Nixing Frost

Robert Frost (1874-1963) provided one of the most convincing, and one of the most unhelpful definitions of poetry ever uttered.  He said that ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation’.

This seems convincing to me since it alludes to what is ineffable in poetry: poetry can move us to tears though it breaks every poetic convention; it may rhyme, it may not, it may be formed of disciplined stanzas, it may not – and so on.  Yet this definition is unhelpful because it will never really enable you to recognise poetry when you see it.

Frost’s blank verse poems are often sensational (‘Out, Out -’), and sometimes merely very, very good (‘Mending Wall’).  He could write poetry, there’s no doubt about that: and he had an insight into the nature of poetry.

So how comes it that he wrote a suppurating piece of tripe like ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’?

I mean, how?

Everything is wrong with this poem.  Everything.

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.

Let’s start with the title.  When a poem is as short as this one, a title that’s about as long as the first stanza is probably not a good move.  Also, it has the demerit of revealing everything that happens in the poem.  Oh I know, I know – poetry is not necessarily about events or stories: but you must admit that giving half the game away before you kick off is a bit of a blunder.

Next: Frost has chosen a very specific rhyming scheme for the first two stanzas (A,A,B,A, C,C,D,C), yet he abandons it in the final two (E,E,F,E, F,F,F,F,).  Is there some point to this?  Does he really want five of the final eight lines to rhyme?  I myself suspect that he got lazy.  And I don’t like it when I suspect that writers settle for whatever fits.  It makes me Fing angry.

I want them to have been sweating bone marrow while searching for the perfect word, the perfect combination of images: and then I want that word, or those images, to drop on me from above like an anvil with ‘ACME’ stencilled on the side of it.

And repeating the final line?  Hackery.  Hackery and shite.

We’re not at the worst of it yet (I’m saving that up), but there are a few more incompetencies to go.  Such as the lines ‘My little horse must think it queer/To stop without a farmhouse near’.

Let’s look at them again, in instant replay, as it were:

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near

Little horse?  Obviously ‘little’ is in there to keep the syllable count consistent: but that just means it’s there to make up the numbers, and again, that’s lazy writing.  Because a little horse has a name already.  It’s what we call a pony.  In any case these lines are so nauseatingly saccharine that you rather expect them to have been written by a character in an Enid Blyton book.  I can picture the scene now:

‘Oh do read us your poem Jo, go on, we’d all so like to hear it!’
‘But you know I’m terribly, terribly bad at writing, Hill – oh please don’t make me.’
‘What you need, Jo,’ said Claire the Head Girl firmly, ‘is to show a bit more spunk.  Here, I’ll read it.’  And so saying, Claire snatched the poem from Jo’s small, trembling white hands, and began to read in a strong, clear voice: ‘My little horse must think it queer…’

And as if that My Little Pony moment wasn’t enough, Frost goes and does it again!  ‘He gives his harness bells a shake/To ask if there is some mistake.’  Now the horse isn’t merely cutesy, it’s communicating via campanology.

The poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ contains, of course, a metaphor for death: possibly suicide.  Lovely – tres, tres emo, and all that.  Good to see a poet take on big themes.

But why, why in the name of suffering Calliope did Frost write a poem about mortality using this heinous, hobby-horse rhythm?  Read it aloud to yourself: ‘My little horse must think it queer/To stop without a farmhouse near’.  De-dum, de-dum, de-dumpty-dee…

Was Frost deaf at this point in his career?  Was he maddened by psylocibin and tertiary syphilis?  W – to make use of internet patois – TF?

Only one other poem in the English language that I’m aware of distorts its subject matter with a rhythm as incongruous as Frost’s: ‘The Raven’, by Edgar Allan Poe.

Rhythm is important to poetry.  It must serve the themes of the poem: if possible it should be an integral part of their expression.  If it doesn’t, it can bring the whole poem crashing into ruin.

When Kenneth Slessor wrote the lines

Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam

you can hear the rhythm of the sea.  You can hear the waves slowly breaking on the sand.  And crucially, you can hear that they don’t break quite regularly: because waves don’t.

And when Shakespeare wrote ‘When I do count the clock that tells the time’ you can hear the clock ticking in the iambs.

If Frost had simply been a doggerel merchant, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ would be a perfectly understandable piece of dross.  Since we know that he could do better, there are no excuses.

Sometimes poetry is what is destroyed by a rhythm.

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.

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4 responses to “Nixing Frost

  1. I am so enjoying these poetry salons!
    You provided a much-needed morning laugh, thanks.

  2. My pleasure!

    Dug your ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ review too – way to cut someone down to size!

  3. Ouch. I spend a lot of time working on introducing Frost’s other work (besides this one) to kids — admittedly he’s one of my favorites. My favorite trick is creating cognitive dissonance by asking kids to explain how the speaker can tell the difference between the two roads in “The Road Not Taken” when they’re both covered in leaves. Embrace the silence.

    Can’t defend this poem from your analysis. Skewered, stick a fork in it, it’s done. But I am going to go back and read “After Apple-Picking” for a return to Frost and mortality.

    • Just re-read ‘After Apple-Picking’. Goose-bumps all over. It’s bloody brilliant. Thanks for bringing that one up.

      How did I forget to include it in this post?

      Love the question to the kids, too – you’ve got a delightful mean-streak, Ted.

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