To kick off the New Year I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on the poetry of Robert Frost, whose work I’ve been dipping into over the last couple of months. I’m conscious that what follows is a personal response, and isn’t going to add anything earth-shattering to the existing body of knowledge. However, I’ve enjoyed revisiting poems I thought I knew.
I started rereading Frost by looking at ‘Desert Places’, which, considering the sudden flurry of snow we had on Boxing Day evening, was a good choice. As were driving back from Derbyshire, over the Strines (not a route to tackle in bad weather), I had the first line of the poem in my head: ‘Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast’. That ‘oh, fast’ carried a real sense of dread. In the poem, the landscape is both literal and metaphorical (a landscape of the mind if you like). That landscape holds something ambiguous: ‘The woods around it have it – it is theirs’. Peace? Terror? I’d go for the latter. The repetition of ‘it’ keeps us guessing, but we imagine the worst I think. Frost, however, is ‘too absent-spirited to count’; he is remote from the landscape even as he is passing through. It’s a distance that’s important when we get to those striking last two lines (for me, they are the strongest in the poem):
‘I have it in me so much nearer home,
To scare myself with my own desert places.’
I was intrigued by the phrase ‘so much nearer home’ – does Frost mean the domestic space, or perhaps the space within himself? Being metaphorically closer to home might also mean closer to the truth (as when something ‘hits home’). The absence of repetition feels like a relief after being snared in the tightly-wrought, almost claustrophobic lines that precede (they hold the reader tight within their repetitions, and although this is undoubtedly a powerful technique, I found I myself needing to escape them, which is perhaps Frost’s intended effect). Joseph Brodsky has talked about Frost’s theory of ‘sentence-sounds’: ‘the sound, the tonality, of human locution is as semantic as actual words’ (Brodsky, 1996). The repetition in ‘Desert Places’ is functioning on this level, I think, holding the reader in a confined space.
One thing Frost’s poems do, partly because of the repetition, is lend themselves to being learnt off by heart. Look on YouTube and you’ll find a plethora of poems being recited. I had a go with ‘Acquainted With the Night’. 7 of the 14 lines start with ‘I have …’, which seemed to be a good reason for choosing this poem to memorise (my recall is terrible). Also, I loved the following image, which seems to hint at the Gothic (I’ll mention this again below) and also feels less constrained than earlier lines in the poem:
‘at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right’
This ambiguity opens up the poem for me. Not knowing if the time is wrong or right seems to work not just on the level of the clock’s exact time, but also the right or wrong time to act or take opportunities (which links it to ‘The Road Not Taken’). In fact, I found that my familiarity with more well-known poems like ‘The Road Not Taken’ and ‘Stopping by Woods One Snowy Evening’, got in the way as I reread Frost’s work, in the sense that I probably didn’t give them as much attention as I should have. I enjoyed going back to longer poems like ‘Mending Wall’. I do a lot of walking, and dry stone walls are part of my landscape, so I identified with the idea of rebuilding field boundaries and how it parallels, and parodies, the idea of neighbourliness. Also, there is something distancing, and slightly sinister, in the aphorism, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’.
Another long poem, the one I’m leading up to I suppose, is the dramatic monologue, ‘A Servant to Servants’. I like the intensity of the voice, and maybe because Frost is creating a persona here, the poem’s not bound so tightly by the rhyme and repetition which I found claustrophobic in ‘Desert Places’. ‘A Servant to Servants’ is a measured and careful revealing of a life of struggle, from a female servant’s point of view (although she seems to have a romantic attachment to Len, the land owner, which makes her position ambiguous). Nevertheless, whether she is the servant/ housekeeper/ relation/ common law wife, in this beautiful but isolated environment, she is powerless. The lake is a metaphor for her life, which is cut off or curtailed by circumstance:
‘a fair, pretty sheet of water
The advantages it has, so long and narrow,
Like a deep piece of some old running river
Cut short off at both ends’
I mentioned the sense of the Gothic in ‘Desert Places’ earlier, and in this poem, the image of the attic room with its cage built of hickory poles, seems to accord with the madwoman in the attic scenario (it is the mad uncle who is first confined there, but the cage remains for years after and the speaker half-jokes that she feels drawn to spending time in it herself: ‘It got so I would say – you know, half fooling – / “It’s time I took my turn upstairs in jail”). The only escape from this life of drudgery is this cage or the asylum. ‘I’ve been away once – yes, I’ve been away,’ she confides. It’s important to note the absence of the word ‘put’ here – no one has sent her; she has elected to spend time in the asylum, the only place she can rest.
The conversational tone of the poem speaks directly to the reader; we are placed in the position of the other servants the speaker is addressing. The servants themselves seem to be itinerant workers, and therefore free to move on, whereas she is trapped and cannot leave. There’s a sense that anyone who believes they are able to survive here is deluded. Len is reported as saying, ‘one steady pull more ought to do it’; what makes this more poignant is that the speaker sees through it. It’s Len’s determination to push on, ‘the best way out is always through’, coupled with being distracted by various offices in town, that could, if we were to look for one, represent the fatal flaw in the tragedy of the speaker’s life, rather than ‘madness’. Again, as I’ve noted in the other poems, meaning is ambiguous here. What or where is the way out that Len refers to?
One of the questions posed by the Poetry Business Writing School has been to name a poet who might be viewed as the antithesis of Frost. I’ve chosen Ezra Pound, although I say this with some qualification, as I know Pound reviewed Frost’s early work favourably. However, Pound’s density of allusion, his use both of free verse and verse forms outside the European cannon, the sense that he is cosmopolitan, rather than quintessentially American, all seem to move him away from Frost. Frost is often seen as plain-speaking and therefore quite accessible (although this is deceptive) whereas Pound is generally acknowledged as a difficult poet. Having said this, Derek Walcott sees, amongst others, Whitman as the antithesis to Frost:
‘Whitman’s vagabondage is romantic, perhaps even irresponsible. Frost
stays put, close to stone walls … his view of the republic … rigidly Horatian’
So, I think the answer to the question is necessarily subjective. In fact, I also find Robert Lowell’s ‘confessional’ poetry quite different, and, for me (I’m opening myself up to criticism here), more compelling, than Frost. Whereas Frost seems to rein in the emotion, Lowell is unconstrained. There is a sense, in Lowell’s work, that he is laying bare the inner torment that Frost conceals.
It remains to be seen if any of my reading of Frost will filter through into my writing over the coming months. I tend to shy away from formal structures, but perhaps the use of repetition is something that might make more of an appearance in my work. However, as it’s foolhardy to try to predict the direction of my writing, I’ll stop now. I truly hope that 2015 will be a great year for everyone. I’m wary of making resolutions myself. Just remember that luminary clock of Frost’s that ‘Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right’. Whether it’s the start of a New Year, or just ten minutes snatched while eating breakfast, let’s all keep writing!
Homage to Robert Frost (Brodsky, J., Heaney, S. & Walcott, D.) Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996).
The Harvill Book of Twentieth Century Poetry in English (ed. Schmidt, M) Harvill Press 2000.
The Norton Anthology of Poetry (ed. Ferguson, M., Salter, M. & Stalworthy, J.) Norton, 1996.