allowing for the usual variant feet, as iambic (if not more so) than many of his more “regular poems”. The difference is in line length. The alternate lines are trimeter, dimeter and one monometrical line.  There are no alexandrines however. Frost seemed unwilling to extend the line beyond iambic pentameter. I listened to Frost’s own reading of the poem so that the scansion would more accurately reflect what he had in mind. Interesting to me is the fact that Frost, when he reads at least, prefers to emphasize the iambic lines. For instance, I was initially tempted to scan the following line as follows:

One can see |what will trouble

That’s two anapests, the second has a feminine ending. Frost, however, reads the first four syllables with an almost equal stress:

One can see what will trouble

This makes me more apt to scan the line as trimeter with two strong spondees:

One can |see what |will trouble

It may be reading too much into Frost’s performance (since he tends to emphasize the iambics in many of his poems) but the poems hard, driving iambics lend the poem an exhausted, relentless feel that well-suits the subject. There is no regular rhyme scheme, but there is a sort of elegant symmetry to the rhyming that’s easier to see with some color and some visual aids.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme Scheme)

My own feeling is that one has to be careful when ascribing too much intentionality to the poet. How much of this rhyme scheme was the result of deliberate planning and how much arose naturally as the poem progressed? In other words, I grant that none of the rhymes are  accident, but I doubt that Frost sat down in advance to build his poem around a rhyme scheme. The poem has the feeling, especially given the shorter (almost opportunistic) line lengths, of a certain improvisation. When he needed to rhyme earth, he cut short a line (making it dimeter) to end up with “As of no worth”. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we find bough/now just after the start of the poem, and fall/all shortly before the poem finishes. In the middle, as though bracketed by these two couplets, is the triple rhyme well/fell/tell. The effect is to nicely divide the poem and give a certain symmetry.

The last element to include is the phrasing, something I haven’t done in other poems, but will try to elucidate in this one. Part of the art of poetry, too often overlooked, is the achievement of phrasing that, at its best, mimics human speech. We don’t tend to speak in one long sentence after another and we don’t favor an endless stream of short sentences (unless “dramatic” circumstances call for it). Not only was Frost keenly interested in the colloquial voice, but also understood the importance of phrasing, of the give and take of normal speech. A mistake that many beginning poets make, in their effort to so much as fit their ideas into the patterns of rhyme and meter, is to sacrifice a naturalness in their phrasing. A telltale feature of such writing is a poem dominated by end-stopped lines — syntax and phrasing that slavishly follows the line.After Apple-Picking (Phrasing)

So, what I’ve done is to color code what I perceive to be the rhetorical structure of the poem. I’m iffish on a couple details, but let’s get started. The fist five lines are a simple, declarative sentence. Frost (I’ll refer to the speaker as Frost) begins the poem with a scheme called the Italian Quatrain. This only means that the rhyme scheme follows an abba pattern one would find in Petrarchan sonnets. ( I don’t, for an instant, suggest that Frost was thinking to himself: I shall now write an “Italian Quatrain”.) I do mean to suggest that the quatrain has a certain closed feel to it. But the poem isn’t done and neither is the work of apple-picking. In the fifth line there are some apples “still upon some bough” and there is new rhyme, bough,  dangling like an unpicked apple.

Frost turns inward:

6  But I am done with apple-picking now.
   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
   The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

The light green and “Dartmouth” green (couldn’t resist calling it that) signify the moments when Frost’s gaze turn inward. This happens four times in the poem.  Whereas the first five lines are comprised of syndetic clauses (clauses linked by the conjunctive and), the  second clause, the apple ladderturning inward from the orchard (which places the poem) to Frost’s exhaustion, is asyndetic. The first five lines, with their repeated and’s are the way we speak (and you’ll even notice it in children) when we want to express the idea of endlessness.  We might say: I have this and this and this and this to do. In a similar sense, Frost wants to communicate the endlessness of this chore. The first five lines are a rush of description.

When his gaze turns inward, to his own exhaustion, the lines become asyndetic. The fifth line, introducing a new rhyme, is complete in and of itself. The syntax, I think, mirrors Frost’s own exhaustion. The sentences are short. Clauses are no longer linked by conjunctions (they could be).

But I am done with apple-picking now.

By rights, one could pause after that line as though to catch one’s breath. The pause is reinforced when the line completes the rhyme of bough with now, as if Frost had picked the apple. In some ways, one could stop the poem here. The rhymes are complete. We have an Italian Quatrain followed by a concluding couplet. In a sense, the first six lines are the larger poem in miniature. “Essence of winter sleep,” not just the sleep of a night, already hints at a longer hibernation.  From there Frost sleepily stumbles onward and the rhymes, like unpicked apples, will draw him. The sentences become progressively shorter as though Frost’s ability to think and write were as curtailed as his wakefulness. The eighth line ends with the simple, declarative, “I am drowsing off.” There’s nothing poetic about such a line or statement; and that’s part of its beauty and memorableness.

  • An apple ladder is usually tapered, much narrower at the top than bottom. This makes pushing them up through the limbs much easier. Some are joined, like the ladder in the picture, while others are not. Frost’s ladder was “two pointed”, and so not joined at the top. The ladder going up to my daughter’s loft is an old apple ladder.

The next six lines, beginning with “Essence of winter sleep…” are another set of interlocking rhymes DEDFEF

7   Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
    The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
    I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
10  I got from looking through a pane of glass
    I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
    And held against the world of hoary grass.

The rhetorical course of the poem links lines 6-8 while the rhyme schemes of lines 1-6 and 7-12 are separate. There is an overlap between the subject matter (in green) and rhyme scheme (purple).

After Apple-Picking (Overlap)The overlap draws attention away from the rhyme scheme (at some level, I think, disorienting the reader). I know I’m flirting with Intention Fallacy, so I’ll try not to draw too many conclusions as to Frost’s intentions when writing a given rhyme scheme. However, whether he wrote these lines on purpose or instinctively, they produce a similar effect in this given poem. The poem’s rhetorical structure, which doesn’t always mirror the rhyme scheme, draws our attention away from the rhymes and may contribute to any number of the poem’s effect, including the feeling of exhaustion. At its simplest, the crosscurrents of rhetoric and rhyme, I think, help to create an organic feeling in the poem — the feeling that it’s not a series of stanzas knit together.

”Are you trying to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing when I paint?” ”Well, not exactly . . . ,” I began. ”My God,” he roared, ”every time I put a brush to a canvas, I have an intention. And I damn well better know what it is, or else the painting ain’t gonna be any good.” He rolled his eyes. ”Intentional fallacy,” he muttered. Then with a weary sigh: ”What do these critics think art is? Monkeys dabbling? Art is nothing but decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions.”

My response Ben Shahn’s outrage would be to point out that it’s all well and fine for the artist (or poet) to indignantly claim an intention behind every brush stroke, line break or stanza break. It’s another to expect the reader or critic to guess it right. This issue is what was behind the failure of Charles Hartman’s Free Verse, An Essay on Prosody. Hartman was essentially (in my opinion) trying to turn every line break into a prosody of free verse. The problem is that a prosody depends on the reader correctly guessing an author’s intention. Without that, all you’ve got is a game of Russian roulette called Intention Fallacy.

The rhyme scheme of DEDFEF forms a sexain, but Frost’s thoughts veer beyond it.

After Apple-Picking (Overlap-2)

Just as before, there is one line more than the rhyme can bear: “It melted, and I let it fall and break.” Once again, the analogy of the unpicked apple comes to mind. Is this the analogy Frost had in mind? To say so would be an Intention Fallacy, but I think the analogy works in the context of the poem. Anyway, we’re left with an unresolved rhyme.

But Frost has other matters to address. As if remembering the course of his poem after an aside (a wonderful and colloquial technique that appears in many of his poems – Birches) he seems to gather his resolve with three rhyming lines, short and quick.

   But I was well
15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
   And I could tell
   What form my dreaming was about to take.

Take resolves the hanging rhyme of break. For a moment, both the poem’s rhetorical course and the rhyme scheme meet. There is a moment of resolution before Frost’s dreaming overtakes the poem, and with it an interlocking set of rhymes that don’t find resolution until line 26.

 25 The rumbling sound
    Of load on load of apples coming in.

At this point, the poem will once again pivot. Here’s another image to help visualize what I’m describing.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme & Rhetoric)

In terms of rhyme and rhetoric (in the sense of concluding thought and concluding rhyme) the poem could be divided into three parts. Until then, subject matter and rhyme overlap in a way that, to some extent, might subliminally propel the reader.

    Magnified apples appear and disappear,
    Stem end and blossom end,
 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear.
    My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

The word end like the stem end of an apple (or itself another unpicked apple) won’t find it’s blossom end until the next three lines that are (now this gets really cool) the only three lines where an identifiable rhyme scheme isn’t matched to subject matter. That’s to say, most of the other rhymes come in tercets and quatrains (look at the boxes surrounding them). It’s only in the weightless center of the poem where any sort of identifiable scheme more or less breaks down. There’s a kind weightlessness, right after the dreaming and at the center of the poem, seems almost meant to imitate the dreaming exhaustion of the poem itself. I would love to think he did this on purpose.

  • I’ve suggested that other poems by Frost can be understood, beneath their surface, as extended metaphors for the writing process. Some others are much more transparently about writing (as much as saying so), so I don’t think such speculation is without merit (though I realize I could be accused of playing the same ace of spades with each hand).  After Apple-Picking could easily be read as analogous to the writing process itself — apples being understood as poems. Frost, by this point in his career, may have been feeling like writing poetry was like picking apples. While Frost didn’t think much of Yeats’s description of writing as “all sweat and chewing pencils” he also stated that after getting paid for the first poem he found he couldn’t write one a day for an easy living: “It didn’t work out that way”. Poems were like apples, it turned out. One couldn’t just shake the tree and let them fall. Doing that would leave them “bruised or spiked with stubble”, which is another way, perhaps, of saying that the hurried poem would be the flawed poem. They had to be cherished. Writing the poem, imagining its landscape of imagery, perhaps was like looking through “a pane of glass… skimmed… from the drinking trough/And held against the world of hoary grass.” Looking at the world through a poem is, perhaps, a bit like looking at the world through ice, a distortion that is both familiar and strange.
21 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
   It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
   I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

Ache remembers the rhyme of break and take, but is far removed and seems more like a reminder than part of any rhyme scheme. Round is new, and sends the ear forward with the expectation of a rhyme.  Bend turns the ear back, remembering end (is far removed as ache from take). The poem “sways”, in its center, like the ladder. The reader is never given the opportunity to truly settle in with any kind of expectation, but like the speaker of the poem, is drawn forward in search of a rhyme’s “blossom end” and, with the next line, is drawn back to a different rhyme’s “stem end”. Rhymes are magnified, appear, then disappear.

  • Notice too how Frost divides the central portion of the poem into three of our five (or seven) senses.
       SIGHT
 What form my dreaming was about to take.
 Magnified apples appear and disappear,
 Stem end and blossom end,
 And every fleck of russet showing clear.

       TOUCH/SENSATION/KINESTHETIC

 My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
 It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round.
 I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.

       SOUND

 And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
 The rumbling sound
 Of load on load of apples coming in.

Earlier, Frost touched on the sense of smell with the “scent of apples”. The point here is that part of what makes this poem so powerful are the concrete images and the evocation of our senses. Don’t ever forget this in your own poetry. I know I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: remember each of your senses when you are writing poetry. Don’t just focus on sight (which the vast majority of poets do) but think about sound, smell, touch, movement, texture, etc… Notice too, how Frost turns the ordinary into some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. There are no similes to interrupt the narrative. There are no overdrawn metaphors. Frost makes poetry by simply describing and evoking the every day; and doing so in ordinary speech. The rhyme scheme knits the poem together in an organic whole. Think how much less impressive the poem would be if it were simply free verse, free verse as it’s written by the vast majority of contemporary poets.

Notice Frost’s thought-process. He muses over “what form” his dreams will take, then expands on it (in yellow). He mentioens the ache of his instep arch, then expands on that (in lavender), then describes what he hears from the cellar bin (in purple). It’s a nice way of writing that reminds me of the rhetorical figure Prolepsis (or Propositio) in Shakespeare’s To be or not to be….

With coming in we arrive at the third portion of the poem.

      For I have had too much
      Of apple-picking: I am overtired
      Of the great harvest I myself desired.
30    There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
      Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
      For all
--
      That struck the earth,
      No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
35    Went surely to the cider-apple heap
      As of no worth.
      One can see what will trouble
--
      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
--
      Or just some human sleep.

Frost turns inward again.The phrase, “I am overtired…” reminds us of his previous declarative statement “I am drowsing off”, inviting a sense of symmetry and closure. This time, though, Frost won’t digress. He is overtired of the great harvest. He will plainly say what exhausts him and why. The rhyming couplet fall/all adds to the sense of symmetry, hearkening back to the couplet bough/now. In both subject matter and form, Frost is recollecting himself. Again, it’s a similar structure to Birches — an assertion, a digression, and a concluding restatement of the original assertion.

aerusset

…every fleck of russet showing clear.

The closing rhyme scheme of lines 33-41 is essentially comprised of two Sicilian Quatrains, the same that characterize the Shakespearean sonnet. However, the first Quatrain is interrupted by heap. You can see it above in the overall rhyme scheme (at the beginning of the post), but also directly above. It’s as if the poem is coming out of a sort of fever, a confusion of consciousness, and back to order. The rhyme heap/sleep might have been the concluding couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, but that kind of epigrammatic finality would have been out of place in a narrative poem like this. Instead, the word heap slips into the first quatrain, another new sound, and the ear perhaps subliminally or subconsciously looks for the rhyme, but it doesn’t come. We finish the first of the two quatrains without it.

With the second quatrain of this third section:

      This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
      Were he not gone,
40    The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
      Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

The speaker seems almost recovered from the confused reverie of the poem and once again the poem’s beautiful symmetry is upheld. The poem begins with a Sicilian quatrain and all but closes with a Sicilian quatrain. But there is still one loose-end, one apple that has not been picked. Frost metaphorically picks it in the last line.

Or just some human sleep.

It’s a beautiful moment. The line is short and simple. It’s shortness may remind the reader of the speaker’s own weariness. He doesn’t have it in him to compose a fully Iambic Pentameter line. His sleep may just be some human sleep, and nothing more.

  • Frost asks whether his sleep will be like that of the woodchuck’s. The comparison seems almost like a moment of levity after so much profundity. Some critics throw all their weight into these last 5 lines. Because sleep is repeated several time, Conder (as is the habit with some critics I have noticed), take this to mean that “sleep” must be central to the poem’s meaning and that all other considerations are mere trivialities. As example, consider John J. Conder’s analysis of After Apple-Picking. There, you can also find a collection of other essays on the poem.  Personally, Conder’s analysis makes my eyes badly cross. Almost every sentence seems like a Gordian Knot. Here’s an example:
But if the speaker’s dream and sleep exist in life, then to assert that, after his labors, the speaker “is now looking not into the world of effort but the world of dream, of the renewal,” is to oversimplify the poem. This view identifies the dream (interpreted as pleasurable) with the sleep (seen as a time for contemplation as well as renewal) and in the process limits both. Such a reading qualifies the word “trouble” into insignificance (to be troubled by a lovely dream is to be superior to the woodchuck, who cannot dream) and oversimplifies the speaker’s attitude toward his experience. Given the feats of association that he makes, given the fact that he speaks in contraries, the speaker’s attitude toward his sleep is far more complicated than at first seems clear, and his trouble far more real than might be supposed.
·
And here is Conder’s entire essay much simplified:
Conder AnalysisAnd now you don’t have to read the essay. (You can thank me by e-mail.) You’d think the poem should have been called: Before Going to Sleep.  My point, besides having a little fun at Conder’s expense, is to argue that it’s possible to read too much into Frost’s comparison of his sleepiness to that of the woodchuck’s. My own feeling is that he’s not suggesting a sweeping metaphor of man, sleep and nature, but that the analogy is what it is. He’s overtired. He’s almost feverish with exhaustion and speculates that the only sleep to recover from that kind of weariness (the weariness of a whole season of apple growing) might be a whole season of sleeping – the hibernating sleep of a woodchuck. It’s an earthy, slightly sardonic, reference in keeping with the colloquial tone of the poem.
·
I also resist the temptation to draw comparisons between apple-picking and the apple in the Garden of Eden. I won’t go so far as to say that close-readers who suggest this allusion are wrong, but where do we honestly draw the line? Is every single mention of an apple, in every work of literature, an allusion to Genesis? Really? Really? That just feels facile to me. In truth, the myth of the Garden of Eden could be suggested as “alluded to” in a disturbingly large portion of literature. But so be it. I’m not going to go there (if only to be contrary). There’s not one quote from Frost, that I’m aware of, that suggests any of these readers are correct, so just keep that in mind when making comparisons to Genesis.
·
Lastly, there’s no doubt that Frost delighted in the close readings his poems were subjected to (what poet wouldn’t be flattered), but we also know that he expressed more than a little frustration and exasperation. The usual defense (which I get a little tired of) is that Frost was a dark, disturbed, calculating and suicidal man. Ever since Lionel Trilling described Frost as a “terrifying poet”, critics (William Logan among others) have taken that as open season. There’s always the urge to look for the “darkness” in his poems. There is undoubtedly much darkness in Frost (as there is in all of us) but I think this too must be treated with moderation. It’s possible that a reference to a woodchuck is just  that — an old New Englander’s sardonic reference to a woodchuck — not the sleep of man-out-of-nature, nature-out-of-man, or the sleep of death.
·
In her (strongly to be recommended) book, Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind his New English Poetry, author Lea Newman has this to say:
·
“The reference to the woodchuck and his long sleep in the concluding lines of the poem has confused many readers. Frost probably found the idea of comparing humans to woodchucks in Emerson’s essay “Nature,” where readers are told, “let us be men instead of woodchucks.” A discussion of hibernation in another Emerson essay, “Fate,” may have been the source for the term “the long sleep”. In terms of the dream-ridden and exhausted speaker state of the speaker in Frost’s poem, he could be seeking the dreamless sleep of an animal or the month-long sleep of hibernation.”
·
My point is that you are free to interpret the poem how you will. No one but Frost knows what Frost meant.

On the Poetry of William Logan

I probably haven’t looked hard enough, but while I’ve found lots of criticism of William Logan’s criticism, I haven’t yet found criticism of his poetry. Perhaps one exception is an article in Slate magazine by Eric McHenry. McHenry demonstrates what others have only claimed, and that’s that Logan’s criticisms of others could be equally applied to his own poetry. McHenry writes for example:

“Then there’s the matter of his own poetry. The author of five collections, Logan tends to write a chilly, impersonal line. His poems have all the erudition of his reviews, but little of their vitality and swagger. And he commits offenses for which he’d pillory any other poet. Logan loathes contrived drama in poetry; how would he treat the lines, “The Spanish moss like hunger/ hangs from the dogwood tree,/ and no one pays the phone bill/ of eternity” if they’d come to him in a review copy, rather than in a moment of inspiration?”

I think the impetus behind this kind of commentary, sometimes, is the wish that the critic William Logan would turn his knives on the poet WilliamLoganWilliam Logan. That way, at least, all the rest of the poets he’s gutted could console themselves. But it’s a peculiar argument.  It’s true that Logan doesn’t always live up to the standards of his own criticism (if ever some might say) but what does this prove? Does this really exonerate the poets whom he’s criticized? Is it fair to accuse the critic of hypocrisy? Probably not, in my view. But it does raise the question: Why can’t he apply his own standards to his own poetry?

Criticism and artistic creation are two different abilities, it seems. It’s a peculiar oddity that though one may have the talent to recognize what is good or poor writing in others, that talent doesn’t always translate into the ability to produce art according to those same standards. You would think that it would, but apparently a superbly honed critical eye, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of any given art and its history isn’t enough. There have been any number of brilliantly prescient critics who were mediocre artists. In short, a capable critical mind is something different than the creative mind. It takes both faculties to result in the genius of a Shakespeare, Mozart or Bach.

  • The fact that certain MFA programs often seem to spend so much time fussing over history and criticism (as in critical schools) has always perplexed me. As if knowing Feminism, from Marxism, from Structuralism/Semiotics has anything whatsoever to do with how to write a good poem. Frankly, some of this criticism is, to me, like reading a credit card agreement. If I ever see evidence that a thorough knowledge of semiotics produces a good poem, I’ll change my tune.

Anyway, in lieu of Logan committing ritual seppuku by the tip of his own sword, the establishment (it would seem) chooses to ignore his poetry. (Though Maybe I should add a question mark after that, but it is a matter of record that Logan’s criticism has been variously blackballed.)

The Poetry

The first aspect I notice in Logan’s poetry says more about me than Logan, perhaps. I detest poetry written in the second person singular (because they almost always fall apart under close inspection) and my response to it might go some way toward illustrating why. In the poem On the Wood Storks, the reader (in this case me) is informed that they (I) have “walked to where you [I] wanted to be alone”.

Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,

cyclone fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.

For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.

Well, that’s funny, because I have no memory of this. Though I wanted to be alone, the evidence suggests that I wasn’t. William Logan (wow, I really have no memory of this) was obviously not going to let me be. While nothing was stirring in the blackened reeds, he was obviously being a complete butt, scribblng his little, black observations about my every move and thought. Later in the poem (presumably I’m still trying to be alone), Logan observes that a “black-edged wing, in search of food” somehow breaks my “somber mood”. Well, Logan has a fix for that. How about a timely reference to Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment?

Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,

working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.

Christ, no wonder I wanted to be alone. Apparently (again I have no memory of this) I mumbled something conciliatory.

You said they looked like ladies’ hats,

white as the color of love, if love has color—
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.

“Yes, like love — I mean, you know, if love even has a color. I’m not saying it does, but if it did, maybe bright white? —  I mean, not bright white, but duller, okay? Will you leave me alone now?” Ladies hats? I must have been drunk out of my gourd. What analogy was he going to dredge up next? Where do you go after Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment? So, anyway, this is why I detest poetry written in the second person singular. It reminds me of my days before Alcoholics Anonymous—the black-outs, the binges, the benders—and all those damned poets following me around.

But what about the poem, technically? It hints at Iambic Pentameter but the meter (if it can be called that) is like a finicky bird trying to land on a nervous twig. There are too many irregularities. I notice that one can read each line as having five stressed beats. In that case, one could call the lines accentual. It’s a nice feint, but that in itself doesn’t distinguish the verse from prose.  It’s the couplets. The rhymes aren’t always full rhymes but I like them like that. The accentual lines along with the couplets move Logan’s poetry beyond the usual pablum of his peers.

Something else worth noting about the poem — it’s practically a study in colors. But here’s the thing, and it’s a quality that  I notice again and again, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. There is one description after another and I can’t help be somewhat reminded of Ted Hughes. Any sense of narrative progression is undermined by one seemingly unrelated simile after another.

When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,

There is, of course, a history behind this kind of writing, but the average reader isn’t going to know or care. The reader is only going to wonder why a banker and his fat portfolio materialized in the middle of a retention pond. There’s something almost Monty Python about it. No matter how the poet rationalizes it, the effect is to make the poem feel more like a patchwork quilt than a unified whole. The other factor that undermines a clean narrative are adjectives. Logan uses adjectives far more than he should, (a whole line is nothing but compound adjectives), and the effect is positively rococo: neon, dank, “cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown”, blackened, gathered, Alpine, white, fat, dark, invisible, pale, newly, black-edged, somber, redeeming, fallen, bright.  Add to that the adverbs and you’ve got a poem that makes pea-soup look like a noble gas. Consider a poem like A Valentine for Matthew Arnold:

The Seas of Faith are full again with vain
Philosophies, empty orders of gods,
Demons of the mind and heart supplanting
The slow angers of love with hollow stares
And rhetoric. These are not days to love,
When the rare expectations of morning
Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…

If the poet is going to throw this many adjectives into the line, make them good ones, not borderline clichés. As it is, one gets the impression that Logan needed to fill out the line lengths (and there is nothing easier or more expeditious than adjectives). But adjectives are to verse what cholesterol is to a beating heart. Unfortunately, it’s a habit of writing that typifies all the poems that I can find online. One would expect a critic of Logan’s caliber to know better. The oddest thing of all is that Logan’s poetry reminds me of passages in Hart Crane. But no, I’m not going there.

Logan’s choice of imagery is repetitive. There are twenty-six of his poems hosted by the poetry foundation. Let’s take a black & white look:

from Punchinello in Chains: VI. Punchinello Dreams of Escape

“The dream of life is just another dream…”

A Valentine for Matthew Arnold

“Philosophies, empty orders of gods…”

“The slow angers of love with hollow stares…”

“Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…”

Anamnesis

“The white robe of the communicant…”

“The cold and the age of the season. Now
“The shirr of the lake under cold wind”

“A hollow loon cry from the water…”

“To the lake, a late walk on a dark road…”

Animal Actors on the English Stage after 1642

“in frenzied howls accepted empty purses…”

“though Cromwell’s ass just muttered empty phrases…”

In December, Thirty-One Moons

“The dark invades the pines…”

“Now the snow in the thin light pales the sky…”

In the Gallery of the Ordinary

“treated that blank pasture of the “heavens”…”

“or sunset a dull, worn-out gilt…”

“The nights there were scumbled with light…”

Joseph Conrad

“Hypnotic moon on black water…”

(Notice how black is frequently associated with water.)

“Under a blank sky…” (There it is again.)

“In the uneasy light” (The word light will reappear again and again as pale, thin, dimly etc…)

“Against Aeneas and his dark Trojans…”

Medusea

“…the first tentacles of dreams…”

“I dream of a wide sea…”

“I dream of you…”

“And wave in a shifting light…”

“I wake to cold…”

“I see your black hair a snaky tangle…”

Monocular

“…and the fainter stars wink
Dimly around them…

On the Wood Storks

cooled the dank waters…”

“…nothing stirred but the blackened reeds…”

“…through the gathered gloom…”

“eight white ghosts floated faintly…”

“the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns…” (The implication being, here, that the waters are, you guessed it, black.”

“the draw such dark beaks open and closed…” (Beaks also appears in a previous poem, but one can only illustrate so much repetitiveness.”

“The pale birds…”

“One lifted black-edged wing…”

white as the color of love…”

“bright white, you meant, only a little duller.”

Over the Dead Flatness of the Fens

“I watch the canvas of that underpainted sky” (Think “blank”.)

Queen’s Square

gilt silhouettes, the bars of soap..”

Song

It’s darker out and starting to snow…”

The Age of Ballroom Dining

“The hour’s thin contemplations recruit…”

“The flaking mirror wraps gilt faces…”

“they awake from the dream of ambitions”

The Desert of Reminiscence

“…The fragile, unreachable water
“Surrounded us, held us in the arms of the cold.”

The Moth Disturbs the Night

“…the inside light that glows/Duller…”

“Penetrating their white…”

“From a dark wall, a moth has/Fallen…”

“…it resembles/ The black clay…”

“…is as fragile as the/Feathers of blood…”

The New (Upper) Assembly Rooms

darker in these winter days…”

The Object

“in the weak/Reflection of light at dawn or sunset…”

The Other Place

“The sky revealed no sun.” (Yet another euphemism for emptiness or blankness.)

The Tree Frogs

“like dreamers awaking…”

“they hovered abovc the speckled pond’s black mirror…” (Yet again, the black waters…)

Thoreau

“as the fall’s chancels/ darkened…”

To a Wedding

“Miami sky turned gray as a blanket…” (Think blank or that it ‘revealed no sun’…”

Totenlieder

“..inviolate as the sulfur sky…” (This theme of sameness and hellish imagery runs throughout Logan’s poetry…”

“These notes, cast down the dark corridor…”

“…a woman/With black hair…”

“…back into the pale saffron dust…”

“Her husband and daughter under a/Cloudless sky in which no wind stirs,/and no music…” (In so many words, blank.)

“…which is like shouting, Shouting into the deaf light.”

So, these are just the poems at Poetry Foundation. It doesn’t take long before the reader starts having that repetitive deja vous feeling all over again. Each poem seems to be assembled from the same little grab-bag of whatnots. Each poem seems to borrow from the other. There’s a monotonous sameness to their imagery and ideas. Has Logan ever seen a sky that wasn’t blank? Has Logan ever seen water that wasn’t black? Although I didn’t isolate every example, the imagery of “dreams” keeps popping up — again and again. Logan’s use of adjectives is unimaginative. Adjectives like black, dark, white, and dull are done to death. It’s no wonder McHenry refers to Logan’s lines as “chilly”. The landscape of Logan’s poetry, at least in this selection, is unremittingly dark, bleak, blank, dull, soiled, oily, black, cold, faint, pale, etc… In Christmas Tree, his parents kiss for a last time. In the ostensible re-write of the poem, The Box Kite, Logan just about repeats the very same closing line, respectively:

“I saw my parents kissing,/perhaps for the last time.”

“…the last time they stood at ease with each other.”

If this is any indication of Logan’s corpus, I think I could spot a poem by Logan a mile away. It would be unremittingly dark, bleak, dank — wait, I’m repeating myself. This too illustrates the problem with adjectives. It’s bad enough that they’re bland. It’s bad enough to use them too much. It’s a criminal offense to use them over and over in poem after poem again and again, repeatedly. Logan once wrote that Cape Cod’s wildlife should get a restraining order to keep the poet Mary Oliver out of their lives. Likewise, I strongly recommend that adjectives, especially a select few, should consider a restraining order to stop Logan from fondling them. Similarly, Logan’s palate of imagery seems to always veer back toward colors, light, dark, black, green, red ,water, liquids, grime, blood, etc…

I mentioned before that Logan’s poems never seem greater than the sum of their parts. My stab at an explanation is that because Logan’s habit is to pile on adjective after adjective, simile after simile, metaphor after metaphor, any real sense of narrative unity is lost. One metaphor or simile may have little or no relationship to the next. Logan seems to write whatever pops into his head.  Consider a poem like Christmas Tree. It’s ostensibly a narrative poem — it’s telling a story. But watch what happens. Every time Logan gets just a little bit of momentum, just a little, he gets sidetracked by a simile. It’s like he suffers from a special kind of Tourette syndrome. Instead of barking out obscenities, he barks out similes (in italics). And then there’s the repetitive prepositional phrasing that keeps popping up  like whac-a-moles (underlined).

Christmas Trees

How should I now recall
the icy lace of the pane
like a sheet of cellophane,
or the skies of [like] alcohol

poured over the saltbox town?
On that stony New England tableau,
the halo of falling snow
glared like a waxy crown.

Through blue frozen lots
my giant parents strolled,
wrapped tight against the cold
like woolen Argonauts,

searching for that tall
perfection of Scotch pine
from the hundreds laid in line
like the dead at Guadalcanal.

The clapboard village aglow
that starry stark December
I barely now remember,
or the brutish ache of snow

burning my face like quicklime.
Yet one thing was still missing.
I saw my parents kissing,
perhaps for the last time.

Any sense of narrative flow just doesn’t stand a chance. Besides that, the repetitive phrasing lends a formulaic feel. If we take out all the bric-a-brac, we end up with a very short poem and that’s part of the problem. Logan appears to get so lost in verbosity that he forgets that the snow was falling (and his face was being brutishly burned) and refers to the December night as being “starry”. So what was it then? Was the snow falling or was it a starry December night? Is all that bric-a-brac to keep the rhyme scheme?

There’s a difference between writing poetry and writing poetically. To judge by his writing, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that, to Logan, poetry is nothing more than adjectives, a string of similes and a cup full of metaphors. Compare this to one of the greatest poems in the English language:

robert-frostStopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There’s not a single simile in the whole thing. In truth, the whole poem can be read as a metaphor, and has been treated as such. That was one of Frost’s gifts. You’ll never find (or at least I can’t think of one at the moment) a Frost poem invaded by a bus load of similes, verbal and prepositional metaphors. It’s a peculiar thing that the very talent that makes Logan’s criticism a guilty pleasure to read is the pill that poisons his poetry. Here’s Logan dismantling our current Poet Laureate [sigh…], Natasha Trethewey. I’ve italicized all the little touches that ripple like cluster bombs in the black waters of his prose.

Though fond of form, she fudges any restrictions that prove inconvenient, so we get faux villanelles, quasi-sonnets, and lots of lines half-ripened into pentameter—most poems end up in professional but uninspired free verse. Trethewey wears the past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just [like] the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset. Trethewey’s moral sunniness has all the conviction of Scarlett O’Hara gushing, “As Gawd is mah witness, I’ll nevah be hungry agai-yun.

“Half-ripened into pentameter” is brilliant. I love that. Why can’t he write his poetry like this?  And that’s another strange dichotomy. There’s a wicked sense of humor in Logan’s prose. His timing is perfect. His poems? Maybe I’m supposed to read that line about the banker’s fat portfolio as a moment of wry, self-conscious, maybe ironic humor but the timing is all off. There’s a bleak, moribund and oppressive quality to his poems. They’re the place where the wickedness of his humor implodes. Think of the poem “In December, Thirty-One Moons”. Logan sets the mood right away: “The dark invades the pines.” Substitute poetry for pines and you’ll catch my meaning. From there we go to “ruined columns”, “a sky heavy/With clouds”, “chalky moon”, a distant bird, an “arbitrary order”, the moon’s “starved shape”, a “thin light” that “pales the sky”, and then he wonders “if Death is a woman”. Yoiks! “Amid this dormant life,” he writes, “she is a friendly thing.” If we take the poem’s voice as Logan’s, then the poem could easily speak for Logan’s art.

  • It’s interesting to note that Logan has criticized Mark Strand’s poetry as being “shorn of metaphors and similes, prosaic as a paper bag”. Logan proves you can go too far the other direction.

If I were to draw an analogy, I would compare a poem by Logan to the music of a composer like Salieri. The center rarely holds. All the right ingredients are there, but all in the wrong proportion. The cake never rises. Haydn once referred to Sammartini (the true father of the symphony) as a “note spinner”. Logan’s poetry can be like that. I haven’t yet read a poem possessed by an over-arching idea, a central metaphor that could be compared to a symphonic melody (or theme the holds the entirety of the piece together). He doesn’t seem to think that way. He piles on his imagery like a John Fletcher (and that’s going to be an equally meaningless allusion so I’ll explain).

A Shakespeare scholar, William Spalding, was one of the first scholars to methodically wrestle with authorship questions in Shakespeare. In an essay called “A Letter on Shakspeare’s Authorship of the Drama Entitled The Two Noble Kinsman“, Spalding uses internal evidence (stylistic) to identify which parts of the play are by Shakespeare and which by John Fletcher (they collaborated to produce The Two Noble Kinsmen). Of direct relevance to Logan’s poetry is the following passage:

John_Fletcher_from_NPG[Shakespeare’s] poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the truest which tries the presence of the faculty [talent for poetry]; metaphor indicates strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it that the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forget the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which tis highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. His descriptions are sometimes beautifully romantic, but even then the effect of the whole is often picturesque rather than poetically touching; and it is evident that lengthened description can still less frequently be dramatic. In his descriptions it is observable that the poetical relations introduced in illustrations are usually few, the character of the leading subject being relied on for producing the poetical effect. Fletcher’s longest descriptions are but elegant outlines; Shakespeare’s breastfed metaphors are often finished paintings. Where Shakespeare is guilty of detailed description, [Fletcher] is very often labored, cold, and involved; but his illustrative ideas are invariably copious, and it is often their superfluity which chiefly tends to mar the general effect. [p. 17]

While Fletcher and Logan are obviously very different poets, and an aesthetic is being applied to Fletcher that can’t fully be applied to a 21rst century poet, there are still certain rules that apply. 2oth century poets have chosen to utterly ignore them, if not flagrantly defy them, but we all know how wildly popular contemporary poetry is. I think the majority of the public would rather have their teeth filed than read a book of contemporary poetry from beginning to end. What gravity is to the architect, the human mind is to the poet. What architecture can do successfully is constrained by the laws of gravity. Likewise, what the poet can do, successfully, is constrained by the reader’s capacity to comprehend him. All this is a simplistic way of saying that what made a poem great in the 16th century still makes a poem great in the 21rst century. The observations concerning Fletcher are applicable to Logan.

  • If you choose to listen to Logan’s reading, at precisely 1 minute and 17 seconds, a “blank sky” will show up. I kid you not, preceded by “drowned light”. Lest I’m accused of reviewing unrepresentative poetry, this reading is from 2011 and from his latest book. Also, the first poem he reads will end “Of all the things you were, perhaps that would be the last.” There’s that same idea as in the Christmas Tree and the Box Kite. It’s deja vous all over again. In the second poem the lake (read water) is gray rather than black. All the usual primary colors will show up. One could almost make a drinking game out of Logan’s poems. Another black haired woman shows up at 8 minutes. At about 9 minutes a “polluted pond” will appear. I assume that means it’s black or gray? Is there ever such a thing as potable water in his poems? When he reads Summer 1968 at the 12 1/2 minute mark, you’re definitely going to recognize the Logan-ean grab-bag  of imagery.

Beneath that chalk-blue sky with iron
stirred through it, the whitewashed windows
burned in faint phosphorescence.

It’s all there. We’ve already seen “chalk” applied to the moon. The light, once again, is faded or pale. In this instance, faint. Do I belabor the point? I guess I’m just surprised by how limited Logan’s pallet remains.

This and That

I think very highly of Logan.  He’s brilliant and prolific. His review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost was so matter-of-fact’ly devastating that rumors suggested the book would be withdrawn from sheer embarrassment (or at least until Robert Faggen’s monumentally bad editing could be corrected). I could only wish I were as capable.

I suspect that if Logan is remembered, it won’t be for his poetry.

I’ve exchanged some e-mails with him but I doubt he knows me from Adam. He’s unlikely to ever review my poetry simply because my latest poems will probably never make it into book form. Certainly no publisher has ever deigned to publish my poems individually (and not for lack of trying). At the moment, it’s no longer something that interests me — and was the reason I initially created this blog. So, all this is to say, I’m not too worried about being in his cross hairs. I should be though. I think it’s a pity that he hasn’t delved into the world-wide web. We can all guess the rationale. Poetry that hasn’t been screened by the publishing industry (read editor), is probably poetry not worth reviewing (let alone reading). However, since he seems perpetually disappointed by what he reads anyway, what’s the difference?

I would encourage him to look around.

You should try it, Mr, Logan. There’s more to poetry than is dreamt of in your book catalog.

On the subject of Rhyming

& Trophy Rhymes

I guess this post is going to fall under the rubric: me & my opinions. But here goes: I’ve always admired anyone who can do something I can’t do – artists, athletes, writers, poets, musicians, composers, etc… This is the reason why the majority of modern art and poetry does little to nothing for me.  As far as I’m concerned, “originality” is one of the 20th century’s greatest con jobs (and, ironically, it’s most “original” contribution to the history of art). Obviously, geniuses are few and far between. So, what’s a generation to do? Simple. Redefine artistic accomplishment and transcendence as “originality”. Suddenly, the 20th & 21rst centuries example more artistic geniuses than at any other time since God created Earth.

rhymesComposers like Bach and Mozart were not original in a modern sense. They refined and synthesized what they inherited until the sum exceeded the parts. Bach created no new musical forms and neither did Mozart. For that matter, neither did Beethoven. Shakespeare and Milton also didn’t invent any new forms or invent a new language. They did what everyone else was doing, but better; and the same for Keats, Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Rembrandt. The difference between originality (as a goal in and of itself) and the originality of “genius” (a more organic byproduct of a powerfully creative mind) is a fine one. My opinion is that the difference is conveniently confused. There are a number of poets and artists whose works are undeniably “original” but which, despite being a flavor never concocted before, are not that good. I’ve already mentioned some of them in previous posts and time will tell whether I’m right. I might not be.

And this brings me to rhyme. The vast majority of 20th century poets don’t use rhyme. Even translators translating rhymed poems can’t be bothered. Part of the reason, possibly, is that rhyme is seen as “unoriginal” (which misses the point). It’s gotten to such an extreme that for some poets using a recognizable language —let alone English— is unoriginal. Literally. The result for me is that the vast majority of contemporary poems bore me to tears. I like to be wowed and impressed. All else being equal, free verse does neither. Rhyme (and meter) is to poetry what the half-pipe is to snowboarding. It turns snowboarding into an Olympic event. Without the half-pipe an amateur can look an awful lot like a pro. Frost’s quip concerning nets and tennis comes to mind. For example, Ted Kooser’s generic poems bore me to tears. They do nothing that the millionth paragraph doesn’t do, but I’ve read that this is exactly how Kooser wants them — as ordinary as doormats. He’s succeeded.

Among those poets who do write rhyme, however, there is also division. In my own poetry, the rhyming often isn’t very noisy. I once sent some of my poems to the poet Fred Chappell. He criticized the originality of my rhymes and I wrote back that I don’t write trophy rhymes (a term of my own coining and a lie). Back when  I wrote about Emily Dickinson, I summarized most of the rhymes available to poets (using rhymes from Emily Dickinson’s own poetry), but the one rhyme that I left out, because it’s not truly a unique kind of rhyme, is the trophy rhyme. The term can be dismissive (I can’t think of a lasting poem that has endured because of its novelty-rhymes), but can also signify the importance of the rhyme (because entire poems can be built on it). Fred Chappell’s short poems, which I enjoy reading, often have a tongue-in-cheek, sardonic or irreverent tone. The first poem from the book C makes a nice example:

1. POEM

In such a book as this,
The poet Martial says,
Some of the epigrams
Shall have seen better days,
And some are hit-or-miss;
But some — like telegrams —
Deliver intelligence
With such a sudden blaze
The shine can make us wince.

Did you see what happened there? The whole poem/joke was built around the trophy rhyme: epigrams and telegrams.  Limerick’s do the same thing. In Limericks, in fact, you will find some of the English language’s most successful trophy rhymes (which is, after all, the whole point of the limerick).

Said Edna St. Vincent Millay,
As she lay in the hay all asplay:
“If you make wine
From these grapes, I opine
We’ll stay in this barn until May

The New Limerick p. 27

In both the poems, the rhymes draw attention to themselves. The poem serves the rhyme. That’s okay if that’s the kind of poem one wants to write. Conversely, what makes trophy rhymes so useful in limericks, their cleverness and unexpectedness, is what can make them problematic in other kinds of poetry. My own approach to rhyme is a bit different from Chappell’s (and poets like him). For me, rhymes are not meant to be noticed. If they’re noticed, then I’ve done something wrong. If you don’t want rhymes to be noticed, it’s probably best to steer away from the “original” rhyme, the novelty rhyme or, as I call them, the trophy rhyme. My opinion is that too many poets (and teacher’s of poetry) put emphasis on the novelty of rhymes without really understanding the different effects rhyme is capable of (mostly because they’re not that familiar with the art).

So, if I don’t want rhymes to be noticed, why do I write them?

Because I prefer them to effect the reader or listener at a more subliminal level. I want the rhymes to feel organic. If you’ve listened to an unfamiliar poem, without knowing that it rhymes (and if it is well written) you might not have noticed the rhyming at first. You might have noticed a certain musicality to the poetry, only gradually realizing that the poem rhymed while eventually guessing at, or recognizing, the ending of lines and the actual rhyme-scheme. This kind of rhyme doesn’t draw attention to itself. At its best it serves to emphasize the poetic currents, emotion and thought driving the poem. The effect that rhyme has on thought process, mood and development can be discerned in the differing rhyme schemes of the Spenserian, Shakespearean, Petrarchan sonnets. The epigrammatic sting of the Shakespearean Sonnet’s closing couplets, for example, encourages an entirely different kind of mood and argument than the more self-enclosing rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet.

To a greater or lesser degree, and if the poem is written with skill, the rhymes will reinforce the current of thought and mood in much the same way that a skillful composer (or a band like the Beatles or Bob Dylan) will unite word, meaning and musical phrase (where less talented musicians and bands fail).

By way of example, consider Frost’s great poem Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
·
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
·
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
·
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Not one of those rhymes is ‘original’. They’re as well-worn as an old saddle; and yet Frost managed to write one of the greatest, most beloved and memorized poems in the English language. What does that tell you about rhyming? Everything you need to know.

1.) The originality or novelty of rhymes is unimportant. No, really.

2.) English is a finite language. There are a finite number of rhymes.  Searching for the trophy rhyme can stilt ones poetry just as unnaturally as contorted syntax.

3.) A trophy rhyme is a prima donna. It’s always going shift the spotlight from the content of your poem to itself. Rappers count on this because the trophy rhyme is intrinsic to their art. The rhymes demonstrate their skill and prowess with the language. Likewise, in the right poem, a trophy rhyme can add a little sparkle.

4.) If someone tells you your rhymes are predictable, what they’re really saying (knowingly or not) is that your lines are predictable. There is no such thing as a predictable rhyme (inasmuch as all rhymes are predictable). What matters is the line. If you twist the grammar or otherwise contort your phrasing for the sake of rhyme, then the rhymes are going to feel predictable and “rhyme driven”. (Notice how many of the lines in Frost’s poem are not end-stopped but enjambed.) 

The trophy rhyme lends itself to satire, humor, wit, irreverence, sarcasm, the tongue-in-cheek, light-heartedness while, in a form like rap, it draws attention to itself by underscoring the importance of the relevant words. The poem Departmental, another poem by Frost, is a beautiful example of how trophy rhymes emphasize a poem’s satirical bent, humor and wit. Shell Silverstein regularly based his poems on a given trophy rhyme. In the following, it’s bear and frigidaire.

Bear In There by Shel Silverstein
·
There’s a Polar Bear
SsilversteinIn our Frigidaire–
He likes it ’cause it’s cold in there.
With his seat in the meat
And his face in the fish
And his big hairy paws
In the buttery dish,
He’s nibbling the noodles,
He’s munching the rice,
He’s slurping the soda,
He’s licking the ice.
And he lets out a roar
If you open the door.
And it gives me a scare
To know he’s in there–
That Polary Bear
In our Fridgitydaire.
·
As for myself, trophy rhymes were exactly what I needed in á la Maison:

a la Maison - Version 2So, if you’re going to rhyme, think about the kind of poem you want write. Don’t be bullied into novelty-rhymes for the sake of originality. Making a poem out of ordinary rhymes that is transcendent and unforgettable? Now that is originality. Making the extraordinary out of the  ordinary and the every day is, to me at least, the half-pipe of poetry.

For another nice take on rhyme, read A.E. Stallings razor sharp Presto Manifesto.

Further Thoughts on Mending Wall

The Poet and his Poetry

Just as we change, the best poems change with us. When I return to Mending Wall, I read the poem in ways I didn’t before. I won’t claim that what follows represents Frost’s intentions,  just that it’s another possible way to understand it.

One of Frost’s most engaging traits, to me, was his way of putting the overly inquisitive off his trail. His metaphorical gifts were such that he could talk about himself and no listener would be the wiser. In many of his poems he slyly (and not so slyly) discusses himself, his poetry, his readers, his critics and the pushy. He merrily described this facility in his poem Woodchuck.

The Woodchuck

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.
With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.
All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give,
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.
We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.
And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barreled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),
If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,
It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

It’s hard not to read Woodchuck as Frost’s sly confession regarding his attitude toward his poetry and the interpreting of it. All of his poems are like a two door borrow. He can pretend he and the world — his readers and critics — are friends, but get too close he’ll “dive down under the farm”. Don’t forget that Frost was at odds with a ‘world’ in which Free Verse was fast becoming the dominant verse form. Frost warily dodges the double-barreled blast of critics who suffer from “the loss of common sense”. Finally, we can read “crevice and burrow” as a sly reference to his poetry. He’s been instinctively thorough in his concealment and self-preservation.

Woodchuck isn’t the only poem to fit into this Frostian trick. If there was ever are more searing critique of modern verse than Etherealizing (and by extension Free Verse) then I don’t know it.

Etherealizing
By Robert Frost

A theory if you hold it hard enough
And long enough gets rated as a creed:
Such as that flesh is something we can slough
So that the mind can be entirely freed.
Then when the arms and legs have atrophied,
And brain is all that’s left of mortal stuff,
We can lie on the beach with the seaweed
And take our daily tide baths smooth and rough.
There once we lay as blobs of jellyfish
At evolution’s opposite extreme.
But now as blobs of brain we’ll lie and dream,
With only one vestigial creature wish:
Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

If you read theory as a sly reference to Pound’s preface to the anthology, “Some Imagist Poets” (as I do) then the entirety of the poem effortlessly falls in place. If modern poets hold a theory hard enough, such as the Pound’s dictums concerning poetry, then they’ll be rated a creed, in the sense of a  written body of teachings of a religious group generally accepted by that group — in a word: Dogma.

Continuing this interpretation, flesh, for Frost, is synonymous with meter and rhyme — the techniques of traditional poetry. Naturally our arms and legs will atrophy (our ability to write traditionally) and all that will be left of our poetry is “brain”. Frost’s prediction, in this respect, has proven true. Modern free verse poetry is seldom appraised for it’s skill in rhyme, meter or imagery, but largely its subject matter — in a word, brain. Two hundred years ago, a poorly written poem was readily dismissed no matter how elevated its content. Today, when the only thing that separates Free Verse from prose is ego, the poems of award winning poets are almost solely praised for their elevated and socially relevant content.

Frost compares such stuff to seaweed. With nothing left to the poetry but content (or brain) the daily tide (the vicissitudes of readers and critics) will hardly affect it whether the baths are smooth or rough. Frost is comparing free verse, and the subject matter of free free verse poets, to the amorphous jelly fish that moves whichever way the tide moves it. The jellyfish takes no stand, and can’t.

With one final kick in the rear, Frost compares the free verse poem to the blobs of brain who “lie and dream” with only “one vestigial creature wish”:

Oh, may the tide be soon enough at high
To keep our abstract verse from being dry.

What other poems follow this pattern? Read A Considerable Speck, where the pursuit  of a mite is a droll reference to the creative process. It ends:

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

Similarly, the poem For Once Then Something is Frost’s response to criticism (still made today) that his poetry is all shine and no depth. Click on the link of you want to read my interpretation. Frost’s poem Birches can also be read as an introspective consideration of the poet’s place in the modern world.  In short, there is good precedent for reading Frost’s poems as sly and subtle revelations, commentary almost, on his sense of self as poet, artist and critic. The poem Mending Wall can be read in that tradition.

To start with, remember Frost’s statement that “I’ve got a man there; he’s both [of those people but he’s man – both of them, he’s] a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries.” Read the poem as Frost in two guises, as wall builder and wall toppler.  Read the wall, perhaps, as a poem, not Mending Wall necessarily, but any poem.

Two sides of Frost, the poet, appear. There is the playful Frost, the one that wants to tease and reveal, and there is the coy Frost, the Woodchuck, who is instinctively thorough about his crevice and burrow. This is the Frost who wants to keep something out. He doesn’t know what, but something. Some kinds of poems, like walls, keep things out and keeps things in reserve and that is all the explanation needed. Nevertheless, there are readers who won’t be satisfied. They want Frost to tell them what his poems are really about. They want to take down the wall. They make “gaps even two can pass abreast”.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.

The hunter and critic, says the cagey Frost, leaves not one stone on a stone, but would have the rabbit, the poem’s meaning, out of hiding to please the yelping dogs — the too inquisitive public. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” says the cagey Frost, but some things are better untold or hidden. He says, good fences make good neighbors and we could just as easily take that to mean that a good poem, if the poet doesn’t give too much away, makes good readers.

But Frost is of two minds and the poem stands between them. The best poem, like the best wall, is made by both Frosts (though the alliance isn’t easy). One Frost, in a sense, is all apple orchard (the brighter wood with its associations of food, family and public) and the other Frost is pine (a darker, pitchier wood that is reticent and unrevealing).

We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

The Frost that teases and revels in suggestion and misdirection will have his say — the Frost of the Apple Orchard.

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.

The public Frost, the mischievous trickster, suggests Elves. He wants to know what the other Frost is walling in or out. What is he afraid of? What is he hiding? What is he afraid to let out? But no answer comes. The cagey, darker Frost will keep his secrets. Revelation isn’t in his nature. As if commenting on the meaning of the poem itself, he answers simply but also evasively, “Good fences make good neighbors.

Read the poem this way and and we read a philosophy of poetry.

Read it like this and Frost is revealing something about himself. There are two sides and it’s in their uneasy truce that his poetry finds greatness. I don’t know if Frost was thinking along these lines when he wrote the poem, but he was a shrewd poet. This way of writing is something that shows up in his other poems.

❧ Patrick Gillespie up in Vermont September 26 2011

Let Poetry Die ❧ Redux

 

  • This is a rewrite of my earlier post Let Poetry Die. This version came about because I was asked to do a rewrite by the Wall Street Journal, who considered publishing the article in their essay section. Because their essays tend to be more informational than confrontational they ended up rejecting the rewrite (or that’s my theory). I re-submitted the essay to other publications including The Atlantic Monthly and Poetry Magazine. It was Andrew Sullivan, of the Atlantic Monthly, who first brought the post to “the world’s” attention, so I thought they might be interested in the rewrite. They weren’t.  So be it. Rather than let the rewrite burn a hole in my pocket, I’m posting it here. Enjoy, or refute, as the case may be.

On Nov. 5, 1913, Robert Frost wrote to John T. Bartlett, professing his ambition and, at the same time, defining what a poet’s ambition should be. “There is the kind of success called ‘of esteem’ and it butters no parsnips. It means success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands.”

Frost’s driving ambition was founded on the belief that the general reader was equal to his own ambitions. Frost could have been echoing Walt Whitman’s assertion that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.” But the populism of Frost and Whitman was increasingly distrusted by poets and critics stung by public rejection. The answer was not that their own poetry and vision might be mediocre, but that the public’s demands were mediocre. The obvious answer was to create their own audience and that thesis was formulated by Harriet Monroe, the founder of the Poetry Foundation. In a 1922 editorial she implicitly condemned the corrupting influence of the general reader. She contemptuously referred to poems, daily published in newspapers, as “syndicated rhymes,” and equated the poets to “movie-producers” who had learned that it paid to “be good”. It paid to give “people the emotions of virtue, simplicity and goodness.” And she meant that contemptuously. In short, she was accusing poets of catering to the general reader. Poetry needed to be freed from the corrupting expectations of “people”.

History cherishes irony. Robert Frost’s tremendous success in courting the public made Monroe’s vision of the poet, so different from his own, not only possible but triumphant. It was Frost’s popularity that wakened colleges and universities to the lucrative possibilities of the poet-in-residence. After Frost, more and more academic institutions established a poet-in-residence, then creative writing programs, then MFAs. Even if modern poets largely disdain catering to the general reader, the colleges and universities, who bait their hooks with them, make catering a science. There is no MFA equivalent to organic chemistry – a trial by fire that thins the ranks of premedical talent. MFA programs glow with the radiance of a sabbatical. The University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the oldest in the country, gives the feeling of a vacation brochure. “Workshop alumni have won sixteen Pulitzer Prizes (most recently Philip Schultz in 2008), as well as numerous National Book Awards and other major literary honors.” They might as well be describing sixteen award winning slopes, well groomed and with powder. To paraphrase Harriet Monroe, it’s a program that “pays at the box office”, but empties your pockets. The program promises nothing other than that students will be comfortably acquainted with the expectations of “the critical few who are supposed to know”.

Harriet Monroe’s vision of the poet won the day. And the triumph of Monroe’s vision was never so spectacularly endorsed as when, in 2002, Ruth Lilly, the last surviving great-grandchild of the pharmaceuticals baron Eli Lilly, bequeathed roughly $200 million to Monroe’s Poetry Foundation. Monroe’s vision of the poet, insulated from the corrupting influence of the general reader, now extends to the Poetry Foundation itself. Flush with fantastic wealth, public appeal is no longer a matter of life and death; and that’s fortunate for the Poetry Foundation. Monroe correctly assumed that the “large public [would be] little interested” in what she had to offer. She wanted readers who were “primarily interested in poetry as an art” and those readers, predictably, turned out to be other poets, critics and aficionados. Whether the Poetry Foundation’s aesthetic genetics deserve to survive will never be known. Survival of the fittest has been thwarted. The foundation’s future influence on America’s poetry for good or ill will be unrivaled.

Nonetheless, the failure of Monroe’s vision, and the Poetry Foundation’s own inability (or refusal) to court a wider readership, was unwittingly confirmed by the Poetry Foundation’s own expression of gratitude to Lilly. “Thanks to Ms. Lilly’s munificence,” they write in an online article, In Memoriam: Ruth Lilly, 1915-2009, “the programs of the Poetry Foundation bring poems to 19 million Americans who would not otherwise read or hear them.” Without her they could not offer “the annual $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize”. Without her “millions of readers [might not discover] the great magic of poetry for generations to come.” And topping it with a cherry, the Poetry Foundation’s President, John Barr, stated that “poetry has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly.”

The question arises: if the magic of poetry is so great, why did it need $200 million? Apparently, it’s not the magic of poetry that will bring the thrill of poetry to millions but the magic of $200 million. And John Barr’s own revealing statement that Poetry “has no greater friend than Ruth Lilly” is a curious self-indictment. It should have millions of friends – none any more or less great than the other.

What has been lost with the triumph of Monroe’s vision? As far as Frost’s general reader is concerned, American Poetry died with the modernists and their contemporaries: Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, WB Yeats. No poets ever filled their shoes. Few passing pedestrians could readily name a poet from the last 50 to 60 years – let alone the title of a poem, let alone a first line. Yet ask the same general reader to name a favorite novelist, golfer, band, lyricist or rapper, and watch them light up.

By asserting that poets shouldn’t have to cater to the marketplace of common opinion, poets were given leave to write without consequence. And when any human being can act without consequence, the dogs of mediocrity, narcissism and hedonism will be let loose. The most recent example was Elizabeth Alexander’s reading at Obama’s inauguration. Her list of credentials and awards are show stopping. She is a poet, essayist, playwright, who has degrees from Yale University and Boston University, along with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She was the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry and, to boot, was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award and a Guggenheim fellowship.

But on the day when she was exposed to the marketplace of common opinion as no other poet since Robert Frost’s own reading at the Kennedy inauguration, the consequences were final. Her talents, as revealed in her poem Praise Song for the Day, were judged to be those of a mediocre poet whose poetic reach was strained by a clichéd phrase like “glittering edifices” and whose stanzas were typified by breathtakingly bland and unimaginative language:

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

The public’s reception was captured on John Stuart’s Daily Show when her reading was juxtaposed with images of a rapidly dispersing crowd. At present, Amazon offers 31 copies of her chapbook, Praise Song for the Day, (a print run of 100,000) for 1 penny each. New copies have been marked down to yard sale prices: $1.52. The public has spoken. If the general reader was to blame for the mediocrity in Monroe’s morning paper, public reception was the choke collar that restrained it’s durability. If the worst poets were permitted 15 minutes of fame, the next 15 years were payback. Currently, given enough publications and enough awards, a poet, despite having little to no public appeal, can expect the esteem of his or her peers to confer lifelong job security. After all, who publishes their poetry and awards them but other poets, critics and aficionados? The estimation in which the last decade’s poets have been held hasn’t reflected public opinion but the poets’ opinions of themselves.

Monroe’s stance excludes the general public from the evolution of art, but as Walt Whitman wrote, great poetry isn’t possible without a great audience, and if the audience is excluded from the development of a given art form, then it will no longer reflect the audience’s innate greatness. Interest among the general public has predictably collapsed. In January of last year, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that while 50.2 percent of adults had read a work of fiction in 2008, as opposed to 46.7 in 2002 (an encouraging increase) poetry’s adult readership had declined to a 16 year low. The general reader no longer turns to contemporary poetry because they cease to find their greatness within it. When the poet August Kleinzahler stated that Garrison Keillor’s 2002 anthology of poems, Good Poems, “makes no demands on his audiences, none whatsoever,” he might have added, with equal conviction, that the “audience hasn’t been permitted to make any demands on poets, none whatsoever.”

It would be better if poets were fed to the lions of public opinion. Drive them out of the universities, if not literally then figuratively. Drown institutional benevolence in a barrel of water. When poets were required to make their living by writing for the public there was a give and take – a kind of death and rebirth in every public appraisal of their effort. Artists disputed but also encompassed their audience’s demands and tastes. There was a balance, perhaps imperfect but a balance nonetheless. The interaction produced our greatest works of art. Hamlet was a product of the public’s demand for revenge tragedy. Mozart’s Magic Flute, one of the greatest operas written, was a direct appeal, not to nobility, but to the Viennese public’s taste for Singspiels and fairy tale operas. Conversely, careers sometimes sputtered and artists starved. But that’s the way it should be. This is how art thrives and improves.

It is a supreme irony that Monroe’s vision of the independent artist has recreated the very system of patronage that the great poets, composers and artists of the 19th century were so determined to escape. They wanted to write for the public. And it’s a curious state of affairs when criticism of John Barr’s efforts to steer the Poetry Foundation toward a more populist direction can be paraphrased (by Dana Goodyear, in her New Yorker article, The Moneyed Muse) as “the encroachment of cultural conservatism, money, and vulgar money people on a precinct considered sacred, and safely forgotten.”

Those making the criticism, those who fancy themselves independent artists, are hardly independent. Beethoven, whose music inaugurated the age of the Romantics, disdained patronage. The very definition of the independent artist, exalted by the Romantics, rejected the social and political norms of the previous century, and that included its patronage system. Ironically, there is little difference between that patronage system and the patronage system of America’s wealthy academic institutions. There is little difference between the hundreds of forgettable court composers who dutifully scribbled ditties for their aristocratic employers and the hundreds of forgettable poets who dutifully compose poem after poem under the auspices of their respective institutions. (No academic institution is going to patronize a poet who doesn’t reflect well on them.) If anything typifies cultural conservatism, it is the poet safely ensconced in the court of academic institutions.

Poetry answerable to common opinion might, at the very least, prevent the public from being lectured by “the critical few who are supposed to know.” They will stop being told they are too vulgar to recognize which poets rightly deserve their admiration and attention. Instead, maybe your neighbor will tell you. Maybe you will hear a poet’s lines absently-mindedly chanted by the stranger next to you. No one knows what the next great poet will sound like. But it’s likely the public will recognize him or her before other poets, critics or editors do.

And surely, a great many poets who are currently the darlings of their generation will be toppled from their esteemed perches. But why not invite these poets to actually make a living from their poetry? If they can’t, then maybe their poetry isn’t all that good? On the other hand, maybe the public has spoken after all. If there’s not a single poet the public finds worth praising or remembering, then maybe the argument is already over. Robert Frost’s legacy lives on in his poetry. Monroe’s legacy lives on in $200 million.

Make poets work for their bread and butter by being poets. Make them, as Frost wrote, stand on their own legs. The current culture, in which poetry is written for and supported by poets, has created a kind of state-sanctioned poetry too shielded from the destructive and re-creative impulses of common opinion. When the ancient myth makers invented the phoenix, they created a myth far more captivating and compelling than deathless immortality. They recognized the vitality of death and rebirth. When and if poetry is ever made to answer to the broader public, then the public may begin to see great poetry again – the greatness that stems from the re-creative collaboration between audience and artist. Let poetry die.

❧ January 10 2011

The Making of Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Similar to my post on “Stopping by Woods”, I’ll take a look at how different authors have analyzed the poem (and mix in my own 2¢ along the way). We’ll also look at the history of the poem, how it arrived at its final form — a subject almost as interesting as the poem itself.

Nothing Golden Stays

The aspect of the poem that nearly all close readers and critics emphasize is Frost’s use of paradox and his reference to Adam & Eve – the Christian creation myth. The story of Adam & Eve is sprinkled throughout western art, literature and music and any artist who references the story also inherits a wealth of associations.

Aside: When I was a high school junior at Western Reserve Academy, my English teacher expressed the opinion that the story of Adam & Eve was a profoundly inspired story. I countered that the story was actually stock and trade, no more inspired than any other creation myth. If looks could kill. He chalked it up to teen-aged diffidence but my opinion hasn’t changed. He asked if I could name any other story that was so pervasive. Like in China? I countered. That ended the discussion. My 2¢? Take any fable, be it ever so humble, make it the centerpiece of your culture’s spiritual and religious identity for hundreds of years and watch it flourish. It’s the centuries of art and literature, like variations, that burnish the fable of Adam & Eve. Think of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations. There’s nothing special about Diabelli’s little theme. It’s Beethoven’s variations, based on the theme, that burnish the original.

But back to Robert Frost. Frost adds considerable depth by alluding to Adam & Eve. The subject matter of the poem is elevated from a wistful observation on the passage of time to a more universal comment encompassing time and creation itself. Such is the power of alluding to the myth. Alfred R. Ferguson, in an essay entitled “Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall“, begins the essay as follows: “Perhaps no single poem more fully embodies the ambiguous balance between paradisiac good and the paradoxically more fruitful human good than “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a poem in which the metaphors of Eden and the Fall cohere with the idea of felix culpa.”

And yet, for all this, the first version of the poem doesn’t include a reference to the Bible. The very first version was, in fact, nothing more than a wistful observation on the passage of time.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
Another golden flame
And yet it’s not the same
It[‘s] not as lovely quite
As that first golden light.

Here’s my theory on Frost’s thought process. The version above, the earliest, is also the most forgettable. The first five lines are clearly the strongest and he probably thought of them all in one sitting. After that, though he recognized their promise, he didn’t know where to go with them. The last five lines are anticlimactic. They don’t elevate the subject matter and present no new ideas.

For example: Gold appears in the first line only to be repeated twice (in lines 6 and 10) as a weaker adjective. Not only that but there’s really no difference between a “golden flame” and a “golden light“. Not knowing what he wants to say, Frost is merely killing space. Adjectives, in poetry, can easily indicate second rate thought, second rate poetry, and a second rate poet. Frost repeats ideas anti-climatically. By writing that autumn “achieves another golden flame” he’s already given away the game. By the time he calls nature’s first “gold” a “golden light” there’s no surprise or elevation in thought. There’s no epiphany or feeling of development. The phrase And yet it’s not the same adds nothing. It’s little more than rhetorical filler for the sake of rhyme.

But Frost wasn’t a second rate poet. He recognized the sententious weaknesses in this first version. He moved on. He revised.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

[From Selections from American literature, edited by Leonidas Warren Payne p. 936]

This revision, this much of it, is a clear improvement. He’s gotten rid of the phrase And yet it’s not the same. He’s tightened the poem by reducing it from ten lines to eight. The final four lines become a mirror image of the first four. In effect, he’s created a volta such as you would find in a Sonnet – a turn or change in the subject, a movement from proposition to resolution.

But problems remain. Golden, as in the first version, is repeated twice, diminishing the epithet’s effectiveness. But that’s the least of it. Changing the noun gold into the adjectives golden remains the first sin. The problem is that the emphasis is on blaze and stays rather than gold. The image left in the readers mind is diffuse. What does a blaze look like?

However, this isn’t the end of the poem. Here is the earlier version of the poem in its entirety. This marks the first time this version has appeared anywhere on the world wide web. I don’t know why scholars (and if you’re a scholar I’m talking to you) can’t be bothered to print the entirety of the poem if you’re going to discuss it. I had to reconstruct this from snippets and fragments gleaned from deviously clever Google book searches. Here it is:

Nothing Golden Stays

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaves are flowers—
But only so for hours;
Then leaves subside to leaves.
In autumn she achieves
A still more golden blaze
But nothing golden stays.

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.
A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

In gold as it began
The world will end for man.
And some belief avow
The world is ending now.
The final age of gold
In what we now behold.
If so, we’d better gaze,
For nothing golden stays.

This isn’t bad, but it seems excessive for a wistful poem about the passage of time. The second stanza more or less elaborates on what was already implied by the first stanza. My guess is that Frost thought the poem would feel weightier having a tripartite form. The problem, as Shakespeare put it with characteristic genius, is that “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument.” There are more words than matter in this poem.

But why is Frost looking for a weightier poem and what’s the third stanza about? Tyler Hoffman, in his book Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry, explains (though, like other authors, he couldn’t be bothered to provide the entire poem):

…Frost is speaking out on international political affairs in his sly way, and it is important to remember that this poem is composed in 1920, just after World War I has ended. Feeling sure that “there are two or three more wars close at hand,” Frost expresses a fierce nationalism at this time and, with it, an isolationist political position (…) ” Nothing Gold Can Stay” tropes this position, suggesting through its isolation of syntactic units a refusal to become embroiled in global politics: just as Nature tries to resists the forces of change, so America must try to resist forces that would pull her beyond her borders, even if such resistance may be in vain. That the poem originally included lines that later became part of “It is Almost the Year 2000,” (…) points to another political meaning, as Frost jabs at 1930s liberals who believe that the millenium is upon us on the evidence of the terrible times. [pp. 162-163]

• Hoffman makes observations about the poem’s form that I don’t find persuasive. He remarks that “it is seemingly ironic that the boundaries of phrasal units and lines should match up so neatly in a poem about transition, the change from one season to another.”  Hoffman’s answer to this perceived conundrum is that “through tight closure, Frost is able to depict the effort on Nature’s part to ‘hold’ — to try to resist the forces of change that inevitably will overpower her.” He then goes on to note that the earlier version of the poem does not follow this  pattern. One would think this would fatally undercut Hoffman’s assertion, but he nicely pirouettes: “In this draft version, hard enjambment also is resisted, a formal condition that reads as an emblem of Frost’s political resistence to socialist utopian thought.”

Say what? Hoffman gives us no citation for these assertions. Did Frost, at some point, characterize his use of end-stopped lines and enjambment as political “emblems”? No. So, what we’re left with is Hoffman’s opinion as to what Frost was thinking. I don’t buy it. I’m not persuaded. If anything, this kind of analysis smacks of David Orr’s Enactment Fallacy. I’ve linked to Orr’s article a dozen times in other posts, but if you haven’t read it then it’s worth reading or reading again. Orr writes of the Enactment Fallacy:

Basically, this is the assignment of meaning to technical aspects of poetry that those aspects don’t necessarily possess. For example, in an otherwise excellent discussion of Yeats’s use of ottava rima (a type of eight-line stanza), Vendler attributes great effect to “the pacing” allegedly created by “a fierce set of enjambments” followed by a “violent drop” in the fourth stanza of the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.

Hoffman, like Vendler, is imposing meaning on poetic techniques. If one takes Hoffman at his word, are we then to conclude that every example of enjambment is politically emblematic? If not, then we’re cherry picking. Otherwise we must be willing to say that enjambment means X in this poem, but Y in that poem without any evidence whatsoever. Unless you’ve heard it from Frost, don’t be persuaded by assertions like these.

Getting back to the poem’s theme, I am persuaded by Hoffman’s thinking that the original impulse for “Nothing Gold Can Stay” developed into something political. This explains, perhaps, why Frost wanted a weightier poem in three parts. What may have began as a wistful nature poem began to be seen, by Frost, as a good metaphor for his disagreement with liberal politics (“some belief avow”), which he perceived as Utopian – hence golden.

With that in mind, we can discern the first appearance of Adam & Eve. “In gold as it began…” he writes. That is, mankind began in gold, in the Garden of Eden. If gold is then a euphemism for utopianism, then the Garden of Eden is the ultimate tale of liberal utopianism. I’ve read some other analyses of Nothing Gold Can Stay by other bloggers who see in Frost’s allusion a sympathetically Christian one; but, if anything, Frost’s initial allusion to the Garden of Eden is anything but sympathetic. His allusion almost drips with sarcasm. ‘You see how long that lasted,’ he seems to say. What makes you think this new Democratic and socialist utopianism is going to fair any better? If that’s what you think, he writes at the close of the poem, then you’d “better gaze [now], For nothing golden [Utopian] stays.”

He taunts liberals (and socialists) for their Utopian vision of society by bitingly comparing it to the Utopian vision of Christian Theology – the End Days, End Times or the Second Coming. He calls it the “final age of gold”. Is it accident that he uses the very phrase?

A moment it appears
At either end of years,
At either end of days.
But nothing golden stays.

Frost’s skepticism applies not just to the Garden of Eden, but to the reputed gold age that will come with Christ’s Second Coming. Just as in the first instance, he writes, it won’t stay.

So much for a wistful nature poem.

But there’s a reason why this earlier version is so hard to find. It’s not that good. As with all political poems, it comes stamped and dated. Political poems have short shelf lives. Without knowing the political impetus behind the original poem, the whole of it comes off sounding excessively verbose. Frost must have recognized the limitations of the poem and how his politics circumscribed the poem’s potential universality.

He went back to work. He revised.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

I  find the differing versions of this poem revealing as to Robert Frost’s personality. It’s easy to sense, in the earlier version, a side of Frost that was ill-humored, sarcastic, acerbic and dismissive. It’s a darker undercurrent that can be sensed in many of his poems and one, as revealed in many of his sketches, that he tempers. Nothing Gold Can Stay is a perfect example. The final version is deceptively straightforward, like many of Frost’s poems, but the tincture of Frost’s acerbic personality remains, adding depth and perspective to what, otherwise, might simply be mawkish.

Frost quickly dispenses with the second stanza. One might not think it at first glance, but it’s easy to read a dismissive tone into the first four lines of the second stanza:

Of white, blue, gold and green,
The only colors seen
And thought of in the vast,
The gold is soonest past.

There are other colors (politics) besides gold, but no one else “in the vast” seems to see them. Without the political impetus behind these lines, they have the potential to sound petty. The lines also state what is already understood. The subject of the poem, in a sense, pertains to what is golden. The fact that the other colors are overlooked is already implied.

The third stanza gets the ax because it threatens to come off as nothing more than derisive political posturing.

This brings Frost back to the first stanza. Eden is still buzzing in his brain. He realizes that this reference has the potential to expansively elevate the  subject matter – a facet missing in the earliest versions. Frost returns to the first four lines but this time changes flowers to the more universal flower. The singular flower carries a more symbolic feeling than flowers. Likewise, the change from hours to hour gives the word a more universal, symbolic flavor.

Frost alters his poem from naturalistic generality to symbol. A flower could be anything (whereas flowers will be more generally read as flowers). From there, and with Eden still in the back of his mind, he makes the leap to the next four lines:

Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Rather than use a euphemism, Frost simply writes Eden — Eden sank to grief. But a tone has been set. By Frost’s use of the singular flower, hour and leaf, the reference to Eden becomes a symbolic gesture which, because of its suggestive power, smoothly elevates the poem’s thought and philosophic reach. The idea of Eden burnishes the word dawn, imbuing it with a deeper symbolism. But there’s something more to this line, the idea that dawn goes down to day. More than one author and critic has sought explanation in the Latin phrase felix culpa or blessèd fall. This is the paradoxical concept that through diminution or decay comes increase and growth. The day is the apogee of sunlight and warmth, but to have that day, the beauty of dawn must go down. The dawn itself, like the first green of the early leaf is a kind of gold that must go down before the leaf can bear fruit. Nothing gold can stay. As King Midas learned, gold that stays makes for a lifeless world.

Alfred Furgeson, whose Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall I quoted earlier, nicely sums up the same ideas in his own way:

It is a felix culpa and light-bringing. Our whole human experience makes us aware that dawn is tentative, lovely, but incomplete and evanescent. Our expectation is that dawn does not “go down” to day, but comes up, as in Kipling’s famous phrase, “like thunder,” into the satisfying warmth of sunlight and full life. The hesitant perfections of gold, of flower, of Eden, and finally of dawn are linked to parallel terms which are set in verbal contexts of diminished value. Yet in each case the parallel term is potentially of larger worth. If the reader accepts green leaf and the full sunlight of day as finally more attractive than the transitory golden flower and the rose flush of a brief dawn, he must also accept the Edenic sinking into grief as a rise into a larger life. In each case the temporary and partial becomes more long-lived and complete; the natural cycle that turns from flower to leaf, from dawn to day, balances each loss by a real gain. Eden’s fall is a blessing in the same fashion, an entry into fuller life and greater light.

It’s worth pointing out, at this point, that the poem’s political implications were still probably present in Frost’s mind and in his later readings, but they no longer feel like the poem’s primary impetus. He accomplished this, in part, by his more symbolic use of language. The poem, if construed as political, is no longer an ascerbic dismissal of a political belief, but an elegant alternative to those beliefs. Rather than simply mock a system of beliefs he disagrees with, he offers an alternative. The decline (or failure) of utopianism is an inevitable outcome if the cycle of life is to be respected and appreciated.

This revision makes the poem interestingly and compellingly constructive rather than destructive. The necessary tension between creation and destruction is what makes the poem great. At the same time that we feel the loss of all that is gold, we also sense the necessity and blessèdness that comes from that loss.

The Poem’s Form

The poem is written in Iambic Trimeter. The only variant feet are a trochaic foot in the first line and a headless foot in the final line. The headless foot in the final line is especially effective. To my ears, it adds a succinct pithiness to the final line, like a sonnet’s epigrammatic close.

There’s another longer and more detailed (read deep) look at how this poem works at an aural/linguistic level by John A. Rea. The analysis can be found here. It’s a fascinating attempt to do what is nearly impossible – describe what is musical about the language in the poem. It’s almost like trying to describe the color red to a blind man. You can decide for yourself whether he succeeds or is even readable, but I admire and appreciate the attempt.

Coda

  • Curiously, a number of bloggers have posted a strange hybrid. You will sometimes find the following:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leafs a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaves subside to leaves.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The problem is that the word leaves doesn’t rhyme with grief. That’s not anything Frost would have written. That’s just a mistake. You will also find the title, sometimes, mistakenly given as Nothing Golden Stays. This title, in fact, belongs to the earlier version.

An addition: Iambic Pentameter & Robert Frost’s Birches

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For most readers Frost’s Birches offers no hidden subtext beyond what’s grasped intuitively.

But this hasn’t stopped some interpreters.  For instance, in Robert Frost: Modern Poetics and the Landscapes of Self, Frank Lentricchia remarks:

Those “straighter, darker trees,” like the trees of “Into My Own” that “scarcely show the breeze,” stand ominously free from human manipulation, menacing in their irresponsiveness to acts of the will.

I’ve read Birches countless times, and the feeling of an ominous menace never once crossed my mind. To read this kind of interpretation into the imagery requires some kind of context and there simply is none – not in two lines. And referring to “Into my Own”, as though the two poems were somehow related or created the context for such an interpretation, is nonsensical. But the bottom line is that there doesn’t have to be a symbolic undercurrent (or double meaning) to every single word or image. Close readers and academics love nothing more than teasing out interpretations, but just because it can be done, doesn’t mean there’s any objective validity to the interpretation.  At some point, such exercises strike me as being more like parlor games.

Just because the other trees are darker doesn’t mean that they are ominous. Fact is, every single tree in the New England landscape is darker than the birch. And for the most part (and after a good ice storm) most other trees are, factually, straighter than birches. In The Wood Pile, Frost refers to the view as being “all in lines/Straight up and down of tall slim trees,” One need not read any more into Frost’s imagery than the simple fact of it.

But, naturally, if Lentricchia is going to invoke menace, he needs to explain why (to justify that interpretation). He writes that they are menacing in their “irresponsiveness to acts of human will”.  I just don’t buy it.

At best, one would need to make the assumption that Frost’s use of the word dark always constituted some kind of menace when used in reference to trees or the woods. But in his most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Frost writes that “The woods are lovely, dark and deep”. Despite Frost’s use of the word lovely, this hasn’t stopped close readers from suggesting that Frost was contemplating suicide and that loveliness, far from being praise of the New England wood in winter,  was a contemplation of the lovely, dark and deep oblivion that is suicide (or so they interpret it). Richard Poirer is among those who have made this suggestion. By the absence of a comma between the word dark and the word and he concludes that the “loveliness thereby partakes of the depth and darkness which make the woods so ominous.” The italics are mine. But Poirier’s reading could hardly be called objective. There is, in fact, no way of knowing what significance such punctuation might have held for Frost. However, Frost did have a thing or two to say about ominous interpretations. William Pritchard writes, in  Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered:

Discussion of this poem has usually concerned itself with matters of “content” or meaning (What do the woods represent? Is this a poem in which suicide is contemplated?). Frost, accordingly, as he continued to read it in public made fun of efforts to draw out or fix its meaning as something large and impressive, something to do with man’s existential loneliness or other ultimate matters. Perhaps because of these efforts, and on at least one occasion – his last appearance in 1962 at the Ford Forum in Boston- he told his audience that the thing which had given him most pleasure in composing the poem was the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: “He gives the harness bells a shake/ To ask if there is some mistake.” We might guess that he held these lines up for admiration because they are probably the hardest ones in the poem out of which to make anything significant: regular in their iambic rhythm and suggesting nothing more than they assert… [p. 164]

All of which is to say, Frost had little patience for self-pity or, by extension, suicide. One need only read Out, Out to get a sense of Frost’s personality. In short, one can contemplate the soothing darkness and loveliness of the woods without contemplating suicide. But you decide.

However

Beyond the interpretation of individual words and lines, there is a larger philosophical debate within the poem that will flavor what readers bring to the poem. It happens in the opening lines:

….

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that.
Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away

You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows–

The italicized lines bracket a digression that Frost characterizes as Truth. What does he mean? In fact, the differentiation Frost implies between Truth and his playful, imaginary fable of the boy climbing the birches, is central to the poem’s meaning. The world of Truth could be construed as the world of science and matter-of-factness – a world which circumscribes the imagination  or, more to the point, the poetic imagination, Poetry. The world of the poet is one of metaphor, symbolism, allegory and myth making. At its simplest, Frost is describing two worlds and telling which he prefers and how he values each. “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” And by that, he could almost be saying: One could do worse than be a poet.

The underlined passage “You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen”, has been nicely interpreted as a reference to Ptolemaic astronomy (which believed that the planets and stars were surrounded by crystal spheres or domes). I like that interpretation and I can believe that Frost intended it. The inner dome and its shattered crystal shells like “heaps of broken glass” fit neatly within the allusion. But there is significance in the allusion. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was a poetic construct – a theory of the imagination rather than matter-of-factness. In this sense, Truth as Frost calls it (or modern science) has collapsed the inner dome of the poetic imagination and replaced it with something that doesn’t permit the poet’s entry. The shattered inner dome of the imagination (of the myth makers) has been replaced by fact – by science.

And in this light, the entirety of Frost’s description, climbing the birches, just so, and swinging back down, becomes a kind of description for the life which the poet seeks and values – the imaginative life of the poet:

…. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree….

The poet learns all there is to learn about “not launching out too soon”. He could be describing the art of poetry. You cannot swing from a birch without the right height. But if you also climb too high, if your ambitions exceed the matter of your poem, the birch will break . You must write your poetry, climbing carefully, with the “same care you use to fill a cup,/Up to the brim, and even above the brim.” But I don’t want to limit the poem’s meaning to just this. Frost is describing more than the poet, but a whole way of interpreting the world.

It’s the difference between the mind that seeks objective truths, irrespective of the observer, and the mind that perceives world as having symbolic, metaphorical and mythical significance. It’s the world of religion and spirituality. Its the world of signs and visions – events have meaning. In the scientific world view, nothing is of any significance to the observer: life is like a “pathless wood”, meaningless,  that randomly afflicts us with face burns, lashing us, leaving us weeping. The observer is irrelevant. In some ways, science is anathema to the poet’s way of understanding the world. It’s loveless. And that’s not the world Frost values. “Earth’s the right place for love,” he writes.  The woods that he values have a path and the birches are bent with purpose.

But having said all that, Frost also acknowledges a balance.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.

If we read him right, he seems to be saying that he prefers not to be too much in one world or the other. Let him climb toward heaven, both literally and figuratively, but let him also be returned to earth. Having written this much, Frank Lentricchia’s own interpretation of the poem’s divisions may be more easily understood:

….There is never any intention of competing with science, and therefore, there is no problem at all (as we generally sense with many modern poets and critics) of claiming a special cognitive value for poetry. In his playful and redemptive mode, Frost’s motive for poetry is not cognitive but psychological in the sense that he is willfully seeking to bathe his consciousness and, if the reader consents, his reader’s as well, in a free-floating, epistemologically unsanctioned vision of the world which, even as it is undermined by the very language in which it is anchored, brings a satisfaction of relief when contemplated…..

If I may be so bold as to interpret (and interpreting academese does take some boldness), what Lentricchia seems to be saying is that Frost’s philosophical stance does not arise from any direct experience (as stated in the poem). Direct experience would be “epistemologically sanctioned”. Epistemology, a word coddled and deployed by academics with fetishistic ardor, is the “branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” So, to interpret, Lentricchia appears to be saying that Frost’s “vision/philosophy” is not “epistemologically/experientially” “sanctioned/based“. In short, Frost’s experience (and that of the readers) is that of the poet and poetry – the purely subjective realm of imagination, story telling and myth making.

Interestingly, those who criticize the poem for being without basis in experience (Lentricchia is not one of them) seem blissfully unaware that this is precisely the kind of knowing that the poem itself is criticizing and examining. That is, the poem is its own example of myth-making — the transformative power of poetry. Yes, says Frost, there is the matter-of-fact (epistemologically sanctioned) world, but there is also the poetical world – the world of metaphor and myth that is like the slender birch (and the poem itself). It can be climbed but not too high. The matter-of-fact world is good to escape, but it is also good to come back to.

John C Kemp, in Robert Frost and New England: The Poet as Regionalist, goes further in explaining what some readers consider the poem’s weaknesses.

“Mending Wall,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” are centered on specific events that involve the speaker in dramatic conflicts and lead him to extraordinary perspectives. ¶ (….)however, “Birches” does not present a central dramatized event as a stimulus for the speaker’s utterance. Although the conclusion seems sincere, and although Frost created a persuasive metaphorical context for it, the final sentiments do not grow dramatically out of the experiences alluded to. (….) Frost’s confession that the poem was “two fragments soldered together” is revealing; the overt, affected capriciousness of the transitions between major sections of the poem (ll. 4-5, 21-22, and 41-42) indicates that instead of striving to establish the dynamics of dramatized experience, he felt he could rely on the force of his speaker’s personality and rural background. In early editions, a parenthetical question, “(Now am I free to be poetical?),” followed line 22, making the transition between the ice storm and the country youth even more arbitrary.

My own view is that rather than making the poem feel arbitrary, the question Now am I free to be poetical? makes Frost’s thematic concerns too explicit. The question too sharply defines the contrast between the matter-of-fact and the poetical. In short, Frost may have felt that the question overplayed his hand.  (Some critics read this question as an affectation. I don’t. I read it as signaling the poem’s intent, a “stage direction” that Frost later removed.)

Frost was striving for balance both in poem and subject matter — between the poetical and the matter-of-fact.

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