Friday, March 07, 2008

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening": A thank-you

How exactly does one thank a poem? Let's give it a try, because I owe this one a big one.

Way leads on to way . . .

This recent post by Cordelia over at Phenomenal Field--be sure to click on the image to enlarge it--reminded Yours Truly of Robert Frost's poem "The Wood-pile" (which you should go have a look at (the poem, I mean)--don't worry: I'll wait), and that reminded me of the good things that happened in class yesterday when I taught (again) Frost's most famous poem. I've used it each semester for, oh, the past six or so years as a sort of entree into The Meridian's Way to Talk about PoetryTM (which pretty much consists of just asking a bunch of questions. A dark art, talking about poetry).

Here's the poem--not that you don't already know it, but just so you have it in front of you:

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.

The Wikipedia entry, by the way, is, by its own admission, stumpy, but it does serve as a useful and encouraging reminder that this poem is very much present in the mainstream American collective unconscious.

The thank-you below the fold.

The first thing that is so remarkable about this poem to me is that, short and simple (but not simplistic) as it is, and talking about it as I do with classes that at best are indifferent to poetry, it's the rare discussion that runs shorter than an hour. Some of that, to be sure, is my modeling of the above-mentioned Way to Talk about PoetryTM, but only some. The far greater proportion of the work is the students'.

And what do we spend all that time saying? That's the second remarkable thing.

Sure: it's a familiar poem to many of my students, and so we get the usual familiar comments. "It's about death." "It's about being tired." "Someone told me it's about Santa Claus." But despite teaching this poem at least three and sometimes four times a semester for the past six years, in each class someone has said something about it that I hadn't heard before. Just yesterday, for example, someone noted that, while the first and fourth stanzas are pretty standard lyric, the speaker musing to himself, in the second and third stanzas he seems to become self-conscious: it's as though he becomes aware of an audience other than himself, as though, through the lines about the horse, he sees himself. In past discussions, I'd placed more attention on the horse and how we don't really know what the horse is thinking, so the speaker's guesses have their origin in himself and not in the horse. What appeals to me about my student's comment is that it keeps us in the poem's world--or, more precisely, in the speaker's head. It's moments like that that keep me using it, and looking forward to using it. It has yet to go stale on me.

A teacher could not ask for a more teachable poem, or a more student-friendly poem (not necessarily the same thing). It's easily accessible, easy to discuss, but the fact that we regularly talk about it for more than an hour indicates that it's not an easy poem to exhaust. It embodies the difference between saying and suggesting--and, thus, that there's no need to know just what those promises are or to whom the speaker has made them. No symbols or vocabulary to worry about (though, one memorable evening, a student asked if the horse was gay). It serves as a helpful starting point for talking about formal elements such as meter and rhyme, and even, growing out of that, a little set piece that I have where I speculate that its rhyme scheme may help reinforce the sense of the speaker's felt tension between his personal desires and his obligations to others.

So, thank you for this poem, a marvel in its simplicity, with that gorgeous line, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Thank you for enriching my students' lives, and my own as a teacher--that is, for turning me into a student again every time I teach it.

I started this post early this morning; as it happened, All Things Considered had this story about some recently-discovered 1940's lectures by Frost at Dartmouth. Fun to listen to.


Pam said...

Just this week, after Katherine in the lab introduced us to another poet (Li) - I was just marveling at how incredible words were, when strung together in certain ways - and to me, the more simple the words, the more profound the beauty - like Frost's gorgeous line 'lovely, dark, and deep' -- and I thought about how I generally assessed 'beauty' as something visual (thinking 'image' here) but that a few words, only a few, can be beautiful beyond...yes, words (and how ironic that phrase is, when words can be beautiful beyond image).

(All of which was influenced by the last line of the Jane Miller poem 'Poetry':

'...that we are being made into words even as we speak.'

Words are simply amazing 'things'.

Just rambling. It's the first Saturday I've had at home and relatively unencumbered in weeks.

R. Sherman said...

I second Pam's remarks and add only that to my mind, poetry is the most difficult of literary genre's for the precise reason she states -- creating clarity from brevity.


Amy said...

You are right, John. there is so much to notice about this poem. So I stopped and noticed...

This poem is like an incantation. It is dream-like, touches on mystery, yet simple, plain and pure. The words are good old words. Not one has more than two syllables. The "sound" of this poem is most important, to me. You hear it whether it is read out loud or not.

The poem's rhyme scheme clip clops along like a horse, yet the poem is about stopping and noticing something– the woods transformed by snow. Then realizing (shaken harness bells) you have stopped to notice and that is unusual.

What has been noticed: woods, with beauty that is "lovely, dark and deep."

And would those words be so beautiful without the tension and balance of "promises to keep" and "miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep"...

Sleep. The word sounds like its meaning here (onomatopoeic), and I feel that sleepy, dreamy quality. Then on Wikipedia I read that he wrote it in the morning after staying up all night writing and it makes sense.

This poem makes me feel like a child again, when the meanings of words, and the actual things they represented, "snow" and "woods" and "horse" and "farmhouse" and "frozen lake" and "sleep" seemed primal, full of mystery, depth and simplicity. It's like a little bedtime story. To me.

John B. said...

Thanks to the three of you for your wonderful comments. Amy, I'll just say, regarding the 4th stanza, that I make it a point to mention to my students that the vowel sounds in "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" make us slow down, but the line that follows has clipped vowel sounds that encourage a faster pass through that line . . . then the weariness of "miles to go." Which is to say--and here I'll bring in Pam's observation as well--for me it's that lingering in line 13 that causes me to look into those woods . . . but there's nothing to see except the speaker's judgment about them. He's bewitched, no? The woods as a siren song. Maybe the beauty of those lines arises from his unrequited rendezvous with the woods.

That line always reminds me also of Coleridge's line from Kubla Khan, "But oh! that deep romantic chasm," so I know that Coleridge is causing a bit of interference in me as well as I think about Frost's poem.

I need to stop here, lest this turn into a post-length comment.

Anonymous said...

I like the way that "sweep" in the third stanza anticipates the "-eep" ryhmes of stanza four. It also fits as a kind of semantic echo: the sweep of wind and flake is exactly what makes his mind wander until it settles on his promises, the miles he has to cover and the sleep he has to forgo.

I like the indeterminacy going through it: the fact that they are in transit; also that he thinks he knows who owns the wood; the horse is surprised because they've stopped half-way between half-way houses.

Also there is a kind of leaving of the self - if that's not too badly put: use of "I" and "me" disappears for nine lines. I would suggest that this is because part of the reason the narrator wants to stop is that he'll forget himself, become indeterminate. In the describing of the scene without him in it, he finds comfort.

Something similar happens in my favourite Frost poem, "Moon Compasses":

I stole forth dimly in the dripping pause
Between two downpours to see what there was.
And a masked moon had spread down compass rays
To a cone mountain in the midnight haze,
As if the final estimate were hers;
And as it measured in her calipers
The mountain stood exalted in its place.
So love will take between the hands a face . . .

Again with the indertiminacy, the inbetween. But what I'm interested in is everything after "haze". It's an uncommonly beautiful image, with so much to say about it. I won't bore you, but, safe as to say, the narrators midnight travels have brought himself outside of himself, nature has illuminated human life through repeating it.

Here's a poem you might like, by Ted Hughes, "Full Moon and Little Frieda":

A cool small evening shrunk to a dog bark and the clank of a bucket -
And you listening.
A spider's web, tense for the dew's touch.
A pail lifted, still and brimming - mirror
To tempt a first star to a tremor.

Cows are going home in the lane there, looping the hedges with their warm
wreaths of breath -
A dark river of blood, many boulders,
Balancing unspilled milk.
'Moon!' you cry suddenly, 'Moon! Moon!'

The moon has stepped back like an artist gazing amazed at a work
That points at him amazed.