A Robert Frost Primer or 'All Life is Cellular'

A few weeks back, I was asked to contribute to an afternoon event in Palmers Green Library, north London, with the title – from Robert Frost’s poem – ‘The Road Not Taken’. It was introduced by Maggie Butt, with readings of their own poetry around the theme by Mark Holihan and Denise Saul. I was also asked to deliver a few thoughts on the work of Robert Frost. What follows is an edited transcript of what I said then and I think of it as a basic introduction for the general reader to Frost’s work and some of the ideas which I see recurring in it. As previous posts have mentioned, I’ve been teaching Frost for a few years recently – thanks to all those students who made me go back and read the poems again!

Despite the apparent simplicity of many of his poems, the real identity of Robert Frost (1874-1963) is hard to pin down. Though raised in late 19th century America, his first book was published in England. Though on the brink of the Modern, a year before the First World War, these poems used plain language and traditional forms. He loved Europe, befriending Edward Thomas – stirring him from prose into poetry – yet Frost sailed back to the US, to farming, north of Boston. By all accounts he was never a very successful farmer, though he often presented himself as talking downright farmer-like common sense. Some find his work consolatory; but he was famously called a ‘terrifying’ poet, a bleak Modernist.

If all this sounds slippery, then Frost took it into his poetics too. He said that, while writing a poem, he was conscious of saying two things at once. But he always wanted to say the first thing so well that any reader who liked that part of the poem might feel able to rest there. Yet, he implies, for those interested in going further, beyond the particular, overt or explicit meaning – say, two farmers re-building a wall between their properties, a man stopping to watch snow fall in a wood, a mower and a butterfly – there is always an ulterior meaning (at least one) that might also be opened up.

At all levels, such defining walls, barriers and boundaries – physical, mental, spiritual – proliferate in Frost’s work. But his view of them is complex. These walls are often porous. But sometimes they can seem impenetrable. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his biological knowledge, but here is something else Frost repeatedly jotted down in his Notebooks: “All life is cellular. No living particle of matter however small has yet been found without a skin – without a wall.”

On one side, these secure boundaries seem necessary for a successful life – like the wall round all cellular organisms. He would say: “I want to be a person. And I want you to be a person”. But the dangers are obvious. The cellular wall of identity becomes more than a means of self-definition and grows to become an exclusion zone, a solitary place, a state of solipsism. Many of Frost’s figures and narrators are found to be struggling with this state. Yet Frost’s comments about identity, wanting to be a person, wanting you to be a person, in fact continue: “then we can be as interpersonal as you please. We can pull each other’s noses – do all sorts of things”.

So the presence of these cellular walls do not necessarily hold us back. They are as often porous or permeable. Yet they seem also to offer a firm foundation from which we may reach out, we can humanly interact. We can pull each other’s noses. And there is indeed much pulling of noses in Frost’s poems. In particular, he liked to pull the nose of the person he chose to narrate many of his poems. There is very often an irony at work against the speaker. His poems are often more dramatic than lyric.

We might ask why is Frost so concerned about being a person, about the relative security of identity? Because, in other moods, he knows the dangers posed by the absence of any functioning cellular membrane: the leaking out of personality into the surrounding world, of identity dissipating to become nothing, the risk – as it were – of personal extinction.

There is a little poem called ‘The Cow in Apple Time’ which (on the face of it) is about a cow who is driven by an unspecified desire to disregard the walls about her pasture. The wall is no more than an open gate to her. She charges through and greedily eats fallen apples, growing intoxicated, her face splattered with apple juice. But in this kind of gluttonous state she grows sick, in pain:

She bellows on a knoll against the sky.

Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.

It’s a perfectly satisfying poem about a rural incident – perhaps Farmer Frost, had once witnessed it himself. But there is Frost’s ulteriority too. The cow is consistently described using terms which anthropomorphise her. The wall breaker is perhaps on one level really human, a rebel, a sinner – written in 1914, some have even suggested the cow is an invasive force. However we see her, she is punished for her disregard of, her undervaluing of, those walls and boundaries which perhaps ought to serve to define her life.

Remember this is the same Robert Frost who disparaged the writing of free verse, by many of his more obviously Modernist contemporaries, as trying to play tennis with the net down. The same Robert Frost who disparaged the, then fashionable, interest in Surrealism with its wild leaps over convention, its dislocation of the senses, the shock value of the illogical. For Frost such practices could lead only “to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper”.

The cow with the aching stomach is paralleled by a dying peach tree in ‘There Are Roughly Zones’. The narrator has moved “far north” and has transplanted a peach tree and now the northern winter is threatening it. He sits indoors and frets about it, trying to blame the weather rather than himself. But self-criticism arises all the same and it is human “ambition” that gets the blame, that “limitless trait in the hearts of men”. More precisely:

[. . .] though there is no fixed line between right and wrong,

There are roughly zones whose laws must be obeyed.

I love the messy pragmatism implied by “roughly zones”. One of his recurring concerns, Frost said, was with “the impossibility of drawing sharp lines and making exact distinctions” – no red lines, lines in the sand, defined boundaries, but zones of negotiation, places calling for compromise, no fundamental clarity, rather a feeling-out, a region requiring a dialogue.

As in a poem like ‘The Tuft of Flowers’. A man comes to a mown field to turn the cut grass, the hay, to help its drying. He looks about for the man who had earlier mowed the grass:

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been, – alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart

The hermetically cellular, or as we would now say, atomised nature of society seems to be assumed by the narrator. It looks like there is going to be no breaking of boundaries here. But a “[be]wildered” butterfly passes him, looking for flowers that grew there yesterday, now cut down. The butterfly leads him to a “leaping tongue of bloom” left deliberately, out of “sheer morning gladness” by the mower. The narrator hears the message from this “tongue of bloom” which speaks of each man as a “spirit kindred” to the other. It’s as if they now enter into a dialogue, revising the earlier solipsistic observation. Now:

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

There is a rosy-edged hint of sentimentality here perhaps. But the fanciful dialogue between the two men (who actually never meet) represents a successful negotiation into that rough zone between individuals, the cellular membrane is actually permeable, and the result here is consolatory.

In ‘Mending Wall’, two farmers meet to patrol on either side of a dry-stone wall marking the boundary between their farms. Parts of it are always falling down. They build it back up. But the paradox is that the action of building up what separates them, brings them together each year to perform the task. The wall does not prevent or act as a brake on their relationship – rather it facilitates it – it perhaps is their relationship, what links them. From their respective sides – from their respective identities or persons – they are free to become ‘interpersonal’. But the mischievous, sceptical, modern-minded narrator expresses doubts about the importance of walls, particularly when “He is all pine and I am apple orchard”. His neighbour is a more traditional, unquestioning man, who likes to repeat his father’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbours”. The narrator mocks him (though in silence, in his head) as “an old-stone savage”, lost in actual and intellectual “darkness”. But it is significant that the wall-believer has the last word. For me, it is the moderniser is the one being ironised. If he was a versifier, he’d be trying to write poems with the net down.

Why Frost’s concern with the importance of walls? Because – in still other moods – he has looked into the abyss of experience without them. One example is given in the 16 terrifying lines of ‘Desert Places’. The narrator here seems to have taken the more modern, sceptical wall-mender’s view to heart. It seems there are no bounds here – all have vanished under “Snow falling and night falling fast oh fast”. That note of fear there adds to the nightmare feeling and when the outward-looking eye turns to look within – to find himself – he finds nothing: “I am too absent-spirited to count”. That phrase is an echo of ‘absent-minded’. There is a vacancy within and without – no mind, spirit, self, identity. There is only the concluding, devastating rhymes of “empty spaces . . . where no human race is . . . my own desert places”.  

And if ‘Desert Places’ evokes the desolation of a world viewed in the absence of a relatively secure cell-walled self, then ‘The Most of It’ shows us the horrifying effects of being walled in. In this poem, the narrator “thought he kept the universe alone”. There seems nothing else but him, only a “mocking echo of his own [voice]”. Yet he does remotely feel a desire for dialogue – perhaps just in being human – and does express a desire not for “copy speech. / But counter-love, original response”. But when the universe does eventually break into his consciousness, it arrives not in the form of dialogue or a negotiated relationship but as an utterly alien thing.

It emerges only as a strange, vague “embodiment” that “crashed” and “splashed” towards him and is recognised only by means of a simile. Perhaps it is an elk.

As a great buck it powerfully appeared,

Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,

And landed pouring like a waterfall,

And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,

And forced the underbrush—and that was all.

There, Frost captures the egoist’s struggle to comprehend what is other than him; followed by the arrogance of his dismissal of it. And perhaps this is a particularly masculine thing. Yet there is no need to attribute these feelings to Frost himself. The speaker is best read as a dramatic representation of one extreme of Frost’s concern for borders and boundaries that are vital for our own selfhood yet must be porous enough to allow for knowledge and experience.

So in ‘Birches’ the narrator remembers – as a boy – climbing slender birch trees, to the top, only to leap out and bend them down with his weight. This swinging of birches can be seen – ulteriorly – as representing Frost’s belief in those negotiated rough zones of a life. We climb up, out of our element, but not too far:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs                                   
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully 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.

And if we find this frustratingly ambivalent – Frost sitting carefully on the fence – then he often rubs our noses in it. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ famously concludes with two lines which are identical. For me, the repetition introduces greater ambiguity into the moment. Does the narrator stop, perhaps to die, entranced by the snowfall? Or does he shake himself up, turn back to his life in the village, his roles and responsibilities?

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.

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.

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 throws the question back to the reader. What Frost knows is that we do not keep the universe alone. We are parts of a whole – but the borderlands are uncertain – sometimes we cross them and lose touch with ourselves, at other times we too easily accept them and fall into egotistical isolation. There maybe be a happy medium – but Frost’s dynamic poems suggest the truth is we can never find and hold to that; we are always involved in the complicated fraught business of negotiation, of swinging birches, of chasing butterflies, of building walls that will promptly fall down again.

Visiting Torbay Poetry Festival 2017

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The 11am train out of Paddington is so packed that I expect to see Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor between carriages – disgruntled at the discomfort of his position, if more gruntled at the clear evidence of the underfunding of public transport. I usually choose the Quiet Carriage to varying degrees of success and on this occasion, from Reading to Swindon, I have the pleasure of eavesdropping on a phone conversation in a language I do not know. A contemporary version of Frost’s the sound of sense – though I’m not sure I make much sense of the sounds themselves, half of it murmuring like love-talk, the other staccato as a list of shopping. Maybe that’s just what it is!

Anyway, I have work to do – correcting replies I’m giving to an email interview to be published by South Bank Poetry in the next couple of weeks. I’ve already prepared the reading I’m giving on the Saturday night, so I don’t bother thinking about that. Getting off the train 3½ hours later, I meet up with Maggie Butt who is still recovering from running the recent Poem-a-Thon in support of the Enfield Refugee Fund. Possibly, I think, she’s reeling less from the sheer effort involved as from the whole event’s astonishing success, raising something like £14000 in one day. We walk along the breezy promenade at Torquay to the Livermead Cliff Hotel which is the focus of the Torbay Poetry Festival. It turns out they are not expecting me until the following day but with some juggling of rooms I’m soon ensconced and ready for some poetry.

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I had arrived in time to hear Myra Schneider and Alasdair Paterson reading. But Myra was unwell and absent, so her poems and little emailed introductions were beautifully read by Mimi Khalvati and Danielle Hope. I know Myra’s work well and it is often very location specific, so it was a strange feeling having north London brought so vividly before me when, just outside the expansive windows, the English Channel was rolling in towards the beach. Alasdair (amongst many other things) runs the Uncut Poetry series in Exeter, so he is both in-comer and relative local to the south west. With the kind of Scottish burr that in itself draws attention to the sound of any poem it is applied to, he read in a quiet, level voice. Especially memorable was a poem with a surrealist and Chinese slant, presenting a kind of bureaucratic Confucianism, managing to convey both a satirical edge and a rather joyful sense of freedom.

Early evening on the Friday, Kathy Miles read her poems layered with myth, history and personal experience. And Matthew Barnard, who is published by Eyewear, read several poems about visits – or maybe residence – on the Isle of Skye. One of the great recommendations of this little poetry festival (run by Patricia Oxley, who also edits Acumen, and her committee) is indeed its small scale. It means guests and readers are always in touching and chatting distance of each other. Someone who is a regular attendee described it to me as more like a house party and it certainly has that sense of a bunch of people meeting up in an endless, delightful carousel of combinations and re-combinations. Maybe all I mean is that it is very friendly!

 

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Duncan Forbes
 

The first half of Friday evening’s reading was given by the urbane, witty and clever Duncan Forbes. One of his poems expressed the concern, shared by so many of us who work with language, about the number of words that seem to be dropping out of common usage. So many of these are associated with the natural world, the weather, earth and landscape. Duncan was smart and engaging on the subject but interestingly a number of his more recent poems seem to tone down the wit and word-play in order to focus on landscape – in one instance a gloriously evoked Portuguese setting. Mimi Khalvati’s work is well known and tends to provoke praise such as ‘lush’ and ‘graceful’ which is true enough though she also has a quiet almost metaphysical wit of her own. She read a poem from the just published Hippocrates Society anthology of the heart:

 

Old tramping grounds are bruises to the heart.

Go visit them at dusk when belisha beacons,

reflected in dark windows, flash and dart

like fireflies [. . .]

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We were expecting Storm Brian on the Saturday and being just metres from the water’s edge it was awaited with some trepidation. But living up to its rather un-tempestlike name, Brian blew only in brief gusts, ruffling Torbay into rather poetic white horses rather than anything more dangerous. It seemed appropriate that the main event of the morning was a celebration of Cornish poet Charles Causley. This was coordinated by John Miles and included members of The Causely Trust and the poet’s biographer, Laurence Green. We heard about Causley’s childhood, the early death of his father, his war experiences in the navy, then his years teaching at the same school he attended. A curious life of great rootedness and sense of locale, combined with his sense of the ocean always at his doorstep and the possibility of travel. Perhaps the highlight of the session was an unaccompanied singing of Causley’s ‘Timothy Winters’ by Roy Cameron. I’ve known some of the poems for ages, but the event made me want to go back and reread them. I always remember something Causley wrote, echoing Frost’s ideas about ulteriority, that poems are always about something else and that’s why they are so hard to write.

 

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Charles Causely
 

If Patrica Oxley sets the organisational tone for the Festival, it is her husband William who sets the sociability quotient. This is also reflected in his most recent publication, On and Off Parnassus (Rockingham Press), a collection of anecdotes, or Oxley-dotes, which has been described as giving readers “a finely judged mixture of anecdote and nuanced memoir”. William’s encounter with a much larger-than-expected tiger cub proved entertaining. Alongside him Maggie Butt read from her recent collection, Degrees of Twilight, taking us from a trip to Cuba to her very moving response to Dylan Thomas:

 

Why not go gentle into that good night

like drifting into sleep from sun-soaked day,

remembering the brightness of the light?

 

Penelope Shuttle had judged the Festival poetry competition this year and she announced the winners at an event later on Saturday afternoon. The winner was Cheryl Pearson with the poem, ‘The Fishwife’. My reading was before the dinner and the wine began to flow. I read almost wholly from my new book. I veered off plan by including a poem included in the new Hippocrates anthology. It seemed appropriate to place it after another poem about my daughter a few years ago – the first was about visiting a church and extinguishing somebody else’s candle and the heart poem about watching her, for the first time, riding a fairground carousel alone: anxious moments that yielded up thoughts for this father at least about the paradoxes of closeness and distance as children become more and more themselves:

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Regretfully I could not hang around long on the Sunday morning as I had to get back into London for a reading with Tim Ades and Caroline Maldonado (dear reader, my life is not usually so literarily busy, far from it). Sadly then, I had to miss Penny Shuttle’s main reading as well as work from Alwyn Marriage, Shanta Acharya and Isabel Bermudez. On the return train, I read and loved Penny’s most recent book, Will You Walk a Little Faster? (Bloodaxe Books). And – in the light of the TS Eliot shortlist which had been released over the weekend – I was left wondering why she was not on it. Her work is always so sharp, surprising, endlessly experimenting, touching, visionary, down to earth, above all immensely human. These are not things I could say about all the shortlisted books. Ah, literary prizes, the delight of the few chosen publishers everywhere. And while I’m busy complaining, why is Nick Makoha’s powerful book not on the list? But enough bitching – the Torbay Poetry Festival is remarkable for a number of things, but especially its inclusive and friendly tone. Stay with that.

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What Have I Been Reading: October – December 2015

Up-dated December 2015

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Terry Gifford’s Cambridge Companion to Ted Hughes is a fantastic summing up of where Hughes’ reputation now is, including articles by various hands on Hughes and animals, Plath, myth, feminism (it’s complicated) and a clear account of the poet’s fascination with Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate.

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Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love – a book I’ve intended to read for decades and though I baulk at much of it still  I love her focus on the visions taking place in “an ordinary, household light”, her vivid descriptions and tentative, undogmatic prose. She also boldly talks of Christ as our mother: “Who showed you this? Love. What did he show? Love. Why did he show it to you? For love.”

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Few poets can travel such distances with such ease and brevity as Penelope Shuttle. I saw her read at the recent Second Light Festival in London and picked up her Templar Poetry chapbook, In the Snowy Air. It belies it’s rather Xmas-y title by being rather a hymn to London (with occasional snow showers) including the Shard, the Walbrook, the British Library and even Waitrose in Balham.

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Hands and Wings: Poems for Freedom for Torture has been edited by Dorothy Yamamoto in support of the Freedom from Torture charity and includes work by Gillian Allnutt, Alison Brackenbury, David Constantine, Carrie Etter, Vicki Feaver, Pippa Little and Susan Wicks.

 

Up-dated November 2015

With the cold weather coming, Yves Bonnefoy’s 1991 Beginning and End of Snow(Bucknell University Press, 2012) is an exquisite read in Emily Grosholz’s translation, including an original essay by the poet on ‘Snow in French and English’.

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I’m convinced Bonnefoy’s response to snow is not a million miles distant from the Daoist idea of the uncarved block and Rudolph G Wagner’s second magnificent volume on Wang Bi’s A Chinese Reading of the Daodejing is full of insights through its literal readings of the 81 chapters. I have been comparing his readings with my own new versions before going to press in the next few weeks.

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Bertolt Brecht: Love Poems (Norton, 2015) is the first instalment in David Constantine and Tom Kuhn’s project to translate anew Brecht’s complete poems. Ranging from the delicate, literary, erotic and plainly pornographic, here’s yet more evidence (should we need it) of Brecht’s breadth as a poet. The Introduction also reveals that Brecht refused to award any prizes in a poetry competition he was asked to judge – because none of the poems successfully communicated anything of any value to anybody, they were all of no use.

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Maggie Butt’s new collection is published by The London Magazine and contains work from the period in which she also published the themed books Ally Pally Prison Camp(Oversteps, 2011) and Sancti-Clandestini – Undercover Saints (Ward-Wood, 2012). Though miscellaneous in nature, it is time that dominates this book – historical time in a variety of European locations and personal time in several moving elegies and acts of remembrance.

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KG Confidential: a festschrift for Katherine Gallagher is a wonderful tribute to one of the great movers and shakers in poetry (in London and in her native Australia and in translation from the French). These tributes of poems or prose include contributions from Liz Berry, Jane Duran, Kate Foley, Mimi Khalvati and Les Murray.

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Up-dated October 2015

Alan Brownjohn’s new book is full of excellent poems, several of which (a few decades ago) would have been designated ‘secret narratives’. The title poem, ‘A Bottle’, is a strange noir thriller set in some undefined coastal region, an enigma of messages, relationships, landscape and murder. Always surprising; no let up in vigour and inventiveness.

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Kate Foley’s ‘The Don’t Touch Garden’ (Arachne Press) is a treatment of adoption to rival Jackie Kay’s ‘The Adoption Papers’. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall” the old joke says, “I am my mother after all”. But which one? Brilliantly focused and carefully sequenced, these poems provide a thrilling and moving account of the processes by which any of us – adopted or not – become who we are.

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Agenda’s ‘Family Histories’ issue has poems from Tony Curtis, Claire Crowther, Sean Street, Peter McDonald, Sheenagh Pugh, Maitreyabandhu and Danielle Hope, an interview with Robin Robertson and reviews of Abse, Hugo Williams, Sebastian Barker, Bryce, Liardet, McVety and Eilean Ni Chuilleanain.

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The new issue of Stand  has tributes to the late John Silkin from John Matthias and Anne Stevenson. I remember seeing Silkin selling Stand in the late 1970s on the campus at Lancaster University. This issue also has new poems from Muldoon, Mort, Valerie Jack, Sam Gardiner and (even) Martyn Crucefix.

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