Saturday, June 28, 2008

Raiding My Anthologies - Some Favourite Poems 4

Reading the poems of Robert Frost (1874-1963) has always been a pleasant task and has always proved rewarding for me.  I remember reading his more anthologised poems as a boy and I enjoyed them, but those are not the ones to which I find myself returning.  The poems I find myself returning to again and again are those poems which have a beguilingly familiar and charmingly innocent rural facade, but then as the reader engages with the poem often a very pessimistic and menacing undertone trips the reader up.  We all associate Frost with New England and with farming.  However, he was born on the West Coast - San Francisco to be exact - but moved East with his family upon the death of his father when Robert was only 11.

The poet Robert Frost was a great man to capture the "rural speech" of America and while lecturing always told his students that they must of necessity account for the sound of the human voice in their craft.  This advice appeals to me because as I have stated numerous times in these posts, poems are meant to be read aloud with the voice and ears fully engaged.  Anyway Robert divided his long life of 88 years to farming and lecturing.  he was the recipient of some four Pulitzer prizes and was awarded numerous Doctorates.  One of the honours he had, an honour that appeals to me as an Irishman, was reading at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration.

It does not surprise me that there was a history of mental health problems in Robert's family and I feel that this accounts for the menacing undertone we get in many of his poems.  Both he and his wife suffered from depression.  Frost had to commit both his sister Jeanie and his daughter Irma to psychiatric hospitals at various stages and his son Carol committed suicide at 38.

The poems that instantly come to my mind from my time at college are:  "After Apple Picking", "Fire and Ice", "Mending Wall", "Nothing Gold Can Stay",  "Once By the Pacific", "Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening", "Directive", "Out, Out" and  "Acquainted With The Night" and "Desert Places".  We did all these and more with the late John Devitt, RIP.  Those lectures and tutorials with John were always mind-blowing.  I could equally as well place any one of these poems below.  However, for today's raid I have been literally tripped up in my stride by "Acquainted With The Night" and also by "Desert Places"  As a sufferer from depression I can readily associate with the deeper and darker sentiments of both these poems.  However, one poem is enough for any one post and so I append here the words of "Desert Places."  Read and enjoy!  Also it's no harm, too, if a poem disturbs us.  We do not always go to literature to be comforted.  we often go to be confirmed in our suffering, confirmed in our condition as human beings that we are not only ones who feel this or that or the other way.  At any rate, if enjoy is an inappropriate word, at least be consoled that we live a shared condition.

Desert Places
by: Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

From "A Further Range", 1936

Above a picture of Robert Frost in old age.

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