April 6, 2013

NPM 2013 - F is for Frost

After T. S. Eliot yesterday, it is perhaps appropriate that I follow it up today with the other great giant of 20th century American poetry, Robert Frost. Poets rarely capture the imagination of an entire nation and from what I read (since I was not alive then), no one has done this better than Robert Frost did. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times, and was perhaps most in the public eye at the ripe old age of 86 when he read his poem, The Gift Outright, at JFK's inauguration. (I just learned that Robert Frost had written a new poem called "Dedication" for the inauguration but could not read it due to the sun's glare and so he recited 'The Gift Outright' from memory!)

And yet, despite all the fame, other than a few famous poems of his (for eg: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, The Road Not TakenFire and Ice, The Mending Wall (with its famous last line), and a few others), I have not read much of Frost's poetry. Somehow, it has never jumped out at me and grabbed me like some other poetry does. Hence, I thought I'd take the opportunity today to read a few of his other poems and post three here that I enjoyed. (The Library of Congress, where he was the Poetry Consultant (a post called "Poet Laureate" these days) in 1958-59, has lots of resources to study his poetry further.)

First up, a lovely sonnet; about which you can read a lot more here.

The Oven Bird
by Robert Frost

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

It is time for spring now but read this poem about October and fall; read it loudly as I did, and enjoy the musicality of it all!

by Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

 And I'll leave you with a poem that I have read before and enjoyed a lot; the idea of being "acquainted with the night" somehow appeals to me. (Just read on wikipedia that this poem is written in "a terza rima rhyme scheme, which follows the complex pattern, aba bcb cdc dad aa. Terza rima ("third rhyme" in English) was invented by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri for his epic poem The Divine Comedy. Because Italian is a language in which many words have vowel endings, terza rima is much less difficult to write in Italian than it is in English. Because of its difficulty, very few writers in English have attempted the form. However, Frost was a master of many forms, and "Acquainted With The Night" is one of the most famous examples of an American poem written in terza rima."
"I had a lover's quarrel with the world." The epitaph engraved on his tomb is the last line from his poem "The Lesson for Today."
Acquainted with the Night
By Robert Frost

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,
One luminary clock against the sky

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

Like this page at the lovely website on Modern American Poetry, maintained by the English department at the Univ. of Illinois, writes about the poem:
 "Acquainted With the Night" speaks to the confrontation with nothingness, to what Wallace Stevens called the "experience of annihilation." It was God who died, Stevens wrote, and we share in that death because we are left feeling "dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amical rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness." The furthest range of Frost's poem merges with Stevens's meditation on the feeling of metaphysical homelessness. With all chances gone for a harmonized relation of self and nature, the only enclosure possible is the one which the self can make and impose on an inhospitable universe.

Or like Stevens wrote in his book Opus Posthumous, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." Or, as he wrote in his poem, Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour:
Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one...
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

In other words,  in poetry alone, perhaps, is our salvation, our guiding light.

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