Now 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.
A poem has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood—and 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 sad—the 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.