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.

Poetry at Palmers Green: live review (April 2016)

When reviewing my first year of blogging on poetry and related matters (see blogI said I wanted to review more live events. That has not happened really but this week I wanted to rectify that to some degree.

Last Saturday I drove a few miles north to Palmers Green, best known to the poetry world of course, as the home ground of Stevie Smith who moved there when she was three years old. She was educated at Palmers Green High School and North London Collegiate School for Girls and lived in the area until her death in 1971. I first became aware of the current poetry activity in the area a few years ago when I went to readings at the bookshop in the High Street run by Joanna Cameron.

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Stevie Smith in the park in Palmers Green

But in 2006 the Palmers Green Bookshop was forced to close, the lease was sold on and I think it was an opticians that opened in its place. Since then a number of local poets and enthusiasts have been keeping poetry alive with 6 monthly poetry readings at Stevie’s church, St John’s, N13 4AL. The readings take place in the Parish Centre adjoining the church and are always friendly and well-programmed evenings. I’d recommend them if you’re in the area (Contacts: Katherine Gallagher  or Myra Schneider and on Facebook).

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The evening was introduced with clarity and authority by Lynda How and readings took place as the April evening sun set outside. The Parish Centre looks at first a little soulless but with its shades-of-yellow decor, surprisingly tasteful lighting and pitched wedding-cake-white roof it is actually a venue which has a good acoustic and a disarming and warm atmosphere. The first reader was Danielle Hope, whose new book is Mrs Uomo’s Yearbook (Rockingham Press, 2015) from which she read the entertaining and instantly recognisable out-of-season seaside resort description  ’Llandudno Winter’. Recognisable to most of the audience it seemed and as I spent a couple of years in digs in Morecambe I knew the “please-remove-wet-shoes-at-door / heating-on-from-seven-to-eight / no-radiator-in-bar / low-watt-lamps” guesthouse. Her translations from the Italian are also impressive (Montale’s ‘Eastbourne’) and the Mrs Uomo poems manage to combine humour and acute observation with a more serious satirical edge. Mrs Uomo teaches her cat economics at one point but more poignantly is left awaiting an operation having “improved against [the NHS] recently refreshed thresholds”. Hope works as a doctor in London and knows what she is talking about here and her poems are always a pleasure to listen to delivered in a colloquial, un-stylised fashion.

In contrast, Mario Petrucci read slowly and deliberately from crib (Enitharmon Press, 2014) which is a selection from the 111 poems he wrote during the first year of his son’s life (Mario was kind enough to allude to my own efforts in this topic area (see A Madder Ghost)). Petrucci’s work (especially in recent years) is much concerned with language as an object/medium in itself (hence his delivery). He spoke about his interest in the “deckle edge” of language where it begins to fade and dissolve and on the page he accentuates the thingi-ness of words with mostly very short lines, unpredictable line breaks, sometimes dividing words across line breaks.

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The cover image of crib is of a child sleeping in almost pitch darkness – a metaphor Petrucci suggested for the way language itself struggles to communicate, picking from the mass of experience a highlight here or there. This from ‘i fish’:

 

in dark

with dark

as spool &

 

mark him

sparely

move

 

as if

i sought

magnified

 

on glass slide

that form

 

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Gill McEvoy’s most recent pamphlet The First Telling (HappenStance, 2014) won the Michael Marks award in 2014. McEvoy’s delivery is rather more actor-ish, her voice taking on the inflections and tones of the character felt to be speaking the poems themselves. I’m never wholly convinced this is the way I (personally) want to hear poems read (I’m even more uneasy about poets who have learned texts in order to ‘act them out’). But McEvoy’s work – especially in The First Telling, which deals with rape and its aftermath – is easily powerful enough to overcome any misgivings I might have had. Her poems are often brief and delicate and disturbing:

 

I touch the cigarette

 

to my arm.

Here.

And here.

 

I can’t talk about it.

 

I could touch this fuse

to my chair.

I could watch it catch.

I could watch it flame

to roaring fury.

 

Counterpointing such troubling pieces, McEvoy scatters even briefer poems on birds which comment obliquely on the human narrative. Petrucci had earlier commented on the importance of the silence after a poem has been read aloud and in the intervals between many of these poems – at least while the evening light held out beyond the windows – I could hear the occasional twitter and cheep of birds in the churchyard grounds. A rather lovely accompaniment.

After the interval there were 8 floor readers. The quality of the work was high (not always the case where venues welcome floor readers) but I was struck by the number of people reading from electronic devices – phones and iPads. Of the main readers several read from their books (traditional) others from folders where the poems seemed to be printed and ordered for the occasion (the well-prepared; the short sighted). I can see the latter becoming more likely in relation to my own eye-sight but I have to say I prefer to see poets read from their books (assuming the work is published) and I can’t help think that the sight of the book cover waving around up there does something for after-reading sales too.

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Simon Richey read from his first book, Naming the Tree from Oversteps Books. I’m ashamed to say I know little of his work (though he later confessed to me that he has hardly ever attended a poetry workshop, so perhaps he has just not been very visible on the ‘circuit’). I thought his work was very interesting indeed, sharing something of Petrucci’s concerns with language but also developing threads of thought and emotional responses alongside.

 

Somewhere
the meaning of a word,

 

before it becomes a word,
waits in the silence. It is as if

 

it has come as far as it can go
without being uttered. In a moment

 

it will change from one thing
into another, or its meaning

 

will tremble into a word,
into something barely familiar,

 

finding itself spoken,
finding itself understood.

 

Several of the pieces were prose poems – one a series of sections, called ‘The Darkness’, about the night-wanderings of cats as well as about the night-wanderings of their owner’s mind.

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The final reader was Mo Gallacio whose marvellously rich reading voice (she is a trained actress) leant itself to both Scots and English verse, triumphantly avoiding that actor-voice that seems either to value the rotund vowels and the crisply planted consonants over and above the emotional tides of a piece of writing, or to emote all over the poetic text so heavily that the language and form of the poem is swamped and made unhearable. ‘Purple Iris’ is an especially moving poem about the incurable illness of a neighbour. Gallacio’s own struggles with cancer form the basis for a number of poems; in one she asks the nurse how she will feel after surgery – the nurse’s reply: like you’ve been stabbed! Gallacio’s evident love of and attentiveness to flowers and plants echoed McEvoy’s acutely observed birds and the evening ended with a celebratory bunch of brightly trumpeting daffodils (no more than £1 from Tescos) suggesting – with a nod to the Edward Thomas of ‘March’ perhaps – that Spring is most definitely HERE.

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