Marveling Without Sentiment

Shulman and Kerr

Marveling Without Sentiment

Shulman and Kerr

Marveling Without Sentiment
New books dissected over email.
April 1 1999 7:04 PM

Shulman and Kerr

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Dear Polly,

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Trees? When I was about 7, many of the majestic trees in my midwestern hometown succumbed to Dutch elm disease and had to be cut down and hauled away. The hulking canopies in my family's front yard were replaced by saplings so skinny it was easy to confuse them with weeds. Ever so slowly, they grew up to become charming but undistinguished shrimps. We called them "the garbage trees." What I'm trying to say is that I wish I had a better feeling for this subject. I'd like to recite old lore about the birch, but I've been tree-deprived for most of my life.

Over the last year, however, I have spent some time in an area of upstate New York that is not quite the same as Frost's dear New England, but not so different either. Get up in the morning in a landscape like this and one is forced to bear witness, in one's ignorant and awestruck way, to an infinitely complex cycle. It's consoling and intimidating. And the most natural thing (no pun intended) is to try to connect the dots to human life. Carry a wilted flower or a leftover turnip out to the compost heap and you think of how death means food for the future. Look at the sick, bald willow that hosts a family of chattering birds, and you marvel at how a thing can be leaving life behind and contributing to life at the same time.

It's so hard to marvel without becoming sentimental: But that's what Frost does in his nature poems. He treats nature as a coming and going (often with a slight emphasis on the going). He avoids the pathetic fallacy. Trees and birds and ponds and berries in his poems don't have humanlike feelings at all. But nature does offer a system that you can usefully compare to human feelings, or human lives. And Frost is all about comparison. Find a good metaphor, he wrote some younger poet in a letter of advice in one of the biographies--the Meyers, I think--and you can't help but write strong poetry. I thought Parini was especially insightful on the way in which so many of Frost's nature poems can be seen as metaphors for the creative impulse, and thus indirectly for poetry itself. For example, "Hyla Brook," about a fragile little brook on Frost's farm that dried up every June, suggests the need to go underground--to save energy and do your thing out of sight for a while.

Anyway, I'm afraid I've let time get away from me here. Outside, it has begun to drizzle. If I were Frost I would write a poem about the darkening sky that could do double duty as a metaphorical code to announce that this entry is late, and it's time to go. Not being so gifted, I'll just tell you straight, and prepare to sign off.

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In reading these biographies and dipping into the poems this week, I've been struck by Frost's dazzle as a performer. But you, too, are right. He needed solitude more than he needed an audience. He was a poet more than a showman. Thank you for bringing us back to the poems, which are the most important things of all. In closing, I'll answer your question from the other day. You asked me to name a place I like in which Frost mischievously refers to some other work of literature. Here's an example (very broadly speaking, Dante) that is also (very broadly speaking) a nature poem, not to mention a classic of Frost's gloomy wit.

"Fire and Ice"

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

All best,
Sarah

 

 

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Polly Shulman is a senior editor at Discover magazine. Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. This week they discuss Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini (click here to buy the book).