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.)
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.
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 SPAN OF A LIFE
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.