Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Taking New Roads with Robert Frost

Until I was in my 50s, Robert Frost’s poetry didn’t mean much to me, beyond roads not taken and sleighs stopping by snowy woods.

I blame a high school English teacher, who spent a tedious week pounding into us -- a roomful of bored, horomonally possessed adolescents -- “The Death of the Hired Man.” It took me decades to recover. Who really knew what Frost was up to, anyway? His true intentions, the “real” Frost like the real Bob Dylan, have always been hard to fathom.

Indeed, Frost disliked the line-by-line explication of his poetry, the endless muttering over what it all meant.

Middlebury English Professor Jay Parini, speaking last weekend at a Vermont Humanities Council conference, recounted a story told to him by a woman who had heard Frost read from his poetry one evening in 1954 at the college’s Bread Load campus.

The elderly yet still vigorous poet closed the event by reading his famous poem “Fire and Ice,” which begins, “Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice.” The recitation of this final poem of the evening was greeted with thunderous applause, and Frost swept himself out into the darkness of the nearby meadow, lit occasionally by summer lightning.

This young woman, eager to truly understand what she had just heard, intrepidly followed Frost out into the darkness.

“Mr. Frost?” she said timidly.

“Yes?!?” boomed the old bard.

“Could you please tell me what that last poem meant?”

“You want to know what it meant?” he replied. “Well, I’ll tell you what it meant:
‘Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice…’”

He proceeded to recite the entire poem again. There was her answer.

Other noted speakers at the conference at the college included Prof. John Elder, author of the wonderful book “Reading the Mountains of Home” which discusses Frost’s poem “Directive.”

Elder gave a talk at the Frost Cabin, on the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton. The bard lived there for many summers when he taught at the Bread Load campus, just up the road from the residence of Ted and Kay Morrison (the latter his secretary and perhaps more).

But it was the prospect of hearing Jay Parini’s talk that brought me to the event. Jay and I share a love of yoga, Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, and Frost himself -- though as the author of the definitive biography, Jay has forgotten more about Frost than I’ll ever know.

Parini’s probing talk found me feeling woefully unprepared to understand the nuances, but invigorated by the intellectual challenge.

I suspect as I wasn’t alone in this sentiment. There seemed to be many people in the crowded auditorium who had come with no special claim of expertise, just a love of the poet.

So much of adult life is consumed in getting and having, acquisition and maintenance and doing the laundry. How refreshing it was to be asked to think on the roots and branches of Frost’s work – and what they drew from the deep-running brooks and mended stone walls of Vermont and New Hampshire.

A couple of years ago I recited the poem “Birches” to the many people who had assembled in the Ripton Community House, for the 50th birthday party of my friend Win. The poem, which evoked a youthful exuberance that I still saw in my friend at the half-century mark, begins like this:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

The poem, after contemplating other birches felled by ice storms -- and a boy’s temporary escape from earthly woes by playing high in a tree’s branches -- ends with this simple sentiment:
“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

But reading recently in Parini’s life of Frost, I learned that I had it all wrong. The poem isn’t at all about birch trees and a young boy’s outdoor pursuits.

It is, Parini wrote, “as much as anything, about an onanistic fantasy.” It “recreates the curve of desire found in the sexual act, from anticipation, exhilaration and fulfillment to the letting down at the end.”

Silly me. To think that all this time I thought it was about a boy, “too far from town to learn baseball,” who liked to amuse himself by swinging on birch trees.

Having bumbled through “Birches,” I won’t even attempt here to summarize Parini’s talk of last weekend.

But I will say that I was touched by a little story he told about his son and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” -- a Frost poem that is short enough to quote here. Memorize it and you’ll amaze your friends, and win bar bets that you can recite an entire poem by Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.


In these words I hear my own father’s voice. Though he was a country doctor, he loved poetry in general and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” in particular.

When I visited my father last December, sitting by his nursing home bed, I read him that poem and several others from Frost.

Dad asked me to read “Nothing Gold Can Stay” to him twice. It was the last time I saw him before his death.

In the educational fashion of his schoolboy days, my father had been made to learn great gobs of poetry by heart. He never forgot the lines he’d learned.

Of a weekend, we’d be driving out to the lake or crunching through an autumnal wood, when suddenly Dad would start spouting poetry, Yeats or Wordsworth or Frost.

It was virtually incomprehensible to my brother and me (what the heck was he talking about, anyway?) and – this barely needs saying –deeply embarrassing. Why couldn’t he talk about sports like a normal guy?

In Parini’s talk this past weekend, he fondly recalled that he would often recite “Nothing Gold Can Stay” to his young son when the boy, age four or five, would be getting ready to go to sleep. Whether it mattered to his son or whether the boy could understand the poem at that age, a father never really knows.

Then one day in early spring when Jay’s boy had reached the age of six, father and son were outside observing the early buds on the trees. Jay’s son pointed to a branch that was just bursting with yellow and exclaimed, “Look, Dad! Nature’s first green is gold!”

And so it is with golden children. Fathers and sons, scholars and ordinary Vermonters, united by poetry.

- 30 -

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