Thursday, August 25, 2016

The question that he frames in all but words - Frost's Mountain Interval

Mountain Interval (1916), Robert Frost’s third book, and third book of poems in four years, is more lyrics than dialogues, with a variety of forms, sonnets and so on (plus a few longer blank verse dialogues, just like those in North of Boston) beginning with “The Road Not Taken,” now, somehow, something like the most famous American poem because of the illusion that it contains a self-congratulatory self-help message.  I guess.

My favorite Frost poem, the one I remembered most strongly since the last time I read Frost with any seriousness, is in this book:

from ‘Out, Out –‘

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood.
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.

An accident occurs, the one maybe you were expecting, even given the distraction of those mountains and that sweet smell.  The boy who is injured “saw all / Since he was old enough to know.”  The title is from Macbeth, but we get a look at Frost’s classicism here, as the boy is a perfect Stoic.  The last lines, though, introduce another kind of stoicism:

No more to build on there.  And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

It is a firmly unsentimental poem, neither folksy nor reassuring, an astringent counter-example to the Hallmark card reputation Frost has picked up over the years.

I love this cider-drunk cow, too, drawn from life, I suppose:

The Cow in Apple Time

Something inspires the only cow of late
To make no more of a wall than an open gate,
And think no more of wall builders than fools.
Her face is flecked with pomace and she drools
A cider syrup.  Having tasted fruit,
She scorns a pasture withering to the root.
She runs from tree to tree where lie and sweeten
The windfalls spiked with stubble and worm-eaten.
She leaves them bitten when she has to fly.
She bellows on a knoll against the sky.
Her udder shrivels and the milk goes dry.

The poem echoes – quotes – poems from North of Boston, including “The Mending Wall” and “After Apple-Picking,” suggesting a self-parody.  But Frost produces poems, at least.  Maybe I am the cow, reading delicious poems and producing nothing.  But look at that pasture – there’s no grass left, what am I supposed to do?

I am likely too quick to interpret poems as being about poems, I know, but then I come across “The Oven Bird,” “a singer everyone has heard”:

The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

On the one hand, I see a real bird, its song signaling the end of summer, and on the other, he sounds pretty Frosty.

What a debut.  The next book, New Hampshire, comes in 1923, seven years later, forever, compared to this first burst of poems.

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