Tag Archives: Robert Frost

A pheasant disappearing in the brush.

poem-wynken-etcI was a child when poetry was still “taught badly,” according to some people. In fifth grade we had to memorize a poem, choosing from a collection that our teacher had compiled. Before that I remember reading some poems at home, like “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” which I came to love. It was in a children’s literature anthology my grandmother had given us.

From the options my teacher presented I chose “The Children’s Hour” by Longfellow. It seems that we had some weeks to learn our poems, and the practicing and reciting of the poet’s metered verse are a very pleasant memory for me. I did enter vicariously into the scene the poem describes, of a father surrounded by his affectionate and beloved daughters. I can still hear the music and feel the happiness even if I can’t remember many of the words past the first line.

Now, when I read about that particular poem on Wikipedia, I find that it serves as an illustration of one aspect of poetry that educators debate about: “More recently, the poem has been called overly-sentimental, as have many of Longfellow’s works. Scholar Richard Ruland, for example, warns that modern readers might find it ‘not only simple and straightforward, but perhaps saccharine and overly emotional,’ though he concludes it is a successful poem. Scholar Matthew Gartner, however, uses the poem as an example of how Longfellow invited his readers into his private home life in New England to refine them and teach them lessons in virtue.”

I have been lightly musing over these questions since reading a recent article by California’s Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, who has for as long as I’ve known him been intensely interested in education, and how to restore among the populace the love for poetry that used to be commonplace.

dana-gioia-with-cat-photo-by-web-824x549In the article “Poetry as Enchantment” the poet discusses the huge changes that have taken place in the world of poetry over the last few generations. I can see how my own experience reflects some of the losses that occurred. After the one poem that I memorized (not counting lyrics of hymns and folk songs) there was to be no more reading aloud in school, or memorization. In high school I know we analyzed some poems, but nothing grabbed me. Despite this, our small rural high school retained vestiges of the past in the form of a literary magazine in which students might publish poems or stories that the student editors selected.

I tried writing some poems, of which I was of course ashamed soon after they were published in the magazine. Maybe the magazine was not actually a leftover from a previous era but a “progressive” thing, packed with material from untaught writers, screened by writers just as unqualified. And likely it was an attempt to hold on to a fuller experience of poetry than we were getting in the classroom. Gioia says that textual criticism and analysis is all well and good and can be very helpful — he does quite a bit of it himself — but that we require an encounter with poetry that engages more than our intellect. We amateurs should not be underestimated as readers of poetry:

Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity. Their emotions and memories emerge entangled with half-formed thoughts and physical sensations. As any thinking person can see, such subjectivity is an intellectual mess of the highest order. But aren’t average readers simply approaching poetry more or less the way human beings experience the world itself?

Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary. The scholarly response may be accurate and insightful. The culture is enriched by specialized discourse about literary texts and traditions. But critical analysis remains deliberately outside the full experience of the poem, which is physical, emotional, subjective, and intuitive as well as intellectual.

poem-fisher-mizzly

Less than ten years out of high school, I was teaching poetry to my children. That was when I fully fell in love with many a good poem. Maybe all the analytical skills my high school and college teachers had tried to teach me came back and helped me appreciate the art, but I think much of the good effect came from starting from the ground up: teaching toddlers the fun of a sing-song nursery rhyme; reading A Child’s Garden of Verses to older children so many times that we couldn’t help but learn several by heart (skipping a few that didn’t seem to be teaching “a lesson in virtue,” to use the words of Matthew Gartner above); working the copying and memorization and reciting of poems into our homeschool curriculum; reciting/memorizing Frost’s “The Figure in the Doorway” as a family in the car while on a camping trip. We didn’t try to analyze or figure out hidden meanings, but I think we often intuited deep things. Probably many times we missed the primary intent of the poem, but we still were enriched in our humanity and our connection to the poet, and the world.

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
-T.S. Eliot, as quoted by Dana Gioia

More from the article:  Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought. As Jacques Maritain observed, ‘poetry is not philosophy for the feeble-minded.’ It is a different mode of knowing and communicating the world. There are many truths about existence that we can only express authentically as a song or a story. Conceptual language, which is the necessary medium of the critic and scholar, primarily addresses the intellect. It is analytical, which is to say, it takes things apart, as the Greek root of the word ana-lyein, to unloosen, suggests. Conceptual discourse abstracts language from the particular to the general. Poetic language, however, is holistic and experiential. Poetry simultaneously addresses our intellect and our physical senses, our emotions, imagination, intuition, and memory without asking us to divide them. The text may be frozen on the page for easy visual inspection and analysis, but the poetic experience itself is temporal, individual, and mostly invisible. As Wallace Stevens wrote, ‘Poetry is a pheasant disappearing in the brush.’

poemstevenson-fairy-bread

In the passion of 20-yr-old pride I tossed out my copies of the high school magazine, but I can remember the first line of one verse I wrote: “Must we tear apart the thing, and analyze and criticize?” Even then I had no leanings toward being a literary scholar. But I am still in the process of getting a literary education.

“The purpose of literary education is not to produce more professors;
its goal is to develop capable and complete human beings.”
-Dana Gioia

Against much resistance, when he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia managed to implement a program he designed to restore some of the practices that encouraged a love of poetry in bygone years. Many of you are probably familiar with Poetry Out Loud, but I only learned about it in this article. High school students are having fun learning poems and reciting them in competitions, and this has been going on for ten years now! I’m hoping to attend the recitations in my area this coming January. It will do my heart good.

Get the fuller story of Gioia’s thesis and suggestions, and of the Poetry Out Loud events, by reading the entire article here.

They look at the sea all day.

Many critics have analyzed this poem by Robert Frost. I found it helpful to read some of their ideas gathered on this page. Though I love to look at the sea, never have I done it (even metaphorically) for even one whole day; an hour now and then is healthful to the soul. This poem flows like the waves washing up on a beach and receding again…

NEITHER OUT FAR Nor IN DEEP

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be-
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

-Robert Frost

GL 10 P1020097 sandpipers

Wing to wing, oar to oar.

Amy and Leon Kass edited an anthology of “readings on courting and marrying.” I have a copy of the book, which I bought after hearing them interviewed at length on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. In that series of discussions they said that they found, from talking with many of their students — and they were both university professors — that modern young people aren’t prepared to fall in love in the way their ancestors found so easy. They hoped that providing certain thoughtfully-chosen literary readings for these impaired youth might compensate for the unfortunate changes iAmy and Leon small_0n society as a whole that had led to this sad situation, which did not facilitate good marriages, and worked against people getting married at all.

I have always wondered if their project bore fruit, if the Kasses ever heard of anyone being helped toward a normalization of love and marriage by the reading of their anthology. I’d like to go back and listen again, to think more about their assessment of the problem and its causes, but that is not the subject of my post.  I mention them because for the title of the anthology they used a phrase from Robert Frost, found in a poem he wrote on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding. That poem is the main thing I wanted to share here.

For the Kasses the poem captures “the togetherness of the married couple empowered to resist the flux of wind and water. Frost is not the first to use the language of speed or quickness to show how love may quicken the life of a couple into a vitality that far exceeds what each partner might attain alone. But Frost also plays on the archaic meaning of ‘speed,’ ‘prosperity or success in an undertaking,’ as well as on its Latin root, spes, meaning ‘hope,’ to point to the possibility of rest within motion, permanence within change, the eternal within the perishable.”

~ Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, from Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marriage

THE MASTER SPEED

No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste,
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still —
Off any still or moving thing you say.
Two such as you with master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar.

~ Robert Frost

Frosty trees and icy fountain.

Early on Christmas Eve rain fell all around, and on my little live Christmas trP1030175ee, so when I brought it indoors on to the doormat it was heavy and drippy. I dried the dear but very prickly thing with a towel and later on Kit trimmed it with all of the appropriate ornaments. That photo on the wall behind is of my late husband when he was a boy.

Today I came across this good Christmas tree poem by Robert Frost. I love the way he plays with the idea of the relative value of friendship, trees, and gifts. About gifts I hope to write more soon.

CHRISTMAS TREES

(A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.P1030173
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.P1030174
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

“But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,P1030062
And came down on the north. He said, “A thousand.”

“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.P1030167
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you here with a Merry Christmas.

–Robert Frost

P1030137Yesterday and today the bowl was full of ice, and the flow slowed to a trickle. This morning I added some hot water from the kettle and that got things moving better. Somehow I neglected to take a still photo of the ice crust, with an action figure frozen to his waist in the moat. Tomorrow I will have another chance, but I want to post this tonight.

Here’s hoping all of you in the northern spheres are staying cozy indoors or are dressed appropriately for winter wonderland walks. May your warm Christmas spirit endure!