Robert Frost ~ Clarity through Form and Suspension

 

In contrast to the experimental aesthetics of his modernist contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost’s traditional approach to poetry produced works that are both conversational and accessible to the masses. By doing so, Frost carved out a significant space for himself in the modern landscape and has also remained relevant in post-modern times. Unlike Pound’s “Cantos” and Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” which are complicated by the utilization of oblique symbolism and allusions, Frost poems exploit mundane symbols, household philosophy and the cheerlessness of daily work to depict the profound darkness that is always present in all of his poems. Though not excessively complex like Pound and Eliot’s works, Frost’s poems still manage to capture the modern themes of isolation, alienation and godlessness. They are profound yet deceivingly simple, never saying what they mean directly.

In his essay, “Education by Poetry” Frost explained his methodology as follows:

…poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘race’ metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another.

In this essay, I will discuss how Frost was able to achieve moments of clarity through the utilization of traditional nineteenth century forms and the theme of suspension. I will use Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” “Birches,” “Mending Walls” and “Acquainted with the Night” to point out various examples of where clarity is accomplished through the usage of form and suspension. Though Modernism was marked by revolutionary changes in aesthetics led by Pound who, with his ideogrammatic method, was paring down words and taking poetry in the direction of Chinese and Japanese imagism and by Eliot who created a new form in vers libre, Frost continued to write using hypotactic syntax, traditional blank verse and rhymes, but without trapping himself in the romantic, abstract approach to poetry of the nineteenth century.

robertfrost
Robert Frost

The moments of clarity in Frost’s poems, his “momentary stays against confusion,” are achieved through form. Frost brought narrative elements to his poetry through the employment of blank verse written in loose iambic feet. Paying close attention to rhythm and rhyme, the music of his poetry comes from the cleverly placed internal rhymes and enjambments. Though a concrete rhyme scheme is not usually present, internal and end rhymes are littered throughout most of his poems. In a letter to John Bartlett, Frost wrote, “One who concerns himself with it [the sound] more than the subject is an artist.” And it is through sounds that he achieved rhythm in his poetry. “…the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible…” (Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”). The sounds in Frost’s poetry are enriched by the placement of traditional iambic meter against natural speech, utilizing the accents of soft-spoken, New England speech to make the poems’ diction more conversational.

Frost’s moments of clarity are also achieved through one of his major themes of suspension, the in-between of two states, moments where the material world and divine world overlap. These are moments of rest and renewal. This theme connects to his belief that “a poem is a momentary stay against confusion.” Frost explored these moments of suspension and renewal in many of his poems, supplying his readers with an escape from the chaotic, puzzling and alienated wasteland. Even the use of loose metrical verse could be interpreted as a form of suspension.

Both form and suspension can be found in Frost’s “After Apple Picking.” A dramatic dialogue, this poem is written in a strange, loosely constructed blank verse. It is written mostly in iambic pentameter, but not all the lines have five feet. For example, there are twelve syllables in the first line, “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree,” but there are only five stresses: “long,” “point,” “lad,” “stick” and “tree.” However, in the second line, “Toward heaven still,” there are only five syllables and three stresses, “tow,” “heav” and still,” which unlike the first line, is in a trochaic meter. This switch in the meter brings emphasis to the theme of suspension. The ladder takes the speaker away from the earth, which somehow spoils the things that touch it, as is indicated in the lines: “For all/ That struck the earth,/ No matter if not bruised, or spiked with stubble,/ Went surely to the cider-apple heap/As of no worth.” Therefore, it is in the simple, daily act of picking apples, the speaker can achieve a moment of suspension between heaven and earth where clarity is found.

Suspended states can also be found in other lines such as: “Essence of winter sleep is on the night,/ The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.” After the apple picking is done, the speaker, from the exhaustion of hard work, is rewarded with renewal as he doses off to suspended sleep.

This poem employs what Robert Pinsky, in his book The Sounds of Poetry, calls “like and unlike sounds” to create shifts in the musical effects of the poem. “In a way parallel to how enjambment is a place where syntax might stop, but pushes forward instead, the shift away from a sound may mark a moment when things might chime, but depart instead” (Pinsky 87). First, the unlike sounds come from the combination of long and short duration words, such as “essence,” “winter,” and “drowsing” in contrast to “night” and “off” in the following lines: “Essence of winter sleep is on the night,/ The scent of apples; I am drowsing off.” Second, the like sounds are formed from the rhymes as well as the conversational language. Though there is no rhyme scheme, the like sounds of end rhymes can be found throughout the poem, such as: “over,” “tired” and “desired” in the lines: “For I have had too much/ Of apple-picking; I am overtired/ Of the great harvest I myself desired,” or “gone” and “on” in: “Were he not gone,/ The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his/ Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,/ Or just some human sleep.” However, since the end rhymes are hidden with enjambments, the sounds they create flow smoothly from line to line, instead of overwhelming and chopping up the poem. Because “the syntax does not coincide with the rhythmical unit of the line” (Pinsky 39), the sing-song nature of the end rhymes is softened.

As the poem continues, the loose iambic establishes a rhythm. There are lines in the poem where the meter is exact, such as: “I got from looking through a pane of glass” and “What form my dreaming was about to take.” These lines help to reinforce the iambic rhythm, but without overpowering the poem with what Pinky refers to as the “more artificial, regular divisions of metrical feet.”  An anapest is used in the following line: “I skimmed this morning from the water-trough,” which adds an unexpected unstressed sound, hustling the line along, but still keeping with a consistent rhythm. Thus, the reader is made aware of the music of the poem on an intuitive rather than intellectual level.

The “s” sounds found throughout the poem, such as in the lines: “The scent of apples; I am drowsing off./ I cannot shake the shimmer from my sight,” create a soft-spoken speech that is soothing when the poem is read aloud. It acts to put the reader in the same suspended dreaming, dosing off state as the speaker. The combination of well-placed rhymes, rhythm and soft sounds produce not only complex and rich like and unlike sounds, but also a feeling of intimacy between the speaker and reader.

The conversational language also aid in creating intimacy. The reader believes and can relate to the speaker because the diction, tone and syntax come from an authentic place. On the subject of authenticity, Frost wrote, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. 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 cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows” (Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”).

Similar to “After Apple Picking,” the language in “Birches” is also conversational. The tone is created through common speech. As Carol Frost wrote in her essay, “Sincerity and Inventions: On Robert Frost”:

In a letter to Walter Pritchard Eaton, written in 1913, Frost explains the particular nature of his preoccupation with “tones that are not usually regarded as poetical.” He doesn’t claim to invent these tones; he talks about their always being there and of his role as both listener and “summoner.” “All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book,” he tells Pritchard, and talks about searching them out: “No one makes them or adds them. They are always there…. The most creative imagination is only their summoner.”

In “Birches,” the speaker is lamenting on the subject of love, but not by using Eliot’s over-intellectualized, Prufrock-like language or Pound’s oblique allusions to obscure places in “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” instead the speaker talks about the everyday, universal things, such as, “girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/ Before them over their heads to dry in the sun” or “Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,/ Whose only play was what he found himself,/ Summer or winter, and could play alone.” The beauty in Frost’s poem is in the accessibility of the images and the readability of the narrative. Whether or not he/she is educated, living in the twentieth or the twenty-first century, the reader can put him/herself directly in the poem and the feel its heartbeat in the language, rhythm and sounds.

Unlike “After Apple Picking,” “Birches is written in a strict blank verse, except for the first few syllables. The first line reads: “When I see birches bend to left and right.” The stresses in this first line are in the syllables: “see,” “birch,” “bend,” “left,” and “right.” Beginning with the fifth syllable, a regular iambic rhythm begins to surface, placing emphasis on “birches bend to left and right,” instead of “When I see,” which is not the significant part of the line. After this first line, the rest of the poem is written in a fairly consistent iambic pentameter. This consistent rhythm produces sounds that parallel the predictability and innocence of childhood.

This poem is not broken into stanzas. It sits heavy and solid on the page. The content and images are dense and compacted as if the poem is trying to pack in as much living and experiences as possible before it has to end.

These two lines: “So was I once myself a swinger of birches./ And so I dream of going back to be,” signal a turn in the narrative. The poet has refrained from inserting the pronoun “I” until this moment in the poem where the speaker finds himself in a state of suspension. In this dream state of remember, the speaker is returned to childhood. Though the meter in these lines is consistently iambic, the poem breaks out of the meter with “swinger of birches,” and then quickly picking it back up again in the very next line.

The poem states, without saying so directly, that though life can be painful, there are moments of love which makes it worthwhile. It is “a pathless wood/ Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs/ Broken across it,” but with love there is peace. The physical love that is only possible on earth also creates a state of suspension.

Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.

During sex, one is transported into a moment of suspension, going toward heaven, but not actually getting to heaven, existing instead in a state between earth and heaven where the bodies are rejuvenated and the minds are cleansed.

Comparable to “Birches,” “Mending Wall” is also written in a fairly strict blank verse. The rising cadence is consistent throughout the poem. However, due to the interesting syntax used, the first two syllables are read as a trochaic foot, which places more emphasis on the word “something.”  In the same way, the iamb in the following line is switched to a trochee in order to emphasize the irony in the poem: “Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”

This poem relies heavily on the meter to provide the music; it doesn’t often utilize contrasting root words to create differences in sounds. However, given the many Latinate root words, whenever a Germanic root word is used, the reader can immediately hear the difference in their sounds. “…sometimes, the unlike sounds serve to dramatize the like sounds” (Pinsky 87).  In the line, “We wear our fingers rough with handling them,” the word “rough,” a German-sounding word in the midst of Latin-sounding words such as “fingers” and “handling,” creates a sonic distinction between what Pinsky refers to as “crunchy and soft” words. “While the phrases involved sounds that are similar physically, the sounds of the words, in a more figurative or emotional sense of ‘sound,’ are in contrast” (Pinsky 88).

Though there are no rhyme schemes present in this poem, the sounds are made rich by the end rhymes, such as “neighbors,” “wonder” and “neighbors” in the lines: “He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’/ Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder/ If I could put a notion in his head:/ ‘Why do they make good neighbors?’” Internal rhymes, such as the “e” assonance in the following lines also contribute to a poem’s rich sonic make-up: “The gaps I mean,/ No one has seen them made or heard them made,/ But at spring mending-time we find them there.”

Clear and unpoetic diction can be found in this poem just as in the previous example. The conversational nature of speech counters the structural limitations of the blank verse form, allowing the poem to tug and pull on itself in the same way that the two neighbors tug and pull on each other.

[This unpoetic diction adds] a deceptive sense of the mundane to the action; yet the aphoristic structure of the opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” stays with the reader as a maxim that borders on an axiom. The sense of universal truth, or at least applicable observation that can be assumed into the shape of a law or saying, is an essential part of the poem’s containment. The wall mending, the action between the neighbors, is all the world that Frost needs to portray in order to establish a philosophical statement on human relations. This containment, the unified limitation of both time and space and the focus on a very simple and uncomplicated action, is yet another means by which Frost uses understatement to his advantage (Bruce Meyer, “Critical Essay on ‘Mending Wall’”).

The state of suspension in “Mending Wall” is the space between the two speakers where lays the wall. In the hard work of building something, even though it gets torn down every year by nature, the two speakers can find clarity and meaning for their existence. The momentary stay against confusion is present in the mundane task of the yearly inspection and the laying down of stone after stone. When asked about the wall, Frost explained:

…throughout history, “fences are always being set up and falling down.” And as for his line, “good fences make good neighbors,” he paused for a moment, then added, “it’s the other fellow in the poem who says that. I don’t know. Maybe I was both fellows in the poem” (Stanley Burnshaw, “Transcript: Robert Frost’s Contrarieties”).

In an essay for The Reaper magazine titled “How to Write Narrative Poetry,” Robert McDowell and Mark Jarman suggest that a successful narrative poem must consist of the following ten points: a beginning, a middle and an end; observation; compression of time; containment; illumination of private gestures; understatement; humor; a distinct sense location or setting; memorable characters; and a compelling subject. “Mending Wall” achieves these ten points by narrating a story of two neighbors repairing a stone wall, but the result of is not just a well-crafted story and a detailed depiction of the characters and their experiences, but the poem also makes a statement on the nature of boundaries and human relationships.

In the same aspect, Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” also aims to reach for a lofty message through a simple narrative, and it, too, achieves the same profound result. This poem tackles the themes of alienation and isolation and comments on the state of modern civilization and human relationships through a simple walk through the cityscape on a rainy night. The setting of a cityscape is unusual for Frost since most of his poems are set in the rural, pastoral landscape of New England. This suggests an unfamiliar, out-of-place, suspended feeling, which the speaker is experiencing from having found himself in a setting he does not know or understand; and although he has an acquaintance with the city lights and city lanes, the city is not home to him.

This poem is the most rigid in form of all the poems being discussed in this essay. Consisting of fourteen lyrical lines written in iambic pentameter, the poem follows the structure of the sonnet but uses a terza rima rhyme scheme. Terza rima is a verse form composed of tercets with interlocking rhymes. The second line of each tercet establishes the rhyme for the following tercet. This supplies the poem with a common thread, a way to link the stanzas. All the rhymes are true rhymes, occurring at the end of each line. Enjambments are only used in three places, after “beat,” “feet” and “cry” in the following lines:

I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
And since these enjambments are used at natural pauses in the syntax, their intention is not to mask the rhymes. However, it is interesting to note that one of the enjambments is at a place in the poem where the speaker has stopped: “I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet/ When far away an interrupted cry…”  Even though the speaker has stopped, the enjambment causes the line to hurry forward, creating a feeling of uneasiness and urgency.

The rhyme scheme for this poem is: aba, bcb, cdc, dad, aa, which is a slightly variation from the traditional terza rima rhyme scheme of aba, bcb, cdc, ded, ee. The variation helps to emphasize Frost’s intention to create a circular structure inside which the speaker of the poem is suspended. And by repeating the first line “I have been one acquainted with the night” at the end of the poem, and rhyming “night” and “light” in the first stanza to “right” and “night” in the last couplet, Frost further creates a sense of continued suspension, a walking and searching sensation that moves through the poem and return the speaker and the reader to the same place from which they began.

The terza rima is also found in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Similar to Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead, the speaker in this poem is also taking a journey. The journey motif invites the reader to examine the conflict that the speaker experiences as he makes his way through the wasteland of the modern world, which is represented by the alien cityscape. The speaker is suspended between a world in which he is acquainted but does not know, and one in which he once knew but is now far removed from, both physically and emotionally. But in the mundane act of walking, the speaker achieves clarity. “I have walked out in rain — and back in rain./ I have outwalked the furthest city light.” Allegorically, this is more than just a lonely night walk; it is a walk through life.

Influenced by Thomas Hardy, Frost’s poetry embodied the disturbing modernist themes of isolation, alienation and the sense of profound loneliness resulted from the questioning of religion; but he used diction and syntax that can be easily digest to deliver his themes, while paying homage to the tradition of form and meter. As Leonard Unger and William Van O’Connor pointed out in Poems for Study, “Frost’s poetry, unlike that of such contemporaries as Eliot, Stevens, and the later Yeats, shows no marked departure from the poetic practices of the nineteenth century.”

The darkness in Frost’s poem tend to strike harder when they hit because they are packed tight by the meter, the rhythm and the rhymes, which compound and stack on top of each other, line after line, creating a hard-hitting punch when the message is finally delivered.

Frost believed that poetry should be a heighten use of language, but this does not mean that the language should be difficult or incomprehensible. He used conversational speech to convey disturbing and profound subject matters. He also never indulged excessively in experimentation like Pound and Eliot, whose poetry, becomes less accessible as the writers’ messages became tangled in their attempts to creatively alter the usage of language.

In the essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” Frost wrote, “The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited meter are endless. And we are back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say, sound or unsound. Probably better if sound, because deeper and from wider experience.” And thus, clarity is achieved through the hard work of form, meter and sounds, mirroring the hard work that is often depicted in Frost’s poems. Moments of suspensions are then created when the reader is taken temporary outside of his earthy world and is delivered to an in-between place created by poetry, where he/she can find clarity, peace and “a momentary stay against confusion.”

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