STOPPING BY THE WOODS – Part 3

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.'”

 

 

 

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One thought on “STOPPING BY THE WOODS – Part 3

  1. While the deaths of so many children is tragic no matter what the age, it’s worth remembering that infant mortality and child mortality were very different in those times. My own great grandfather taught at a one room Ohio schoolhouse when typhoid fever (or it could have been scarlet fever) decimated his class. With that experience, in his mid thirties, he went to medical school and became a doctor, determined to prevent so many deaths from occurring again.

    As to the poem, wasn’t this one of the poems that Frost seldom, if ever, read in public? I don’t doubt the poem hit close to home. It’s a masterpiece.

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