FOR ONCE, THEN, SOMETHING
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)
FOR ONCE, THEN, SOMETHING
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.