ENGL 310: Modern Poetry
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ENGL 310 - Lecture 3 - Robert Frost (cont.)
Chapter 1. What Is Meter? [00:00:00]
Professor Langdon Hammer: We talked on Monday about Frost’s idea of “the sound of sense” and vernacular speech forms, his wish to put these in tension or, as he put it, “strained relation” with metrical pattern. The primary metrical pattern in Frost is the primary metrical pattern in English poetry, which is to say blank verse or unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Well, meter: what is meter? Meter is – it’s a scheme for organizing verse, for organizing lines of verse. It’s a scheme that in English counts accents or stresses per line and then arranges them in a pattern. Ordinarily, in accentual syllabic verse, which is what we’re reading more often than not in English poetry, the accents are arranged in relation to unaccented syllables, creating a kind of limited array of standard units. The most standard of these is the iamb. The iamb is a simple pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. A boat, about, a dress, a coat: these are all simple iambic phrases that you hear in our language all the time. If you repeat a boat three times – a boat, a boat, a boat – you have trimeter, iambic trimester – three iambs in a row. If you do it four times, you’ve got tetrameter, a more common meter in English. And if you repeat them five times, you have pentameter.
Accent: what is an accent? For some of you, this will seem self-evident; for others, it’ll seem like a great puzzle. What constitutes an accent when you – what is an accent in a given English word? In fact, linguists often argue about this subject, and it’s a complicated one. Accent is something somewhat difficult to define and categorize. Don’t worry about that. Poetry is not interested in expert debate at all, and it converts the big spectrum of possible degrees of accent into those two simple categories: stressed and unstressed syllables. So, if you’re unsure about the metrical definition of a line, because it’s hard to discriminate between levels of stress, as will almost certainly be the case, remember that more often than not, the context takes over and the regular beat of a meter rules and perhaps promotes an accent in a phrase that might not otherwise seem to have one to you.
Chapter 2. Robert Frost Poem: “Birches” [00:03:55]
Let’s illustrate these general points by just reading together and trying to hear the beginning of Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” on page 211 in The Norton. This is an example of blank verse, and that is always to be – blank verse always, perhaps confusingly, to be distinguished from free verse. Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter. Free verse is non-metrical poetry, another thing altogether. This is blank verse; it’s the language of Shakespeare; it’s the language of Milton.
Well, for me, when I try to make sense of the meter of given lines, I think it’s useful to try to settle, to start, those syllables that seem most clearly stressed, to, you know, identify where there isn’t question; and use that then as a structure from which to interpret the rest of the lines.
So, why don’t we do that together? Just looking at this first line: “When I see birches bend to left and right.” “When I see birches bend to left and right.” “When I see birches bend to left and right.” And sometimes it’s not good to repeat it too often; then you start to become unhinged. Let’s see if we can’t identify those syllables that we all are going to agree on. Where’s the first accent that you really want to say, “that’s an accent”? “I.” “Birches.” “Bend.” “Left.” “Right.” Debate there? Anybody want to propose another stress in that line? Yes? There’s a stress on “when” and “see.” But what if I had the phrase, “I see”? What would be stressed in that phrase, “I see”? “See.” That’s true. “When I see birches bend to left and right.” I think I would want to scan that line as a bit of an odd beginning. I think that word “see” deserves the accent there, and so it’s – the first unit of sound isn’t quite normative. It takes Frost a little sweep to get going. “When I see birches bend to left and right.” But by the time we finish the end of that line, we are really right in the middle of very regular iambic pentameter.
“Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Let’s do “the lines of straighter darker trees.” Let’s do that line. Accents here? “Cross.” “Lines.” “Straight.” “Trees.” Yes, that one’s pretty simple. Thank you Frost, you have delivered this to us. And as is not often the case – excuse me, as is not seldom the case in Frost – there is almost a kind of metaphorical play between what he’s describing and the sounds with which he is doing the describing. Here, this image of the lines of trees and the metrical regularity of that verse that describes them. “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” Yes, what about this line? “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.”
Professor Langdon Hammer: The point is that “swing” has some interesting swinging effect. Yes, I’m not sure how to describe that exactly. Yes, we want to put a stress on “swing.” What other words in that line? I’m sorry, “think”? Good. “Like,” yes. “I like” is like “I see.” “I like to think some boy’s,” “swing,” “them.” Yes, this, too, is an utterly regular iambic pentameter line: unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, five in a row.
And, yet, think about the qualities of sound that are so different between “across the lines of straighter darker trees” and “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” What Frost is interested in is what, really, ultimate variety of sounds he is able to produce as that metrical pattern comes into some kind of tension with English sentence sounds, as he calls them, with the effect that each of Frost’s lines of iambic pentameter has different qualities, even when they’re utterly regular. And there are, in Frost, often some variations. This is something I’d like you to practice, I’d like you to think about, be conscious of, and it’s something we can return to. It’s not something I expect you to necessarily master or become advanced in your expertise, but it is a dimension of the poetry that’s absolutely essential to what it is and to what you’re doing when you read and you hear that voice speaking. And so, I’d like you to work on attuning yourselves to it.
What can you do with sound as interpreters? How do we start to make a connection between what we hear and what things mean? Well, in Frost’s case, as I’m suggesting, there’s often very skillful and complex imitation going on between Frost’s sounds and what he’s imaging or describing or the actions and events in the poem. That’s the case marvelously in this poem, and I’d be happy to talk about particular examples with any of you who’d like to work through it. But the point I want to make about it is much more general and we don’t have to look at particular cases to make it. This is a poem about bending and breaking, or not breaking, forms – forms, the material givens of the world. It’s a poem, in fact, about strained relation in a kind of play that Frost is exploring, and that strained relation that the boy achieves as he learns how to play with these trees.
Well, that’s a version of what we hear in the poem when we hear the forms of strained relation between Frost’s dynamic speech sounds and the metrical pattern of his writing. The kinetic activity of the form of the poem, in other words, is something that’s like, but it’s also itself for Frost, an instance of the relations of force and counter-force, desire and gravity, that the poem is describing. The meter has, in other words, in relation to his individual sentence sounds, some of the flexibility and also resistance that those trees have in relation to the boy using them to swing; to swing, to go up and down; to come and go safely. These are primal forms of play, if you like, that suggest forms of poetic activity; also, spiritual activity. Frost’s ways of using language in short are like – are versions of the boy’s way of using the trees.
Let’s look at the poem together. I’ll read it.
So, think about the birches as a tool, another tool, but this time a tool for play, a tool for playing alone. As in “Mowing,” Frost is writing about solitude, an essential loneliness. The boy’s solitude is like the mower’s. Who’s absent? Well, other children. The other character that’s mentioned in the poem is the boy’s father, whose trees they are, the property owner, who also is absent. It’s his absence that leaves the boy alone to his own devices. We might think of him not simply as the farmer who holds the deed to those birches but as maybe God the Father, who created them, and is likewise absent or invisible.
In the solitude, the solitude of that absence, the boy uses the tree to work his will playfully. This time, he’s not really a worker – to work his will on the world. And the boy uses the trees to do two things, right: to go up, or go out, and come back, to return. This activity in a wonderful homely way is a version of romance quest. It’s an image of ascent toward heaven, from which the boy returns. He’s able to rise, to transcend the limits of his own body and station. At the same time it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to want to get away from earth awhile, to get your feet entirely off the ground. What might happen to you? Well, to put too much pressure on any tool is to risk breaking it – breaking down maybe, crashing, coming back to earth like Icarus, the over-reacher. The poet, after all, is subject to gravity in Frost, to the force of the earth. That checks. It’s a counter-weight to Frost’s romantic longing. The skill and the play that Frost is talking about depend on being able to use the tool – in this case the tree, emblematic of the world in its sturdy but also delicate materiality – to use the tool to return safely to the ground to get your feet back on the ground. For “earth’s the right place for love,” Frost says. It’s love that makes the boy climb, as it made the mower work, remember?
But who was talking about love? It’s the – Frost is so sly. He brings it up as if we know that this is what he’s been talking about all the time. Notice, in fact, the cleverness of all this discourse in the poem! Notice the freedom that he exercises in unfolding what feels like an improvisatory monologue in which he makes you race to keep up with him as he follows a semi-hidden logic that he treats as self-evident. Notice that final colloquial phrase, “to go.” He repeats it twice. “I don’t know where it’s” – love – “likely to go better,” and then, “I’d like to go by climbing a [birch] tree.” A wonderful phrase, “to go,” meaning what? A variety of things: “to go” in the sense of to make something work out, to make it go, to journey, to choose how to live, to go to the limit, where the tool can bear no more. Yes. And people use that phrase, too, to mean “to die,” don’t they? You know, “I’d like to go in this way”; all those resonances in those two words.
On Monday I stressed that poetry was, for Frost, always a mode of work, and that work was for him a model of poetic activity. With “Mowing” as the example, I said that in Frost, meaning is always something made, something the poet works on and works for. Frost’s modernity consists in that: the idea that truth is something that’s concrete and contingent, not a metaphysical matter, not an ideal principle, and that it’s something that’s only available in the act of deriving it, constructing it; an act that is ordinary, that’s not capable of being completed and therefore necessarily always to be repeated; an ongoing task, something you have to get up and do every day. Frost is a kind of materialist, by which I mean he calls attention to the circumstances of imagination, its limits and conditions.
Poetry is, in Frost, an encounter between fact and desire: what we want and what is. Tools, in Frost, are an image of the enabling and defining conditions of imagination, and they include in the work of poetry itself all sorts of tools, all the technology of language and the technology, in particular, of verse, including, importantly, meter. The relation between the speech sounds and the metrical frame of a poem, such as “Birches” – it’s like the relation, as I’m saying, between the boy and the birches. In other words, meter is something Frost knows how to use. It’s a material force that his rhetoric challenges and relies on, gives him a means of getting off the ground, and a means of always getting back to it, too. And that’s another kind of doubleness in Frost. I talked about doubleness last time. Think, in “Birches,” of really the extraordinary play of language, the freedom of association, the metaphorical invention – all of which is being played off of the strict demands of the meter, at every moment. It’s part of the energy and force of the poem. The work of poetry in Frost, really the high drama of the will at work in the world, is something that we can actually hear in his poetry, in the expertly explored tensions between speech and meter.
In that meter, too, we’re hearing some of Frost’s modernity. Let me say more about what I mean. Let me say more about what I mean by approaching the question of his modernness, his modernity, from the point of view of his subjects. Last time I showed you his second book and its cover, North of Boston. The title of that book, published in 1914, and the one that more than any other made him famous, locates his subjects in a specific geography. It’s important for thinking about Frost’s place in modern poetry. Boston, well, it was the capital of nineteenth-century American literature and culture, a name synonymous, eventually, with gentility, Puritanism, old American money and style; exactly, in other words, everything modernism was attacking.
Chapter 3. Where Did Frost Go to Write Poetry? [00:27:33]
So, where do you go to write modern poetry? Well, anywhere but Boston. Pound and Eliot importantly go to London, Paris. There’s the New York of Crane, of Moore, of Stevens, too. But Frost says differently. He alone moves poetry north of Boston. To do this is to reverse the social direction in which everyone else is going, to reverse the direction of American modernization, which is evacuating rural New England, sending its workers to the cities in the new industrial economy. You can think about Crane’s images of the Brooklyn Bridge in this course and then compare Frost’s image of the woodpile – that abandoned woodpile that some worker has left in the poem called “The Woodpile.” These are, in a sense, complementary images of the modern in America. Frost, when he goes north of Boston, goes back to the country, goes in, in a sense, the opposite direction that America is going. He goes in a sense in an anti-modern direction, maybe even in some sense in a reactionary direction, at least in relation to other poets’ ideas of progress and innovation.
This move roots Frost’s poetry of work in the lives of rural workers, people who have to sustain and entertain themselves, often on their own or alone. What these people have to work with are the tools that have been passed down to them, or sometimes that they have invented. The poverty of the people Frost writes about is important. It makes them materialists, too, or realists, like Frost. They are acutely conscious of the circumstances in which they live their lives. And they suffer, they rage. Their New England, importantly, is not an ideal, pastoral place. The heart of North of Boston is a series of dramatic monologues and dialogues, speeches and conversations for people who really had never spoken or never spoken very much in modern – excuse me, in American poetry before and who, in Frost, speak in a wholly distinctive way: that is, in Frost’s combination of colloquial sentence sound and unrhymed iambic pentameter. Blank verse: it is the heroic language of Shakespeare, of Milton, of Wordsworth. “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” “A Servant to Servants,” “The Fear” – these are poems in which Frost is giving New England workers the language of the great English poets.
Chapter 4. Robert Frost Poem: “Home Burial” [00:30:56]
I’ve been stressing Frost’s solitude. Well, all the people Frost writes about are in some sense alone, often alone together. They share solitude, solitary, too, in their relation to each other. Frost as a narrator, in these great poems I’m describing, frames his people’s words minimally, with few bits of narrative information. He just sort of plunges you into their speech, into their lives, and you have to, in a sense, work to get into their character to be able to keep track of who is speaking.
Let’s look at what is, for me, the most gripping example of this kind of poem: “Home Burial,” on page 204. Giving us little introduction, little framing, and no consoling closure really, where the moral might come in another poet, Frost creates a kind of uncomfortable intimacy for us with his characters where we’re challenged by them, we’re brought up close to them. Look at “Home Burial” here.
Put it into words. What does he see? Well, “The wonder is I didn’t see at once” and that is the grave that he has made for their child. In those blocks of speech there’s, importantly – there’s white space around what they have to say. It’s almost a way of inviting us to visualize the separation of these two people as they speak. And as we read, we have to fill in the nature of their relationship. Here, well, people are locked into themselves in Frost and in their points of view. Here, the issue in this poem is grief, how the mother and father each express how they deal with the death of their child. Simply where and how they stand in relation to each other as they speak is important. The woman, the mother, wishes to – can’t help herself from trying to hold on to the dead child, and she’s caught looking behind her as if towards the past, which is also, frankly, a wish to escape her husband who is a frightening force, to escape his will, I think. His will, his force – these are his ways, his resources for responding to death.
The woman’s objection, as the poem unfolds, is summed up by his choice, the father’s choice, to bury the child himself. He responds to this grievous loss privately by taking it on himself, by seeking to master it himself, and specifically as a worker. And the grim tool, if you like, of his mourning is his spade, the shovel he uses to do the burying. On page 206, she says, well, “There you go sneering now!” And he says:
Well, the father in “Home Burial” is a worker, a worker there in those lines reduced to this tool that he’s using, almost mechanically, that makes the dirt leap; a kind of desperate mechanism that’s trying to take control of the world and failing as he, well, she says to him, and this chills her:
But in fact, in his own way, he’s talking about his inability to keep his child alive there; in a kind of metaphorical way, speaking of his failure to build a fence to last. And it drives his wife ultimately, disgusted by him, away, fearing him.
Well, “Home Burial” is a poem about the limits of work, the inability of the worker to bring a knowable world, a safe world, into being. There is in Frost no God, no transcendental source of guidance or consolation, nothing out there in the world but the material conditions of our circumstances. Over and over again in Frost poems, you see speakers, you see the poet himself, wanting to know; and wanting to know means pressing towards some revelation, towards some sense of the meaning of things, a search for some kind of presence behind the way things are. That is the subject of the great sonnet “Design.” Also, in a very different mood, the poem “For Once, Then, Something.” It’s also the subject of “Neither Out Far nor In Deep,” which I asked you to read for today and is on page 220. I won’t read it since we’re running a little short of time. The people on the shore that Frost describes there looking out to sea – they’re watching for something. But is there anything to watch for? Is there anything coming? No, it doesn’t appear so. But as he asks at the end, “… when was that ever a bar / to any watch they keep?” In these poems, well, when Frost does give us images of God or some informing presence, that presence is imagined negatively, to be, well, as a kind of malevolence perhaps, to be inferred from the arbitrariness and cruelness of nature’s destructive force of the conditions of life of the people Frost is describing.
So, if in Frost you can’t look to God for it, what kind of hope can be offered? How can you save your soul? This is a question Frost is interested in. In his own ways, he’s interested in redemption – an important word for Stevens. To conclude, let me look quickly with you at two great late poems. One on page 222 is called “Provide, Provide.” I’ll read this.
And in some recordings Frost then says, “… or somebody’ll provide for ya.” It’s a very funny poem, and you’ve got triplet rhymes there to make sure you know that Frost is joking, and it feels like light verse. But, of course, what are we laughing at? Public achievement, moral stature – they’re of no use. The end is hard and it’s going to be hard, no matter how you come to it. So, you better look out for number one. This is good, old-fashioned American wisdom. What is scathing about it is that Frost gives up all justification for self-interest. There’s no argument for it except self-interest itself. And then, Frost says, even that won’t work. The choice is a terrifying one of no friendship and “boughten friendship,” which really isn’t friendship at all. In short, the only thing to do in life is to provide, and provide is just what you cannot ever adequately do, as the husband in “Home Burial” knows. This is a poem written in the depth of the Depression and also at the height of Frost’s fame. You could see the kind of grim refusal to apologize for “boughten friendship,” as a kind of, well, as a kind of apology for his own popular success.
Chapter 5. Robert Frost Poem: “Directive” [00:45:21]
Let me conclude by just pointing to another poem, a late poem, “Directive,” a poem published in 1947. It’s on the page following. A poem published after the Second World War, written about the post-war world. It begins by, in a sense, rehearsing or taking us back to Frost’s own initial move north of Boston.
And that is where he’s going to take us in the poem. You can see that house as, in a sense, a version of the home in “Home Burial.” Frost describes it here, movingly, as, well, an image of a home that is lost, of a home that has failed. And, yet, Frost’s attention is drawn, interestingly, to a playhouse that is part of that household. He says in the middle of the poem on page 225:
And so on. At the end of the poem, here, Frost gives us, however, a kind of alternative to this image of the failure of the home and the failure of the worker’s life, in our own imaginative access to a spring, a source, above the house that was the water of the house that nurtured it, that was its refreshment. He says:
There, the goblet, the tool that Frost comes to is a – it’s a tool from romance quest. It’s the Grail; it’s the cup of the Last Supper. But what is it? It’s, in fact, a broken goblet from the children’s playhouse. Frost returns us there to the early sources of imagination in children’s play, and it gives us, at least imaginatively in this shared journey with him, access to a kind of primal refreshment, what he calls our “waters” and our “watering place.” It’s a disillusioned and self-consciously ironic promise of salvation, of wholeness. But it’s still a promise, and it’s a promise of the powers of imagination and of poetry, and of poetry made out of play, of a child’s play.
Well, that’s a good place to stop. Next week we will go to work on William Butler Yeats.
[end of transcript]
“Provide, Provide” and “Out, Out – ” from THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, 1969, copyright 1964 by Lesley Ballantine, copyright 1936, 1944 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
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