winter-scene(John stands, takes off his coat.)


I never met Robert Frost, but I did meet John Updike once and discussed with him this account he wrote for the New Yorker of seeing the poet perform in Sanders Theater at Harvard


(John pulls a New Yorker off the table and reads.)


Robert Frost was relentless in the number of public readings he gave. In Allen Ginsberg’s words, “He created an audience for poetry readings… He was the first voyager, a kind of pioneer, the original entrepreneur of poetry.“


I remember Frost shambled about on the stage as if he had been prodded from a sound winter’s sleep; he “said”—as he put it—his poems rather rapidly, minimizing their music in his haste to get on with his spoken commentary on whatever came to his mind. In the front rows sat the flower of the English faculty, most conspicuously Archibald MacLeish, the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Compared to these exemplars of civilized letters, Frost was an untamed beast, a man who had wriggled or quarreled his way out of every academic post he had had, though his appetite for instructing others was powerful. As a literary artist, he was, we all knew, the real thing, the one man in the hall—and, for that matter, in all of safe, sane Cambridge—who had staked his whole soul on poetry and had gained the ultimate prize.”


Shortly after his trip to Russia, Frost was admitted to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Cambridge on December 3, 1962. An examination showed that his prostrate was abnormally large and his bladder was infected. The surgery that took place a week later revealed even worse problems. He recovered but was obviously in bad shape. On top of everything, his heart had been damaged.

There was one bright spot in his older age however.  After the death of his wife, Frost became strongly attracted to Kathleen (Kay) Morrison, married to Theodore Morrison. Frost employed her from 1938 as his secretary and adviser, but over time also became his lover. Frost bought a small, wood-frame farmhouse on 150 acres at Bread Loaf—a writing conference Ted Morrison ran at which Frost was a regular presenter. A few minutes’ walk uphill, on the edge of the woods, was a self-contained cabin with a stone fireplace and pleasant screened-in porch offering a dramatic view across a meadow. The Morrisons occupied the farmhouse. Kay would phone Frost and he would come down for meals which the three of them would eat together. Every morning she would go up to the cabin and work with him on his letters and arrangements. Kay was beautiful, charming and sophisticated in a way Frost had rarely seen in a woman. He liked her independence and she…provided order and grace to his later years.

Out through the fields and the woods

     And over the walls I have wended;

I have climbed the hills of view

     And looked at the world, and descended:

I have come by the highway home,

     And lo, it is ended.


Frost wrote these lines in his poem “Reluctance” which ends prophetically,


            Ah, when to the heart of man

                 Was it ever less than a treason

            To go with the drift of things,

                 To yield with a grace to reason,

            And bow and accept the end

                 Of a love or a season?





24270455On the other hand what if there were a metaphor in which all we had were the column of traits on the left, and the heading to which they were to be compared on the right—an “open metaphor”? In a long metaphoric work we would call this a parable, or if it involved animals, a fable. But this “open metaphor” is precisely what Frost does in his poems. He gives us one side of the comparison then forces us to find the correspondences to the other. This is why I believe he did not want to give us his definitive interpretation of his pieces. He’s encouraging us to become poets. How does he get readers to make the leap? He chooses a picture that seems silly if we only take it literally. This is the ending of Frost’s “Birches”:


            One by one he subdued his father’s trees

            By riding them down over and over again

            Until he took the stiffness out of them,

            And not one but hung limp, not one was left

            For him to conquer. He learned all there was

            To learn about not launching out too soon

            And so not carrying the tree away

            Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

            To the top branches, climbing carefully

            With the same pains you use to fill a cup

            Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

            Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,

            Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

            So was I once myself a swinger of birches.

            And so I dream of going back to be.


This is an old man at the end of his life, how can he desire to be swinging on trees. He can’t, so the “learn about not launching out to soon” “keeping his poise,” “and climbing carefully / With the same pains you use to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim” must apply figuratively to something else, like “a lifetime.” Frost thinks readers can make the connection because, like all poets, he believes they are there in reality and he trusts we can know them (probably through the senses and intuition—the domain of poetry—rather than through our intellect). He encourages us to find meaning beyond what is expressed by not doing it for us, by selecting subjects that are suggestive (rich in connotation) and, as in “Birches,” makes closed metaphors (climbing to the tree’s top is like filling a cup) that are an example of the kind of comparison he wants us to make using the entire poem as metaphor. And in case we miss the point there are the titles that point the way.


But the point isn’t just a particular poem; it’s the embracing of the process of seeing things poetically. At the conclusion of an essay titled “The Figure A Poem Makes,” which I’ve abridged here, he sums up this belief:


It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. 


For me, the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from a cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step, the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken… 


Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.  A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being.  Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went. 


It’s with these three accomplishments—shaping movement like a piece of music, giving us the emotional beats of drama and forcing us to look at poetry as a mirror to meaning—that Robert Frost makes poetry soar and shows us how to soar along with it.


Robert Frost reads Rosebud.
Robert Frost reads Rosebud.

(John goes over to the coat rack and puts on his old slicker as if to go. Then he stops, as if changing his mind, turns around and pulls a chair to the edge of the stage. Headdresses the audience thoughtfully.)


When Robert Frost gave readings, he would present a minimum number of his poems and comment very little on them. He preferred to ramble about politics, berate others who he felt were in competition with him or talk about teaching and the process of writing. When asked questions about a specific work, he often gave contradictory answers: “Oh, it’s just a little winter scene, don’t read too much into it.” or “That was the evening I was considering killing myself.” He put on a bit of a contrary New England farmer act. I know how that goes. We from Wisconsin like to do the same thing when we find ourselves in sophisticated surroundings, such as New York City or Los Angeles. It’s called being a “country slicker.” You play dumb so others underrate your abilities, often to their detriment later. But my guess is that Frost was up to something else that has to do with why his poems are cited today by everyone from writers of New Age self-help books to political conservatives.


What are the central metaphors of these poems by Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas: “After Geat Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes,” “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” “Fog,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night?” A metaphor is talking about one thing in terms of another. It’s a comparison that helps us understand something complex or abstract or unfamiliar by showing its similarities to something concrete that we are familiar with and can more easily grasp. Here are a few lines that tell you the metaphors of the titles I’ve just given. “As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow— / First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go–” “Because I could not stop for Death– / He kindly stopped for me— / The Carriage held but just Ourselves— / And Immortality.” , “The fog comes / on little cat feet.” “Let us go then, you and I, /  When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” “Do not go gentle into that good night.“  Grief is compared to freezing, dying to a carriage ride, fog to a kitten, night to an etherized patient and death to sleep. Unless you’re an English, major my guess is you only may have known one or two of these.


Now tell me the central metaphor of these poems: “The Road Not Taken,” “The Mending Wall,”  “Home Burial,” “Birches,” “After Apple-Picking” and “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Night”? Easy, the central symbol is right in the title. But what is it being compared to? The answer to that question is, I believe, a third trait of Frost’s greatness and the real reason his poetry soars. Here’s what he said about the importance of metaphors:              

Poetry begins in trivial metaphors…and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have.  Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.  People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?”  We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets.  We like to talk in parables and in hints and indirections–whether from diffidence or some other instinct… The only thing that can disappoint me is a lack of enthusiasm and my own failure to make metaphor.  My ambition has been to have it said of me: He made a few connections.”


Let me distinguish between two types of metaphor. What I’ll call a “closed metaphor” directly draws the comparisondeath is like sleep, for example (this is a simile, or expressed rather than implied comparison, but still a type of metaphor). We understand and have experienced sleep, whereas if we want to get some feeling for death, which we have not experienced firsthand, we need to use a comparison. To the left on a blackboard (if we had one) we could make a column of the traits of sleep and then connect some with traits of death in a column to the right. Some traits they share that easily come to mind are: a lack of consciousness in both or, perhaps, being weary at the end of the day is like being weary toward the end of life. We might draw some conclusions that are less sound, i.e., we wake up from sleep therefore there must be resurrection after death; but aptness (as well as originality) determines why one metaphor is better than another. In the poems by Dickinson, Sandburg, Eliot and Thomas these comparisons are drawn out. 


On the other hand what if there were a metaphor in which all we had were the column of traits on the left, and the heading to which they were to be compared on the right—an “open metaphor”? In a long metaphoric work we would call this a parable, or if it involved animals, a fable. But this “open metaphor” is precisely what Frost does in his poems. He gives us one side of the comparison then forces us to find the correspondences to the other. This is why I believe he did not want to give us his definitive interpretation of his pieces. He’s encouraging us to become poets. How does he get readers to make the leap? He chooses a picture that seems silly if we only take it literally.


image006Now let me address these three elements that I feel distinguish great poetry from good poetry. The first is that great poetry, such as Frost’s, “shapes movement.” Poetry has something prose does not, and that is the margins of white space to the left and right. That means that as a poet I am deciding how to end the line, not just letting the word processor automatically move the cursor to the next because I’ve run out of space. When you combine line breaks with sentences, you have the ability to move the reader forward, slow them down or bring them to a complete halt. For example, compare the last two stanzas of “Come In.” Here is the second to last:

Far in the pillared dark

Thrush music went—

Almost like a call to come in

To the dark and lament.


It is one sentence but broken over four lines. With “Far in the pillared dark” we want to stop because it’s the end of the line, but it is not the end of the sentence, so it pulls us around the bend to the next line, which does the same thing as does following line. Only when we get to the period does this flow come to a complete stop. Now compare that to the movement of the last stanza, which like a piece of music is manipulating that rhythm to give dramatic emphasis to the conclusion.


But no, I was out for stars:


This comes as close to a stop as it can without the use of a period.


I would not come in.


In reality, this is a sentence that stands alone. It is the statement of defiance the poet makes and we would understand it by its defiant tone even if we couldn’t make out its words. But Frost goes on, to a wonderful anti-climax, almost returning to that flow, but then giving the poem its masterful twist through an abrupt change of perspective. Nothing is simple, the poet seems to be saying. Nothing is black and white.


I mean not even if asked,

And I hadn’t been.


Most poets break lines by phrases or concepts, but Frost carries us with his flow from one line to the next, then stops us in our tracks. “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.”


Frost acknowledged that vowels in words do have accents (that’s what we find in the dictionary, and by the careful arrangement of those accented words create a line of metered poetry). He also claimed we give a particular word more emphasis than another in a sentence depending upon the sense of what we’re trying to convey. He believed that we further enhance the dynamics of the poem’s flow by stretching the spoken sentence (with its stresses based on meaning) over the line of poetry—in the case of his work, that line is iambic pentameter with its stresses determined by the length of the words vowels.


“An ear and an appetite for those sounds of sense are the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse,” he said.  Those who praise Frost for capturing the way people talk and putting it into poetry are missing the point. His poetry is powerful because of the flow which he controls through line breaks and at what points he starts and stops sentences. An ability we all have beyond anything we learn in books and school, if we stop and use it. He wrote: “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.”


Another element besides “movement” is something I’ve already identified, called  “emotional beats.” It’s that shift back and forth between feeling one way and then another. Should we take this path or that one, stop by the woods or move on.


Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.


My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.


So here we have life reduced down to two possibilities: stop or move on. There are enticements to both: the drama is in not knowing which the narrator will choose, or for that matter, which we would choose. It’s like a basketball game between two sides or a soap opera; and the closer matched the teams, or the stronger the motives of two characters in a scene, the more we are pulled into the dilemma. We want to know how it will turn out.


He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.


But this isn’t a linguistic exercise or a game or a soap opera. The poet toward the end of his life is struggling. He is weary and would like to give up, but he also has obligations. The decision comes with consequences whichever he decides to do. And here’s the thing which non-poets seldom realize. The writer doesn’t decide what he or she will do and then write this out to communicate it to an audience. The writer stands on the edge of an abyss and it’s only in the writing that the answer is discovered. There is a risk most of us are not brave enough to take. The poet does it for us, and allows you and me an additional safety valve or escape mechanism—we can say, “It’s only a poem,” “It’s only a play.” “It’s only art.”


The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.


Frost wrote this poem at his kitchen table late at night when he was under particularly heavy strain. His legs ached, and eating and sleep were out of the question, even though he was enjoying the solitude of a house in which everyone else was asleep. He had been working on another poem all evening long when he stopped, walked outside into the snow for a few minutes, then came in and wrote this (though he had trouble with the last stanza). As we hear it now, there is something in the repetitions of the poem that haunt us. “And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” Had Frost written the line once we might have taken it to mean only that the traveler had a long way to go that night; the repetition adds an ominous element. We begin to question what Frost really meant, which is the point: Frost’s traveler does not know where ultimately he is heading, just as travelers in life are sometimes uncertain of their final destination. There is a subtle shift of tone into a kind of hypnotic mindlessness.


Frost wrote: 

A poem has denouement.  It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original moodand indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last.  It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sadthe happy-sad blend of the drinking song. 


He adds—and there were never two truer sentences ever written:


No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.