‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in’

The line is from Robert Frost’s narrative poem, The Death of the Hired Man. Statements like this, which, even when uttered by one of the ‘characters’ in his poems, seem like observations by the author, are a major element in what makes Frost’s poetry so enjoyable for me.

In this poem, as in many others of his, there is a narrative voice that seems partly Frost himself, yet carries the hint of a put-on rural characteristic. Frost was, up to a point, a New England Farmer, but that was not all he was, and the seemingly colloquial voice that he uses in many of the poems could well be part of his strategy for drawing us in to the poetic killing zone of these pithy one-liners.

In another rural poem, The Tuft of Flowers the first person narrator is scything grass, following a fellow worker who, unseen has gone before him. He finds the eponymous blooms, spared by the other man’s blade, and realises that their common activity, and sensitivities, binds them in a more than physical way. This is neatly expressed in the final couplet, which is a reversal of a couplet used earlier on in the poem:

 

‘”Men work together” I told him from the heart,

“whether they work together or apart.”’

 

A less rural story, but one that also brings us to a single revelatory statement, is Tree at My Window. Here the two asymmetrical lines are:

 

‘You have seen me when I was taken and swept

And all but lost.’

 

As in Blue Butterfly Day – blogged about recently – the reference to human passions is oblique and almost slips by us, but the line gives us the point and purpose of the poem. It is not the closing line though, as it might need to be if this were a short story, and a further verse makes what seems more of an aside, than a summation, as the observer notes that ‘Fate had her imagination about her’ to connect tree and man, which of course the poet has done! He goes on to tell that the one deals with ‘outer’ and the other with ‘inner weather,’ closing the poem, and perhaps nudging the unobservant reader who might have missed the significance of those two earlier lines.

Not every poem, of course, contains such stand-out lines, but look at the short poem, short lined and short on lines, Fire and Ice. Three sentences powerful in their simplicity, the first two of two lines each, the third stretched out over the remaining five lines of this single verse poem, carry a meaning couched in logic, but virulent with emotion. The poem sets out a position in its first sentence, and an acceptance of it in the second. Then it sets out the opposite contention, followed by the reasoning for accepting that too. It ends:

 

‘To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.’

 

That couplet of four syllables, and three of them in each, stressed, imbues the poem with great power. It is almost as if Frost has dispensed with the setting, and gone for punch-line on its own. The structure is there, but the balance between context and statement has changed. This poem is almost wholly the assertion of its point. I first encountered it being performed by Jonathan Pryce, as part of a play shown on TV. At that time I still thought of Frost – as I had been taught to at school – as a sort of ‘nature poet,’ which meant, effectively, one who wrote about how pretty the flowers were. When I realised that this was in fact a Robert Frost poem….well…when I came back, my eyes were open to the emotional intensity, and human passion that lurks in the seemingly prettiest of his poems.

On a comic note there is the stunning ending to A Considerable Speck. The eponymous speck, is in fact some sort of creature that Frost, the writer, has momentarily mistaken for an ink blot. As it makes its escape across his unwritten page he recognises that it has intent, if only to survive. But the poem takes an unexpected turn with its closing couplet, perhaps the most satisfyingly unexpected, and perceptive, of all these punch-line blows that I have found in Frost:

 

‘No one can know how glad I am to find

On any sheet the least display of mind.’

 

Ouch!!  Worth reminding ourselves here, perhaps, that Frost’s advice to poets (and by extension to all writers) was to NOT do it, unless you had something to say….to which, apparently, he would add the exhortation, that if you hadn’t got it, ‘Go and get it!’

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