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Robert Frost as “terrifying poet” of a frozen inner landscape

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, a deeply moving, lovely, and troubling meditation on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by literature professor H. William Rice, whose father, a Methodist minister, suffered through a transformative depression when Rice was a child and read Frost (among other things) in order to cope with it:

[This] is the first poem I remember reading and appreciating. . . . I first read the poem because my father told me to. He was a Methodist minister and a bit more intellectual than most ministers. I thought that if I read the books he read, I would be smart. But the Frost book he pointed me to was different; it turned out he read it to cope with depression. I can still remember the tattered paperback with white-haired Frost — who was born 139 years ago, on March 26 — looking wistful on the cover.

. . . . My memories of that period in my father’s life are vague, but I do remember how he changed. Subtle qualities of his laugh, his smile, his very presence vanished and never reappeared. There was the father I had before his depression and the father I had after. He was always a good parent, a dutiful husband, and a diligent minister. But the man who survived depression was chastened in ways I could never describe with words.

. . . . Peering into the poem’s ominous shadows with my students, I found that world a scary place. It is “the darkest evening of the year”; the only sound is the “the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” For the person who is depressed, the somber winter landscape mirrors the dark, frozen world inside. It could seem as if one has finally gotten to the heart of life itself, and there is nothing there.

. . . . At the celebration of Frost’s 85th birthday, Lionel Trilling described Frost as “a terrifying poet.” When I first read his work, I would have wondered what could be terrifying about snow falling in the woods on a winter’s evening. The landscape of the poem reminded me of a Currier & Ives print. But Frost captures the essence of depression in the poem’s understated simplicity, as if depression itself is the ultimate understatement: the inability to see anything beyond a frozen landscape.

More here: “Sharing Those Woods, Dark and Deep

And here’s Frost himself, reciting the poem in its entirety, prefaced by a brief but effective introduction narrated by Garrison Keillor, who describes the poem’s famous origin in a burst of inspiration of almost hallucinatory vividness after Frost had worn himself out writing through the depths of a sleepless night:

“We will never be out of these woods” – The terrors and pleasures of Robert Frost

We are on a routine journey home; we are on the threshold of the universe, serenity mingling with awe; we are far from civilization and terribly near the ancient fears: separation, insignificance, darkness. (“He will not see me stopping” is one false step from “He will not hear me screaming.”) The boundaries between these conditions, never more than what we impose in order to stay sane, evaporate. And then comes the end, and another doubling — the most explicit one Frost ever wrote:

And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.

It is the greatest pan-out in the history of verse. We draw away from a man alone in the woods and see man, alone in the woods. As the scale expands, the world diminishes, becomes a snow globe, shaken. And right then, just as we are grasping the nature of our situation — we’re fine; we’re exhilarated; we’re terrified — Frost has the balls to vanish. But he brought us here in the first place! He said we were about to head home! — but no. We are stopping here. We are midway through our journey, no Virgil, no nothing, alone, and this place we are in (like this poem we are in) is lovely. And it is dark. And it is deep. Translation: We are lucky to be here; we are sane to be scared; we are not getting out anytime soon. In point of fact, we are not getting out at all. Not in this lifetime, anyway. We will never be out of these woods.

— Kathryn Schulz, “Schulz on the Terrors and Pleasures of Robert Frost,” Vulture, June 3, 2012


Image credit: Musings

The scholar as poet, and vice versa

Here’s wishing a happy 2007 to whoever’s reading this. The holiday break is now over and I’m back in my classroom, typing these words on my lunch hour. In the past I’ve been seriously and dramatically demotivated about the imminent resumption of my teaching duties after a brief break, but none of them compares to the supreme disdain and inertia that have taken hold of me at present. Who knows how this will turn out? It’s a struggle even to contemplate performing the various activities associated with the job.

On a completely different note, some years ago, after I had already spent several years working through the graduate program in religious studies at Missouri State University, and also the teacher certification program for secondary English, I began to reflect on the kind of scholarship I had pursued. I had already written a long paper examining Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a nihilistic parable about the destructive interplay between objective science and visionary fervor in Western culture. I had written the initial version of a paper, which I later expanded to greater length, that read the biblical book of Isaiah as a horror story in which Yahweh plays the part of a (roughly) Lovecraftian extracosmic monster. I had written a couple of papers about Thomas Ligotti and his works. I had written a paper that argued for the ability of modern horror films with their combination of self-reflexiveness and hardcore gore to serve as spurs to a psychological-spiritual experience of felt transcendence. And there was more. My professors and instructors had all been very generous in allowing me to pursue my horror-oriented interests within the boundaries of their various subject areas (literature, psychology, film studies, philosophy, religion).

It was after I had written all of these papers that I began to notice in retrospect that while I was quite good at using the typical scholarly apparatuses to present my ideas — e.g., the extended paper with its scholarly schema of notes and references — I was completely uninterested in the traditional scholarly goal or approach of pursuing and manufacturing knowledge for its own sake. In fact, I was pretty much unable to undertake any project at all unless it ignited a kind of fire within me — that is, unless it resonated with a kind of internal homing beacon (as it were) that was constantly on the lookout for sympathetic subject matter. This was far more than simply saying that I was interested in some things and uninterested in others. Everybody can say that. All scholars pursue lines of thought and research that interest them, and only enter into their respective fields to begin with because they find them interesting and enjoyable. But I felt as if I were positively driven to attend to certain things and pursue certain projects, and that short of feeling that drive, I was incapacitated from the start.

This led me to start speculating about the concept of “scholarship as poetry,” scholarship pursued in the interest of a kind of visionary drive more akin to the poetic impulse than the traditional scholarly one which values research and the pursuit (and production) of knowledge for its own sake. I couldn’t help viewing the latter approach as dry and dead, at least when I considered trying to adopt it myself.

Then, as often happens, I stumbled across a passage written by another author that articulated exactly what I had been trying to say to myself. It occurred after I had attained the master’s degree and the teaching certificate and had worked as a high school teacher for two or three years. And it happened here at school, at my job, in the classroom where I now sit typing these words. The author was none other than Robert Frost, the 20th century American poet par excellence. I had stumbled across a volume of his complete poetry in the school library and had brought it back to the classroom to browse. The book opened with Frost’s essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” and I sat mesmerized as I read him state my meaning with vibrant clarity as he first explained his experience of writing poems and then ended with a brilliant distinction between the fundamental working modes of the poet and the scholar:

“For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from a cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seems always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.

….”But the logic is backward, in retrospect, after the act. It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader. For it to be that there must have been the greatest freedom of the material to move about in it and to establish relations in it regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity.

….”Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge, but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of knowledge; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs when they walk in the fields. No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild freeways of wit and art. A schoolboy may be defined as one who can tell you what he knows in the order in which he learned it. The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old places where it was organic.”

How well I know that feeling of fullness, of “unexpected supply,” that Frost writes about. It’s awesomely exhilarating when one sits down to write (or to compose music or pursue any other artistic endeavor) and discovers that the fund, the well, the supply of emotional impressions and imagery, is right there for the using and is ready to arise as needed. The thing is, I encounter that experience not only when I write fiction but when I write nonfiction as well. And in that regard I am inclined and even driven, as Frost describes, to remove all types of impressions from their customary contexts and assign a kind of proprietary meaning to them. But in the category of “impressions” I’m including not just sensory and emotional experiences but concepts and data as well. I’m including items drawn from wide-ranging reading in whatever field it is that I’m studying in preparation for writing a given project. I organize these things around a thesis — and indeed I formulate the thesis itself — more in the spirit of, and in the pursuit of the emotional resonance of, poetry or fiction than in the pursuit of scholarly precision. I produce scholarship as a kind of fiction that speaks to me emotionally.

So this probably makes me a lousy scholar. And maybe a lousy fiction writer as well. In any event, here endeth the lesson.