Friday, May 8, 2009

The Deep Dark of Robert Frost

Back at my day job, the 3 Poems by Discussion group will be reading and talking about Robert Frost. The three poems we chose are not those one thinks of first when considering Frost: "Design," "Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same," and "Acquainted With the Night." The reason I selected these poems is that they expose a deep, dark strain in Frost which, though often overlooked, is present even in his most famous works.


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds' song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
O luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

These are simply 3 masterful poems by a true poetic genius. All are 14 lines and sonnets to varying degrees and that is the least important thing that could be said about any of them (Frost's famed comment that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net more than suffices in regard to his approach to form). Though all these have certain elements of the formality of an earlier era, they all, again in varying degrees, replicate the natural patterns and cadences of speech in pacing and rhythm.

Of late, I've been reading Anne Sexton's dazzling The Awful Rowing Toward God and Frost's "Design" fits in perfectly with its themes, if not its execution and conclusion. Though Sexton might be thought of as the ultimate doubter, when it comes to the Ultimate in this poem, Frost has got her beat by a mile in the pessimism department. "What but design of darkness to appall?," indeed.

The white on white on white imagery is brilliant once again in execution, and certainly in irony, when invoking the absence of the Good.

"Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same" is one of the finest love poems ever written in English. If this seems hyperbolic, ask yourself this question: in the big picture, what exactly has Eve in the poem done? I would posit nothing short of changing the world, but that's just me. The poem has quite a few levels of resonance (Eve and garden, anyone), seems to be written in a voice in which the speaker is attempting to convince him/herself, and yet one of the only two declarative statements in the poem says it, qualification and all: "Be that as may be, she was in their song."

In tone, "Acquainted With the Night" seems close to "Design:" one might even speculate that the poet of "Design" is the persona of "Acquainted." "Be that as may be," that person is about as far from the usual folksy, rural farmer image normally conjured when thinking of the protagonists of many of Frost's poems. This persona seems to have wandered onto the streets of some unnamed American city from Baudelaire's Paris, philosophy in tact. Besides the narrator's seeming deep ennui, the lines

I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

strike deeply and with considerable power. Frost, too, seems unwilling to explain and yet the narrative itself more than suffices; perfectly capturing the feeling, the details become unnecessary.

We have all dropped our eyes and looked way at one time or another, so we are as readily acquainted with the unsupplied details as the narrator is the night.


Today is Gary Snyder's birthday, so least I let it go by unnoticed, here is a dandy from Gary's Songs for Gaia:

As the crickets' soft autumn hum
------------is to man,
-------so is man, to the trees

-------as are they

-----------to the rocks and the hills.
----------------Gary Snyder


And, just because things do get a bit too serious sometimes, here are the breakfast cereal follies of one poet laureate, one great 20th century Polish poet, and three astute apprentices:

he knows the meaning
of the breakfast bell...
baby sparrow
translated by David Lanoue



Charles Gramlich said...

"Design" is absolutely amazing. I don't believe I've read that Frost poem before. I have a collected Frost here but haven't begun to get into it yet.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Yes, Charles, the more I read this one, the more amazed I am.