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. 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.