A Promise Matters More Than Snow: Rethinking Robert Frost

IMAGE BY: Robert Frost, Newyorker.com

by Jonathan Russell Clark

The great Maxine Kumin wrote a poem describing a time at Bread Loaf when Robert Frost came to read and hang out with the students. “Magisterial in the white wicker rocker,” she writes, “Robert Frost at rest after giving / a savage reading.” He holds “nothing back” and barks at the young poets: “don’t sit / there mumbling in the shadows, call / yourselves poets.” He goes on to give some stern, hard-earned advice:

…Look
up from the page. Pause between poems.
Say something about the next one.
Otherwise the audience

will coast, they can’t take in
half of what you’re giving them.

He concludes by saying, “Make every poem your final poem.”

Kumin’s “The Final Poem” suggests something about Frost’s own poetry that many often overlook. Frost tells Kumin and the other fawning poets of Bread Loaf that the audience “can’t take in / half of what you’re giving them.” If we were to believe conventional analyses of Frost’s work, an audience would be able to get everything in one hearing, as many interpretations of Frost’s poetry don’t account for the layers of Frost’s work. Moreover, Frost is often thought of as a poet of nature and rural life, which to me feels a bit like referring to Anne Sexton as merely a poet of domesticity—these descriptions are ostensible; it is what is underneath them that defines them. Let’s take three of Frost’s nature poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “After Apple-Picking,” which are often interpreted as laments on man’s distance from nature—and determine the way that each of these poems shows how nature only offers fleeting respite and temporary transcendence. Nature cannot save us spiritually; it can only place us “toward heaven,” and only then for but a moment. Rather than lament this ephemerality, Frost concludes, “Earth’s the right place for love.”

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in March of 1874, and lived there until he was eleven, when the family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts following the death of Frost’s father. As a poet, Frost has had a fascinating and ever-changing relationship to poetry criticism. As critic Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2003, Frost

at the time of his death in 1963 was generally considered to be a New England folkie… In 1977, the third volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography suggested that Frost was a much nastier piece of work than anyone had imagined; a few years later, thanks to the reappraisal of critics like William H. Pritchard and Harold Bloom and of younger poets like Joseph Brodsky, he bounced back again, this time as a bleak and unforgiving modernist.

Just last year, David Orr published The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, in which he argues, among other points, that the poem, rather than a celebration of “the road less traveled by” (though thanks to M. Scott Peck people usually leave out the “by”), actually

gives us several variations on the standard dilemmas associated with the romantic sensibility: How can one transcend one’s self (“travel both”) while still remaining oneself (“And be one traveler”)? What is the difference between the stories we tell about ourselves and the actuality of our inner lives? In the moment of choosing—the moment of delay—all answers to these questions remain equally possible. But when a choice is made, other possibilities are foreclosed, which leads to what Frost describes as “crying over what might have been.”

If Frost’s most iconic and ubiquitous poem is largely misunderstood, what chance does the rest of his poetry have? And does the man who refers to regret as “crying over what might have been” mesh with the image we’ve had of Frost since reading his verses in grade school? Critics have long understood that there was more going on in Frost’s work than spotted at first glance, but the greater population has yet to catch up, and it isn’t just “The Road Not Taken” that remains stubbornly misinterpreted.

Another of Frost’s iconic poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is often seen as a mournful ode to humanity’s disconnection from the natural world. The speaker’s “little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near,” because, the poem suggests, the man never does this. By the end, though, the man realizes that he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go before” he sleeps. One interpretation of this would claim that this fleeting moment is somewhat tragic—man has no time for nature. He is too busy, too mired in responsibility to do anything more than stop for a brief respite. This poem, for many, perfectly captures the spirit of Frost’s attitude toward our relationship to nature.

Let us for a moment examine another poem to see if “Stopping by Woods…” truly typifies Frost’s beliefs. In “After Apple-Picking,” the speaker becomes “overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” His ladder is left “sticking through a tree / Toward heaven.” By the end, the speaker contemplates sleep, how his won’t be “Long sleep,” like the woodchuck’s, not a hibernation, though it feels that way to him. Instead, it will just be “some human sleep.” Is this a man who allows his desire for “human sleep,” his need for daily, human comforts, to get in the way of reaching “toward heaven”? That would make this poem match that of “Stopping by Woods…” Clarke W. Owens notes, “One cannot escape the resonance of death in the image of sleep” in this poem. Similar arguments have been made about the “sleep” at the end of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The death metaphor would suggest further that each poem’s speaker will miss out on the transcendental beauty of nature and die before they truly reach it. Is this what Frost intended?

Back to “After Apple-Picking.” When the man explains why the apple-picking has made him so tired, he says:

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
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.

The speaker here sees nature as abundant and tedious as life can be. Each apple is not some miracle but merely a drop in the bucket of apple cider. Now, one could read this as yet another critique of humanity’s treatment of nature, i.e., that we reduce beautiful things (like apples) to the level of machinery, the vitality of the wondrous coming from our destruction of them for our own purposes. For the speaker, though, does that matter? However humanity as a whole treats nature, the speaker still has to live in that world, and his reaction to it is less about all people and more about him as an individual. For the speaker, too, is one of “ten thousand thousand” people, “as of no worth.” Nature reminds him of this fact instead of saving him from it.

Okay, so returning to “sleep” as death: if Frost viewed “nature as an antagonist,” or at least as not so different from human life, then what do the references to sleep mean? Are they, as Owens suggests, metaphors for death? Owen’s argument goes like this:

Were the contemplated sleep truly “just some human sleep,” it would be a known quantity—because we have all experienced sleep—but it is not a known quantity. The tension of the poem derives precisely from its not being known. The image of a ladder pointing to heaven (lines 1 and 2), the image of winter, the archetypal season of death (7), the image of long experience and an over-tiredness with one’s formerly desired ends (the middle section of the poem, but especially lines 24–31)—all these things, together with the wondering, apprehensive uncertainty, suggest a nonexclusive or symbolic association of death with the image of sleep.

Owen goes further to state that “the final contrast becomes one between death as it occurs in nature—that is, a cyclical process of decay and cessation followed by birth and renewal akin to the change of seasons—and mere “human sleep,” seen as an individual’s night of dreams interspersed within a quotidian routine of work and reward.” It is tempting to see the poem in this light—that “sleep” stands for death— but this flies in the face of much of the poem’s literalness, an aspect that defies metaphor. Frost, here, does mean to contrast nature with humanity, but elevating “sleep” to death goes a little further than the poem suggests. Strip away any notion of metaphor and we arrive at a poem about the limitations of nature within a human context. The speaker picked apples for a long time and has tired of it. That participating in nature should lift him “toward heaven” means very little to him, as he is tired and overworked. “Just some human sleep” is what he’ll get, not the “long sleep” of hibernation, an extended existence in nature. Because ultimately, the speaker, no matter how heavenly nature can be, must return to life.

But this return is not a negative one. Frost does not see it as tragic. In fact, he sees it as preferable. In “Birches,” we get Frost’s most clear view of man’s relationship with nature—or, at least, his own relationship with nature. After “brilliantly” digressing about an ice storm, and describing the way the speaker imagines a boy “riding down” the branches of the birches, Frost launches into a prolonged statement about nature. “So I was once myself a swinger of birches,” he writes, “And so I dream of going back to be.” But there is something the speaker needs to clarify:

May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Frost’s speakers do not wish to be in nature forever, nor do they think it would be a good thing if they were. Nature offers something like the fun of a boy swinging across tree limbs—a temporary enjoyment, a minor diversion from the more pertinent and necessary claims of an adulthood. One could even see how Frost viewed all “visionary experience as an illusion.” And his speakers are quite aware of this. So the sadness that one detects in a Frost poem, that peculiar yearning just underneath the language, is not a lament for our distance from some life-altering and life-affirming nature, but instead for the fact that nature actually doesn’t offer much solace.

Let’s go back to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with this interpretation in mind, specifically the final stanza:

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.

The repetition of sleep, rather than suggesting death, actually suggests life–a long, weary and not-so-fulfilling one, yes, but a life nonetheless. This man can’t stay and watch the snow as it softly falls; he can’t continue to contemplate the “lovely, dark and deep” woods. He must carry on, he must keep his promises, and he must sleep, eventually, after all his work is done. Rather than view this as tragic, as a commentary on the way we allow our work and our trivial lives prevent us from experiencing the transcendence of the natural world, why can’t we see this as quietly heroic? Why can’t we allow that maybe the aims of humanity—our goals, ambitions, our greatest hopes and fears—are not meaningless when compared to nature? Why must we be deemed the trivial ones? Can snow really be more meaningful than promises?

If all this sounds a little unromantic, we must remember who we’re dealing with here. Like Kumin, John Updike also has story of seeing Frost in person. After moving through his “poems rather rapidly, minimizing their music in his haste to get on with his spoken commentary on whatever came to his mind,” Frost launched into an attack on Archibald MacLeish. Updike continues:

MacLeish had recently issued a radio play, The Trojan Horse, whose message in that heyday of McCarthyism was that the United States should not take into itself the Trojan horse of totalitarian tactics. Who could dispute so unexceptionable a message and the agitated liberalism that have given rise to it? Well, Frost could. “You know,” he told his old friend and admirer in the astonished hearing of us worshipfully assembled undergraduates, “if you’re going to beat a fella, you got to get to be like him.”

Frost continued on “long enough for his anti-anti-McCarthyite drift to register,” and Updike notes that in response to another work by MacLeish—a version of the Job story called J.B.—and its moral—that “Our labor…is to learn through suffering to love”—Frost said, “People think everything is solved by love. Maybe just as many things are solved by hate.”

Readers conditioned by popular culture’s version of Frost would be stunned by these stories. How heartless and wrongheaded was this guy? Updike’s story is, of course, anecdotal and shouldn’t be used to completely demonize Frost, but there is something important in such a description of Frost, especially when one is considering his poetry. Here was a man who saw nature as “indifferent, alien, hostile,” yet wrote some of the most beloved nature poems of the twentieth century. Here is a man who preferred humanity to nature, yet is remembered for odes, not to people, but to a fleeting escape from human activity. But Frost did not, as Whitman did, contradict himself; his poetry does not contain multitudes. Instead, what Frost feared so has happened: his poetry has been “willfully” misunderstood and placed (irrevocably) in nature, or at least on nature’s side, and the great tragedy might be that now that it’s snatched away, it might never return. Is there hope that the institution of Frost will continue to venerate his poetry for misguided reasons? Can we still rescue him from the woods? In the lines directly before the ones about being misunderstood by fate, Frost writes, “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Maybe he still can.


Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.

The Art of Criticism

And the grace to receive it.

I believe wholly in the workshop model, in the scathing bravery of criticism, in the investigative eyes of my colleagues.

Work doesn’t progress without the eyes of its audience. But the audience is not limited to post-publication bodies. It should include your fellow writers and artists. It should never be limited in its scope.

I teach Writing and Rhetoric to a group of bright undergraduates. They were horrified when I asked them to begin critiquing their peers’ work. But I believe in the power of transforming your work with the help of fresh eye; so, as teachers have done since the dawn of time, I made them do it anyway. I wrote some of their thesis statements on the board and we whittled them into their best form.

Criticism doesn’t have to be bad, I tell them. In fact, it shouldn’t be. It should never exist to reduce another person or their work. Criticism should be given with care. It should expose the weaknesses of a piece but also explore its strengths. I instructed my students to say things like, “I don’t think this sentence is working” rather than “this is awful.”

Being a good critic requires a sense of self, a sense of the receiver, and the ability to depart from your own emotion in order to more objectively analyze the work. Of course, subjectivity will never be gone from the process. However, it’s not your job to attack an aesthetic or a genre. It’s your job as the critic to figure out if the piece is working at maximum efficiency.

Stay away from, “I didn’t like this piece” or “I loved this piece.” Instead say, “This piece really worked because of x, y, z.” But don’t be afraid to tell the author what isn’t working.

Defensive authors exist, surely. As I live and breathe there are more jerks in the world than there are kind people. Resistance against well-meaning criticism is a sign of narcissism, poor listening, or simply naivety. The most productive workshops come from the kind of relationship where author and critic wholly support one another in the endeavor. It is a privilege to read another person’s work. It is a privilege to hear the opinions of your contemporaries.

Mostly importantly, criticism rounds out your sensibility; it creates a better writer, a better reader. Both giving and receiving criticism is a vital part of the authorial work cycle. My own writing would be nothing without it.

 

 

Image via Flickr, Will: September 14, 2011

 

Defining the Graphic Era

If you wondered whether graphic novel means a larger work of comics you would be correct. But life isn’t always so simple.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, let’s redefine the graphic “novel” and rather refer to these collections of narrative images as graphic books. The word novel implies that the work in question is fiction, which is not always the case (Dr. Rebecca Barnhouse, author of The Book of the Maidservant). Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a cleverly illustrated memoir of her own childhood. Wheres as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is entirely fantasy.

Graphic books are either intended narratives that extend beyond the typical page number of a comic book and bound using a method other than the typical stapling, or they can also be a collection of comic books that form a sequence of a story and are also bound in a way other than stapling. The difference between comics and graphic books are relatively simple somewhat arbitrary.

The name comic book refers to a collection of picture panels that form a narrative. Therefor, what right do we have to call graphic books anything if not collections of comic books? This becomes problematic when we examine that I define a graphic book in two ways. In the sense that a graphic book is a collection of comic books bound in a different way, it is a comic collection. A book originally intended to be and published as a larger work extending beyond the scope of the typical comic book is still a comic book.

Unfortunately the word comic is associated with a number of juvenile ideas. The largest demographic for the purchasing of comic books are adolescent boys. Therefor we are hesitant to use the word comic to describe more serious works.

But each panel of art is in itself a comic. And each collection of panels is a comic book. And regardless of how it is bound they are a mutually exclusive idea. In the attempt to mature the world of graphic story-telling, we have evolved to use words that are exclusive to adults. You wouldn’t give your child a graphic movie or a graphic video game. The word graphic doesn’t just imply a picture of some sort. It implies that the content of what you are handling is somehow reserved for the eyes of an adult.

To embrace the new trend of the graphic book we usher ourselves into a new graphic era of literature. While some may be hesitant to accept the legitimacy of the graphic book they will very soon be quieted. We no longer live in a world wholly tolerant of information that isn’t quick and easy to access. We are a visually glutinous population of consumers. Literature, as everything else, must evolve as we do if it is to survive. Instead of holding this concept of literary evolution at arms length, we should embrace it as humanity once embraced the advent of the printing press. Sometime in the future, our quibbles will seem like archaic qualms to our descendants.

Celie’s Button and the Perversion of Homosexual Desire in The Color Purple

To say that Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is not a homosexual suggests that her love and sexual liberation is invalid. A fellow student in one of my classes recently stated that he believed that Celie is a victim of homosocial desire rather than identifying her as a homosexual.

I had already planned on presenting to my classmates the idea that Celie was homosexual. It just seemed so obvious as I read. I was curious how they would react. Although homosexuality is tolerated amongst my peers, there is still discomfort when they must face it.

My professor, Dr. Tiffany M. B. Anderson, was aligned with my own personal analysis of Celie’s sexuality, as she had never before heard anyone disagree. But the majority of my class seemed opposed. They preferred the less challenging argument of homosocial desire. Because at a basic level, it makes sense.

Homosocial is a relatively new term to the literary community, and it refers to the relationships between men in classical literature. There are times, such as in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice when characters appear to be much more affectionate and loyal toward the same sex. To a modern mind, this appears as homosexuality. Clearly these two men are gay if they are this affectionate toward one another. And anyone who reads Shakespeare knows that you really have to read between the lines to understand his innuendo. In 1985, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick popularized the term with her book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. She presented the literary community with a solid explanation of these unusual relationships between men to the modern reader. Homosocial by itself simply means social interactions between people of the same sex. Homosocial desire as a complete term signifies the desire for the power and comradery of the same sex.

Now, before I go on to say that the homosocial argument is invalid, I’d like to explain why it can actually work. Celie is a submissive woman. She is abused by men and victimized by women. She is incapable of gaining her own control or power as a human being let alone as a woman. The presentation of Shug Avery provides Celie with a model of feminine power and how to achieve it. Shug is also the object of her sexual desire. But the power that Shug holds over men and other people in general is intoxicating to Celie. It allows her to become a sexual being rather than a victim of male desire. In this sense, Celie has homosocial desire for Shug Avery. There is no denying that.

However, I’d like to define what homosexuality is. The concept is foreign territory and tends to elude those faced with it. If you are not homosexual, you may not have a very solid foundation of what it means. Let’s just be honest, it is confusing. But the term homosexual just means people of the same sex. That’s it. That’s all homo (person) and sexual (of, relating to, or involving sex – most often just meaning biological reproductive capabilities that define gender). The term has come to define the romantic desire for and sexual intercourse with a person of the same sex. More accurately, Celie is a lesbian.

I’d love to agree that Walker presents us with a simple case of homosocial desire. It would be easy to create this as an argument. It would be easy to agree with, if it weren’t for the textual evidence that Celie is a lesbian – or at least has lesbian tendencies. This evidence includes her biological/natural desire for Shug. She feels a tingling that a woman might feel for a man when she first realizes her own bodily desire. But in addition to that, Celie is jealous of Shug’s love for Mr. And in addition to even that, Celie loves Shug. She has emotional desire for a woman. All of these contribute to the message that Celie is a lesbian. Now, does that mean she is solely a lesbian? No. But there is further evidence. She continues to have sex with Mr., this time altered by Shug’s interference, where she and Mr. attempt to have more pleasurable sex, and Celie doesn’t enjoy it. The evidence that Walker gives us points to a single conclusion. Celie is a homosexual.

Yes, she has homosocial desires. I would argue that these align more with her relationship to Sofia than her relationship to Shug. But in terms of Celie’s desire for Shug, it clearly crosses over the line of social to sexual. As Sedgwick asks us not to pervert the classical relationships between men by simply categorizing them as homosexual, I ask that we not pervert Celie’s lesbianism by simply saying that her desire is only homosocial.