This year for literature study we will be focusing mostly on the other side of the pond, but first we are spending a few weeks on 20th century American writers. It's not enough time, but we read a smattering of 20th century American poets a few years ago when we did our poetry unit. So we'll do what we can and move on. And hey, we're showing solidarity with our brick and cinder block counterparts by upholding that sacred educational tradition of never finishing the book, right?
So, last week we read some Cather ("A Wagner Matinée") and Frost. When I was a young, misguided high school student, I didn't have much use for Frost. He seemed so old-fashioned and, well, boring. I set him aside and luxuriated in Whitman. But with age comes experience and wisdom and a proper perspective. I'm sorry, Mr. Frost. I didn't understand back then. I'm smarter now, and I think I'm starting to get it.
My children's literature book includes an excerpt of an interview Frost gave to the New York Times in 1923, after he won his first Pulitzer Prize. Here's some of what he said:
Today almost every man who writes poetry confesses his debt to Whitman. Many have gone very much further than Whitman would have traveled with them. They are the people who believe in wide straddling.
I, myself, as I said before, don't like it for myself. I do not write free verse; I write blank verse. I must have the pulse beat of rhythm. I like to hear it beating under the things I write.
That doesn't mean I do not like to read a bit of free verse occasionally. I do. It sometimes succeeds in painting a picture that is very clear and startling. It's good as something created momentarily for its sudden startling effect; it hasn't the qualities, however, of something lastingly beautiful.
And sometimes my objection to it is that it's a pose. It's not honest. When a man sets out consciously to tear up forms and rhythms and measures, then he is not interested in giving you poetry. He just wants to perform; he wants to show you his tricks. He will get an effect; nobody will deny that, but it is not a harmonious effect.
Sometimes it strikes me that the free-verse people got their idea from incorrect proof sheets. I have had stuff come from the printers with lines half left out or positions changed about. I read the poems as they stood, distorted and half finished, and I confess I get a rather pleasant sensation from them. They make a sort of nightmarish half-sense . . . .
(Reprinted in Elements of Literature: Fifth Course. Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 2000 ed.)
If I were to start a blog today, I think I would call it "Birches." The banner would have a photo of a landscape with birch trees, and the subtitle would be the last line of Frost's magnificent poem:
"So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
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 not 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.
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.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches." (Robert Frost, "Birches," ll. 41-59)
Of course, I do know where things are likely to go better. But man, what a poem! Earth is indeed "the right place for love," especially when you're "weary of considerations" (what a line!). And the image of the climbing and swinging back down--actually, the being gently set back down (by whom?)--both of which are good "going and coming back," strikes me as a perfect picture of vocation, of the daily pattern of trying, succeeding, and failing that is the life of a human being.
One could indeed do worse than be a swinger of birches.