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I’ve noticed that with some poets and short story writers that having read one of their pieces I go on to reading another, almost without thinking. In the case of the poets Robert Frost is the one for me. I can’t seem ever to read just a single poem of his, but must skim through the collected works, looking for favourites to re-read, looking for ones I’ve overlooked, or forgotten or previously rejected. With other poets, even ones with stellar reputations, I find myself closing the book after the single poem that someone has told me I really should read.

For me this phenomenon, if that’s what it is, has become the touchstone for answering that rather absurd and misplaced question about who one’s favourite writers are – the answer, of course, should be, I suspect, that I don’t have favourite authors, only favourite writings. The fact remains though, that some authors provide several favourite writings, and others only one or two.

I find the same true with short stories. A few writers draw me one from one story to another. Elsewhere I’ve compared a collection, or an anthology of short stories to being like a box of chocolates…sometimes you savour one, and put the box away for tomorrow night….other times you feast greedily and clear the top layer, maybe the whole damned box!

Alphonse Daudet, the  nineteenth century French writer, is one that hooks me that way, especially with his simple stories of Provencal life from the 1866 Lettres de Mon Moulin. They lead me on too, sometimes, to the much more recent re-tellings of similar stories by the late Michael De Larrabeiti in Provencal Tales, in which the author weaves the story of his 1959 journey accompanying the sheepherders of Provence on an annual journey from lowlands to mountain pastures for the summer grazing. At each stop, like Boccaccio’s Decameroni, the shepherds tell old stories of magic, love, mystery and treachery. If you haven’t encountered either of these writers before, you should look out for them.

At present my head is stuck in Presence, Collected Stories of Arthur Miller (Bloomsbury, 2007). Not for the first time, I sat down to write about the powerful and intense critique of fading cowboy life that is the short story The Misfits – later filmed under the same name with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, but serving a strikingly different agenda even though Miller provided the screenplay. Re-reading that story, closely, and perhaps too closely for ordinary enjoyment, I found myself turning, when the essay was finished, to the equally powerful Fitter’s Night, set in a US World War Two naval dockyard and in which a working class man finds his true nobility and citizenship. So, as we say all too often, back to the pages….

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I picked up my copy of Robert Frost’s poems a few nights ago, to re-read Fire and Ice. It’s a short poem that I first heard read by Jonathan Price during a TV drama. It was years later that I realised it was Frost’s writing. One Frost leads to another (unlike, for me, Ted Hughes, whose poems have never led me on to read another!). I ended up not only reading a dozen out loud, in a voice as near as I can get to Frost’s, but marking them in the book. Laid out chronologically as published in my Vintage, 2001 paperback, I was interested to see which phase of his life drew the most hits from my dozen. As I suspected, it was the earlier years that got most of my likes.

This, of course, tells you more about me than it does about Frost, but then, reading is more about the reader than about the writer. That thought drove me on to consider the question I might be asked, which is if I thought those dozen were his ‘best’ poems.

The idea of ‘best’ poems – or short stories, or novels or plays – has at its heart an absurdity, for it obscures the more useful addition of ‘from your point of view.’ There can be surely no objective best – though I’d be reluctant to argue the seemingly logical extension that there could be no ‘better’ nor ‘worse’ either. What we should say is there are poems we like most, and perhaps have our reasons ready. ‘Bests’ and ‘betters’ though, give a spurious factuality to what can only be a subjective opinion – if that’s not a tautology – with reasons, possibly in writing, and that idea of factuality endows us with our spurious authorities and elevates one person’s likings above another’s.

Fellow writer Kurt Tidmore recently sent me a link to an Atlantic Review article about poetry. Masquerading as a review of a book, it examined the reasons why, writers and readers alike ‘we don’t like poetry.’ It seemed to me to say very little in a lot of words, but the little it did say struck home. My response was to coin the phrase ‘creative potty training’ for the type of poetry (and perhaps other writing) that we see published these days. Kurt hit back with ‘masturbatory narcissism.’ Both of us, I think, are agreed that much modern poetry has nothing to do with any reader, but only with the writer.

A retort of mine, too frequently used perhaps, when confronted with the ‘I write every day’ assertions of poets who have just read out – from their latest collection – something unreadable, has been to observe that I fart every day, but don’t bottle it for sale.

Behind all that narcissism though, stands a desire to communicate, to share, not merely with the mirror, but with ‘the other’. Stephen King, in On Writing  cites the ‘ideal reader,’ who is not necessarily, I suspect, the person most likely to understand or respond to what we have written, but the one we would most like to be!

‘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!’

Robert Frost wrote a poem called Blue Butterfly Day. It’s a neat eight lines in two quatrains. (nice to get the jargon out of the way early, don’t you think?)

It’s one of those poems I cannot recall ever hearing mentioned, or seeing referred to in books on poetry, but out of the several hundred poems in his collected works, it’s probably among the top five on my list of favourites, and certainly in the top ten.

I’m not sure how popular Frost is these days, and frankly don’t much care. The half a dozen poems that I go back to again and again – not five then, or ten? – are sufficient to put him in my internal playlist of greats. Frost’s style of writing is perhaps not ‘in your face’ enough for the modern world. It’s vehemencies are not obvious enough, but I like to be offered the flower of the rose, with the thorn left for me to do my finding. Frost’s Blue Butterfly Day has all the flower I could ask for, and the thorn sticks deeper into your palm the more tightly you grip the poem – (might as well get the poetics out of the way too).

The simplicity of the description disguises the bleak subtlety of the meaning.

 

‘It is blue-butterfly day here in spring.’ What could be simpler than that? But a distinction has already been drawn between the butterfly day of the title and the one of the first line, for that title has carried an implication that Blue-Butterfly Day might be a capitalised ‘Day’ of something – of Blue-Butterflies, say! Is it a celebration of them? Is it some local feast or festival? Does it have some sort of signifigance? Have we heard of it? Do we have the T shirt – well yes, we probably do, but not the one we might expect at the title. And by the first line it has lost that significance: blue-butterfly day, without capitals is just a description. And then, though this opening foursome is a pair of ABAB rhyming couplets, we get a BAB rhyming trio, separated out by that first comma, echoing ‘flurry’ and ‘wing.’ These three lines paint a colourful picture as the butterflies become ‘sky flakes’ that will outshow the flowers.

Short poems have to show their colours quickly: rhyme, rhythm and repetition, all used here, do just that, to bring us to Frost’s second verse. The first line here, following the pattern of the first verse, is separated from the rest, but this time by a colon. It is joined to the sentiment of the first verse, by appearing to continue it, talking of ‘flowers that fly’ and of song. But that colon points us directly at the contrasting theme of the last three lines, where some unexpected imagery awaits us – the thorn of my rosy metaphor.

‘desire’ is the first shock, made more shocking by the graphic ‘ridden out desire,’ which is, I suspect, something that we are not expecting of our colourful butterflies. And having ridden, they now must ‘cling’ and no longer in the sky, but ‘Where wheels freshly slice’ and in the mud.

Frost’s abrupt switch from air and light and colour, and a senseless show, to ‘mire’ and clinging, and slicing wheels, and that oh so human riding is the power and purpose of this poem, and the sharpest of thorns. The butterflies’ lives have run their entire course within this single day, and our lives too, he implies, will be no more than that.

Reading it again today- faced with that white page of my title, and my self-appointed blog schedule only hours away, it popped into my head!- I’m suddenly struck with the fact that this poem might be where I took, unconsciously, the model for the poems of An Early Frost where a similar, but clumsier juxtaposition might be detected.

I found Blue-Butterfly Day in The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Latham and published by Vintage, in 2001.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFriends gave me for Christmas a copy of Arthur Miller’s collected short stories.

I started at the beginning, and read through to the end, skipping the longest story, which sits in the middle. The opening story, ‘I Don’t Need You Any More’ tells of a five year old boy’s alienation from his family. Its a self-consciously Jewish story, and as a non-practising aetheist I found some of the issues hard to assess. Seeing through the child’s eyes I wasn’t sure where I was dealing with comic irony, and where with stone cold logic. The outsider has to second guess what the insider is serious about.

This must be a problem to some extent with all stories. They divide or unite readers into those who share, and those who do not, the basic underlying beliefs of the characters, and of the writers. We’re back to that favourite of mine, that what you see reveals where you stand. Yesterday (as I write) was the centennary of poet Norman Nicholson’s birth, and during the celebrations of that landmark I had cause to play a recording of him touching on this issue.

Wordworth, he said, was the first poet to make consideration of his own life central to his poetry. The argument went on that before Wordsworth writers could assume a high level of common belief, and experience with their readers. This was a consequence of the narrow class that was educated, and the narrowness of that education, and ergo of the narrow class to which writers spoke, and the narrow class that listened. Progressively, Nicholson said, that correlation broke down, leaving the modern writer – he told me this in the late nineteen seventies – to rely on their ‘common humanity’ as being the only predictable link between writer and reader.

We are divided, or united in our responses because of who we are, and what has made us that way. I’m reminded too, of Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Tuft of Flowers’ with its elegant reversal, at the end, of a maxim delivered near to the beginning:

 

 

‘But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been-alone,

 

“As all must be,” I said within my heart,

“Whether they work together or apart.”

 

 

Which becomes at the closing of the poem;

 

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

“Whether they work together or apart.”

 

Here the poet achieves a positive note, bridging the gap, and seeing unity in division. Cohen, in one of his songs takes a grimmer view, turning ‘I will kill you if I must/help you if I can’ into its more negative opposite.

 

Back to the Miller, whose work did strike me, and cumulatively so as I read on, as being rather gloomy! Stories had a sort of wistful sadness about them; not the cynical world-weary type of sadness, but more a knowing wisdom, centred on the presentation of human dignity in the face of distress. An old man imprisoned in his senility in ‘A Search for a Future’. Tony Calabrese rising above his own selfishness in ‘Fitters Night’. In another story a famous playwright is mistaken for himself, and in the more famous ‘The Misfits’, Miller ends with a metaphor for the no-hope cowboys who are catching wild horses to sell for meat:

 

‘From time to time the stallion caught the smell of the pasture..[ ]..but the tire

bent his neck around, and after a few steps he would turn to face it…[ ].. and then

he would come down and be still again.’

 

Characters in fiction are not like real people, though we gain that illusion, perhaps, briefly. They have no potentials, no hidden secrets. Not merely what we know, but what they wholly are, is the sum total of the words used to describe them. Miller often restricts the negative, and hints at the positive – Fitters Night is probably my faouvrite example of this – so that our sympathies for them are not lost. There’s a silver lining to these gloom-coud characters.

 

I preferred, marginally, the stories in the earlier segment, published during the nineteen sixties, but reflecting the America of the forties and fifties. Throughout them all though, Miller shows a nuanced grasp of what we like to call the human condition. The situations of his characters, and the mindsets they bring to dealing with them call forth our sympathy, and also perhaps a necessary sense of frustration that they have not behaved differently – the same frustration, perhaps, that we feel for our own inadequacies.

The last story, which names the collection as a whole, ‘Presence’ was apparently the last that Miller wrote before his death, and it seemed to me appropriate, for ending both a collection, and a writing life. I can’t think of a single story of the thousand or so I have read over the past few years with which to compare it in terms of its story content. An old man visits a beach he has known in childhood. He stumbles upon a couple making love – fucking is the word Miller uses. He withdraws (no pun intended), returns later to find them still at it, and skirts around them to the sea’s edge. Later, when they have both gone, he encounters the woman, who has been aware of his presence. They talk, and swim, and she leaves, and I was left – as I think I was supposed to be -with the question of whether it had been his own past that he had recalled. The story is powerful, and unresolved, one of those stories whose job is to raise questions, not to settle them.

 

‘How strange, he thought, that it mattered so little whether or not they were

actually here if what he had seen made him so happy?’

 

There are only sixteen stories in the collection. Some sixteen! Dense, moving, and thought provoking, lifted subtly from the ordinary, but never into realms of the fantastic, this really is a good read.

There are no doubt fans of Stevie Smith’s poetry, but for most of us, I suspect she was a one hit wonder with ‘Not Waving But Drowning’. Here you have a case where a single poem is loved by many people.

Robert Frost is one of my favourite poets, but out of a ‘collected works’ running to several hundred poems there is only a handful I regard as ‘great’. In fact, I wonder if greatness in literature is often to do with readers’ responses to a handful of works out of a whole cannon. That’s why when I’m ‘marking’ students of creative writing I always think of the metaphor of the mountain: we measure a writer as we measure a mountain, by the height of the peaks, not by the bulk.

What also happens, I suspect, is that with some writers all of the people think some of the work is great, though not many may think that all of it is, but not all of the people think that the same parts of it are great! We each have different favourites. Academics, taking a more detached view, will recognise the qualities that make for favourites as being present across the board (and on their days off, will, I bet, secretly and guiltily, have their own favourites too – if you’ll excuse the enterprisingly split infinitive).

I wonder if the same is true for short story writers, whose output, in terms of individual works must often match if not exceed that of the poets – saving the presence of those who churn out a poem a day, of course. I am drawing close to having read the entire prose output of A.E.Coppard, as part of an ongoing study, and have found, among the two hundred or so short stories, a handful that for me stand out above the rest. There are many that I enjoyed reading, but only a few that seem truly ‘great’. Curiously this handful lies not only among his earlier works, but also among those which I read first, which makes me question to what extent my first encounters with a writer will tend to be the most rewarding.

I had a similar experience with Cormac McCarthy, enjoying all his novels, but finding them all, to some extent, disappointing compared to the first that I read, the mid-canon ‘Blood Meridian’.

Heretically, perhaps, from an academic, lit-crit perspective, which wants us to value art as we might science (ie, measurably), I wonder if it matters in the least that the shock of the new overwhelms the experience of later readings. Writers may have their trajectories, intentional and not so, but readers are neither duty bound nor necessarily inclined to ride them. After all, it’s what poems and stories means to us that really matters, not what they may have meant to them, or have they fit into somebody’s thesis. I do have to ask though, whether or not, if I start reading at a writer’s later works I will think that he developed as he wrote on; whereas if I start reading at the beginning, I’ll think he did his (or her) best work first? So much for objective evaluations.