Fixity and Energy
Fixity and Energy

The third poem I want to read to you now is called “After Apple-Picking.” Its literal meaning pretty well speaks for itself. But like “For Once Then Something” there is a metaphoric meaning, also. “After Apple-Picking” takes up the workings of the imagination. Frost’s old Harvard professor, George Santayana, once defined the artist as “a person consenting to dream of reality.” This poem talks about “the great harvest” of imaginative work that the narrator “himself desired. Can you imagine a better analogy for a poet and his lifetime gathering of poems?



(With a sigh John sits and slouches down on his chair. He reads.)


After Apple-Picking


My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

Essence of winter sleep is on the night,

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight

I got from looking through a pane of glass

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough

And held against the world of hoary grass.

It melted, and I let it fall and break.

But I was well

Upon my way to sleep before it fell,

And I could tell

What form my dreaming was about to take.

Magnified apples appear and disappear,

Stem end and blossom end,

And every fleck of russet showing clear.

My instep arch not only keeps the ache,

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.

I feel the ladder sway as the bought bend.

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin

The rumbling sound

Of load on load of apples coming in.

For I have had too much

Of apple-picking: I am overtired

Of the great harvest I myself desired.

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

For all

That struck the earth,

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,

Went surely to the cider-apple heap

As of no worth.

One can see what will trouble

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.

Were he not gone,

The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,

Or just some human sleep.



(John puts the book down and addresses the audience.)



I’ve read quite a bit of Frost’s poetry since that day on the sloping porch of his Franconia farmhouse and have asked myself, as perhaps you have, what is it about Frost’s work that makes his poetry special? Before answering that question, I’d like to take a minute to think about what makes poetry, poetry.


Donald Hall, who followed Frost then Roethke at the University of Michigan, states that at minimum, poetry is different than prose in these two distinguishing characteristics: fixity and energy. “Fixity” means there is one exact word and a correct placement of that word. He claims, if you change a sentence or paragraph of a novel it will not greatly alter its meaning. If you change one word of a poem, you change that poem. Here’s a very short poem by Frost that illustrates this:



            The old dog barks backward without getting up.

            I can remember when he was a pup.


It uses all simple words, but one that I think is pivotal is the word “backward.” “The old dog barks backward…” suggests a reflective quality that I’m not sure a dog has, but his owner might. The poet could have simply said, “The old dog barks…” but look at what would be lost. And “barks” suggests an active, even alarmed reaction that “The old dog looks backward…” wouldn’t. Poets are particularly concerned with the right connotation, as well as the sound and even sometimes its history. It’s all these associated things that lead Frost to say, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.”  There are no synonyms. It’s almost as if there is an unspoken contract between the poet and the reader. The poet says, “I will take time to find that right word, if you will take time to appreciate why I have chosen this one in place of another.” An arrangement that somewhat complacent, contemporary audiences do not want to accept.    


“Energy” simply means the efficiency with which a poet uses language. In two lines we have, not only a picture of an old dog, but also of the observer “looking” backward over both their lives. Visually we don’t get much of an image, but read the lines again and notice the long, accented vowels of the first line that cause us to read it slowly, then contrast them with the short, prancing-puppy like ones of the second. Frost uses the title to push this sound picture into metaphor. That’s one of three traits of his poetry, that go beyond fixity and energy.



frost-grave(The stage is pretty much as it was before. The lights come up slowly to reveal John sitting at the table, with a book in hand. The easel to the far right has a placard that now says “Swinging on Birches.” To the left, a second easel has a blowup photo of Frost as an old man.)


(John reads.)                                        


The Road Not Taken


Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;


Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that, the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,


And both that morning, equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.


I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference. 


(John stands up and continues reading.)

Mending Wall


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it

And spills the upper boulders in the sun,

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,

One on a side. it comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.” I could say, “Elves” to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself. I see him there,

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”


(John comments to the audience.)


A close look at the first poem shows that both paths are equally traveled—he says “Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” But who cares. There is that dramatic opposition and each of us has probably felt at a fork in the road at one time or another and we like to think we took the challenging one, the one that made us the individuals we are today. Can’t you just see Frost picturing some grandfather telling his grandchildren, “I took the road less traveled,” while knowing he was really doing a little posturing in front of them. Frost thought he was that maverick, that rugged individualist. In regard to his poetry he was actually pretty traditional. He was a “rugged traditionalist.”  


But “Mending Wall” took on some interesting historical significance. Toward the end of his life, September of 1962 to be exact, Frost agreed to go to Russia for the State Department as sort of a cultural good will ambassador. In Moscow he was greeted by a delegation of young Russian writers who liked the fiercely independent quality of his work and his humanism. Later, at a public reading outside of Leningrad, the auditorium was crowded and the audience responded warmly. He recited from memory many of his classic poems including “Mending Wall.” The applause was thunderous. 

A few days after he became ill. Nikita Khrushchev sent his personal physician and later visited the poet himself. That may have been Frost’s personal agenda all along. Meeting Khrushchev had come to seem a test of some kind. Frost was both thrilled and nervous. And what subject did the American bring up when they did confront one another? The Berlin Wall.  

With stunning audacity, Frost proposed reuniting East and West Berlin, a suggestion that provoked Khrushchev into a defensive position. Frost asserted that the unstable arrangement could provoke a world war. Frost reminded Khruschev that both the United States and the Soviet Union had a common European ancestry, with certain cultural values that were shared, as opposed to those of China and even Africa. Both agreed that there should be more talking and less name calling between the two super powers.“


My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out.






Robert Frost died on January 23rd, 1963. The poet Robert Francis wrote of him:


His head carved out of granite,

His hair a wayward drift of snow

He worshiped the great God of Flow

By holding on and letting go.



That Fall at Franconia Farm, my wife and I had walked around back of the house as if to say Frost had gone to town to fetch a sack of groceries or some nails. As if to say, “He’ll return. There’s time yet.”


Imagine you are with me now, at Franconia Farm. We’re back behind the house along a less-traveled path of curling leaves, sitting on logs of birches neatly stacked like parchments. From the woods a thrush calls, the scent of apples fills the air. All too soon we must go. “But wait,” you ask, “What are we looking for in poetry, in life. What is it we are really seeking from Frost and other poets?”


It’s a question that Frost asked of himself. In his poem “For Once Then Something” he’s kneeling at an old fashioned outdoor well, looking over the edge of its stonewall at the water. What he sees is, well, pretty much a mirrored image of himself staring down. Behind him, in the reflection, are trees like a wreath around his head and puffs of clouds. Nothing wrong with that, but can poetry show us anything more than glorify the self we already know? The poem goes on and for once the person looking at the water does see something beyond the surface, something uncertain, something deeper.


But then a drip of water falls from a fern and the ripples it causes on the water blur whatever was beneath. “What was it?” the poet asks. And here we get Frost’s sense of dramatic opposites: “Truth” with a capital “T” or “a pebble”—something so small it is hardly anything. He doesn’t know. It matters, yes, but what is more important, poetry has given the writer, and reader, the certainty not only that there is a world beyond our perception of it, but that it is one we can, if the circumstances are right, actually perceive, if only for an instant. And that glimpse of something outside ourselves is worth a lifetime of looking.


(John reads this from a paper as Frost might)





Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs

Always wrong to the light, so never seeing

Deeper down in the well than where the water

Gives me back in a shining surface picture

Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike,

Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,

I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,

Through the picture, something white, uncertain,

Something more of the depths–and then I lost it.

Water came to rebuke the too clear water.

One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple

Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,

Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?

Truth?  A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.


(John moves to the front of the stage and addresses the audience directly.)


Robert Frost once wrote to Edwin Arlington Robinson, ‘My utmost of ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.’


Let’s look a deeper look at a few of those poems and learn how he accomplished that with an eye to how we might do the same.



John Lehman stopping by the woods
John Lehman stopping by the woods

Here is something I discovered myself about drama from Frost’s poetry. A number of years ago, three other poets and myself had a book published called Quick Blue Gathering. When we did readings together we each took the podium for fifteen minutes and read our poems. It occurred to me that this might be more interesting if there was one thing that a couple of us did together. I took Robert Frost’s Death of a Hired Hand and broke it into a reading for two voices. My friend, Rita Miller, and I read the parts. I was surprised at how easy this was to do and how effective the result.


Many years later, when Shrine of the Tooth Fairy came out, I asked my wife if she’d help me in a reading, in the same way, but this time with a few of my poems. They also easily split into two voices (though not necessarily male and female, sometimes they were father/ daughter, or the older poet reminiscing about myself as a younger man). That sent me back to Frost, and sure enough, almost all his poems contain some kind of opposites, each easily expressed by a different voice: the road more traveled or the road less traveled, stopping by the woods on a snowy night or (as the little horse prods) moving on, swinging skyward on birches or returning to earth, building a wall or tearing it down, picking apples or giving it up for the winter.


In everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama.  Under the control of the written page, we explore ramifications beyond everyday life.  It’s not enough to experience reality on the page.  We want heightened reality.  A practical lesson I‘ve learned is that whenever a poem I’m writing seems flat, I search out the opposites in it and build them up. Opposites are what make a piece exciting–we don’t know what’s going to happen. As the advantage switches from one side to the other, we in the audience experience an emotional swing. In writing these are called “emotional beats.” They work the same way as one team grabbing the ball from another in the fourth quarter of an exciting basketball team. Just as in Frost’s poems, we become engrossed wondering which of the opposing sides is going to win.


Here is an excerpt of a very long poem by Frost called “Home Burial.” It’s actually better if you don’t know what it’s about, because then you can better appreciate the interaction between the man and the woman. Much of this is conveyed ththrough their changing physical positions in the scene:


(John to read this slowly and deliberately as Robert Frost might.)


           He saw her from the bottom of the stairs

                       Before she saw him.  She was staring down,

                       Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.

           She took a doubtful step and then undid it

           To raise herself and look again.  He spoke

           Advancing toward her: `What is it you see

           From up there always–for I want to know.’

           She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,

           And her face changed from terrified to dull.

           He said to gain time: `What is it you see?’

           Mounting until she cowered under him.

           `I will find out now–you must tell me, dear.’

           She, in her place, refused him any help

           With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.

           She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,

           Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.

           But at last he murmured, `Oh,’ and again, `Oh,’

           `What is it–what?” she said.

                                                                         `Just that I see.’

           `You don’t,’ she challenged. `Tell me what it is.’



In describing the camera shots of Citizen Kane, Orson Wells once said he wanted each character to have his or her own unique angle so that even if a viewer didn’t know the plot the viewer would be able to understand the story. We’re always looking up at Kane (Wells even built a trapdoor on the set to get the camera at a very low angle) and looking down at Susan Alexander, the singer who is his less-than-talented protégé. Remember the camera shot that comes down through the skylight of a nightclub where she’s performing? Well here we have the same thing, but it’s even better because the man and woman change position as the emotional advantage swings from one to the other. The man begins at the foot of the stairs and rises to eventually tower over her, however they are both upstaged by an unknown presence outside, which they glance at through the window.


The couple in the poem has lost their child. What she always sees–and he comes to see– is the child’s grave outside the window (the “home burial” of the title). She’s lost in her grief; he sublimates his by returning to the routine of work. This is intolerable to her, and, despite his threats that if she walks out the door she can never return, she leaves. Their marriage is over (also the “home burial” of the title). Frost uses his characters as a director of a stage play might, and the result is that we experience the feelings of both people as if they were our own. In Frost’s case they were. He and his wife had tragically lost a baby, but unlike the couple in the poem they were able to weather it together. Why would he change the ending in the poem? The easy answer is that he was trying to make it more dramatic. A more thoughtful one might be that within the safety of art he was playing out his (and our) worst fears in order to see what would happen.


No, Robert and  Elinor White had a union that was filled with losses and feelings of alienation. Their first son died from cholera at age three; Frost blamed himself for not calling a doctor earlier and believed that God was punishing him for it.


Frost’s own health declined, and his wife became depressed. In 1907, they had a daughter who died three days after birth, and a few years later, Elinor had a miscarriage. Within a couple years, his sister Jeanie died in a mental hospital, and his daughter, Marjorie, of whom he was extremely fond, was hospitalized with tuberculosis. Marjorie died a slow death after getting married and giving birth, and a few years later, Frost’s wife died from heart failure. His adult son, Carol, had become increasingly distraught, and Frost went to visit him and to talk him out of suicide. Thinking the crisis had passed, he returned home, and shortly afterward, his son shot himself. He also had to commit his daughter, Irma, to a mental hospital.


While countless readers admire Frost’s skill, his cracker-barrel charm, his meticulous details and natural symbols, many of us fail to notice that he is ultimately a poet of loss and limitation and loneliness, of desolation and extinction. If his gaze was steady, it was also unflinching.


And through all of this, Robert Frost still became one of the most famous poets in the United States. He said, “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression, an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the word.”


After Frost died, John F. Kennedy had this to say about him, “If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths.”


Frost said, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: ‘It goes on.'”