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Parlando - Where Music and Words Meet

Poetry has been defined as “words that want to break into song.” Musicians who make music seek to “say something”. Parlando will put spoken words (often, but not always, poetry) and music (different kinds, limited only by the abilities of the performing participants) together. The resulting performances will be short, 2 to 10 minutes in length. The podcast will present them un-adorned. How much variety can we find in this combination? Listen to a few episodes and see. Hear the sound and sense convey other people's stories here at Parlando - Where Music and Words Meet At least at first, the two readers will be a pair of Minnesota poets and musicians: Frank Hudson and Dave Moore who have performed as The LYL Band since the late 70s. Influences include: Patti Smith, Jack Kerouac (and many other “beat poets”), Frank Zappa, Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), William Blake, Alan Moore, The Fugs (Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg), Leo Kottke, Ken Nordine (Word Jazz), Bob Dylan, Steve Reich, and most of the Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico).
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Now displaying: February, 2018
Feb 26, 2018

My son, now a teenager, is aware that I have a podcast, and that it deals with poetry somehow. Limited by his parents in his computer time, and pressingly interested in the other things he’s discovered, he doesn’t listen to it.

But he does want to be helpful. Earlier this month he suggested by asking: “Have you used any poetry by Kahlil Gibran? Have you heard of him?” One of my son’s teachers is from Lebanon, where Gibran was born, and Gibran has come up as a famous Lebanese-American. 

 Had I heard of him? Yes, I recall buying a copy of “The Prophet” as a somewhat older teenager in a bookstore. I think the edition may have included a now disputed quote comparing him to William Blake, and that may have accounted for my purchase then.

Over the decades since it was published in 1923, my decision to purchase “The Prophet” has been replicated millions of times. It’s an extraordinarily popular book, and not one that achieved its popularity by a burst of sales, but by remaining intriguing to readers for 95 years.

I remember reading it in an hour or so later that day. My dorm-roommate read my copy too, but I remember he was puzzled that I had read through it so fast.

Unlike many readers of “The Prophet” I had some background. As a young person I had substantial interest in various kinds of occult, spiritual and mystic writings. Gibran in “The Prophet” didn’t impress me as being very good of type. The stilted sort-of King James Version English seemed effected, the matter it tried to convey seemed newspaper horoscope vague, and the typical trope used to express that matter was a litany of everything is it’s opposite.

That was my opinion as an 18-year-old. It has changed slightly as I briefly revisited Gibran this month in search of something I might want to use. First, I have a much greater appreciation for the struggles of those that try to bridge the culture and language of their birth to the culture and language of their new homes, and in the sections of Gibran that dial-back the hazy mysticism I can now read some elements of humor and satire that I missed on first encounter. I wonder how Gibran’s works in Arabic read to a native speaker. Did he present a different face and voice there than he did to English speakers in America? And what I’ve seen of his artwork does have a Blakean tinge, a combination of classical line with romantic subject matter.

Today’s audio piece, “The Fox” comes from Gibran’s first English language collection “The Madman.” As parables go, it’s quite applicable to the daily grind of creating these pieces. It may not be the camel I set out for, but hopefully it’s a delectable mouse.

 

Feb 20, 2018

I remember reading about this some years back, and found it fascinating then. In my memory it was the American poet, and critic John Crowe Ransom who was the teacher, but in searching this week for more detail, the perpetrator named was English poet and critic I. A. Richards. My memory still says Ransom did something similar, but let’s stay with Richards since I can verify it.

The time frame is the 1920s. The Modernists (due to painful copyright laws, the newest poets whose work can be freely used here by the Parlando Project) had begun their ascendency into the mainstream of English language poetry.  But the Victorian era, including the later work of the Romantics and the whole of the William Morris/Pre-Raphaelite revival that preceded the Modernist revolution was not that long ago, within the memory of teachers and critics alive then, like the post WWII era or “The Sixties” would be today. The Romantics had been a revolution in how poetry speaks, and those that followed them took different paths from that revolution, and now the Modernists proposed a counter-revolution, once more changing how poetry speaks.

Had poetry, in some Platonic ideal state, it’s essence, changed; or had only the language and form it took to express its inner nature changed?

In such at time, the question of aesthetics, of what constitutes poetry and what are (or should be) its goals and effects, would naturally come to the fore. If one is a teacher, one might examine this by teaching, and so Richards devised an experiment. He gave students at Cambridge, a leading English college, a packet of poems which were without the names of their authors or any context about when they were written—they were even without their titles—and asked the students to write about them, to interpret them. I’m not sure if he presupposed what the results would be, but summaries of the experiment report he was surprised at the results. Their interpretations were poor, and often included what he knew to be misinterpretations. The students often resorted to personal experiences or rote sentimentality to explain the poems. As a result, the interpretations of the poems varied considerably as they missed their mark in different directions.

You might think, “Well, duh!” In subsequent theories of literature all these effects have been explained and codified in multiple ways, but at the time, in the 1920s, this was a new finding.  Richards thought this showed a failure of literacy, defined as a kind of higher literacy; not the inability to read basic English, but to read and understand the kind of associative and musical language used by poetry. He spent his life trying to remedy this by teaching. In 1979, while in his eighties, he was still teaching, in China, when he fell ill and died. He wrote a book, titled “Practical Criticism” setting out ways to properly read and derive the effects of a poem.

But the way I heard of the experiment (and this may have been a subsequent experiment, inspired by Richards, perhaps by Ransom) the packet of unattributed poems given to students to interpret included a range of “not great poetry,” pop poetry as printed in mass-market publications as well as the work of more esteemed poets. And the result was the students couldn’t reliably distinguish the great poets from the hacks.

The challenge of the new poetic language of the Modernists, and the experience of teachers like Richards and Ransom demonstrated in this experiment with unattributed poems, lead to what was called “The New Criticism.”

When, a generation later, I began to encounter poetry in school, “The New Criticism” was by far the predominant idea of how poetry should be taught. At the end of my scattered schooling, new theories were arising, Deconstructionism and the like, and I can still recall professors muttering about its willful misunderstandings and mistaken goals as I struggled for money to pay for one more class that would fit into my work schedule.

Now in this century, I know less what happens in schools, but I sense culturally we’re concerned increasingly with the poet as the container that holds the poem and its experience. Some worry about “Identity Politics” and its corelate would be “Identity Poetry,” where the background, ethnic and otherwise, of the poet is integral to the poem. I’m too busy making art to have a coherent philosophy on this. I can easily envision problems arising from a division of poetry into ever smaller spheres where only the right combinations of ingredients can make or appreciate some work. On the other hand, I’m also suspicious of the motives of anyone who claims to hate Identity Politics or Identity Poetry, while showing no interest otherwise in smashing the walls and peeling off the labels from artists for whom those “stick to that” labels and barriers may not be self-chosen.

Oh my, what a long introduction to today’s audio piece! In honor of Richards and Ransom and their experiments, here’s a piece I call “Poetry in Translation” for the purposes of the experiment. I’m not going to give you any more context for the poem used, the author’s name or their ethnic identity. I assure you I’m not in this for “gotcha” or obscure literary one-upmanship. It’s short, so give it a listen and see what you think. I’ll be back later this week with more.

 

Feb 16, 2018

It’s hard to escape the pull of Emily Dickinson here in the Parlando Project, and I keep finding that her poems ask for that unheard music in them to be made audible. So much is remarkable about Dickinson. She’s so original in poetic expression, and yet she’s kept a substantial audience of readers from the time of her first posthumously published collection in the late 19th Century.

Here’s yet another striking fact about her: she wrote over a thousand poems, the majority of her poetic work, roughly around the time of the American Civil War, in a burst of creativity less than a decade long. Can one even imagine what that might have been like? For this means that, on average, over twice a week a new Emily Dickinson poem, a new and unprecedented type of poetry, emerged from her pen.

She shared them somewhat, some of them anyway, with family and friends. She informally bound many of them into little booklets. But did she know what she was accomplishing? What faith drove her creativity?

Today’s words are drawn from a Dickinson poem she wrote halfway into that burst. Unlike some Dickinson poems, the “plot” of the poem is easy enough to follow, and it concludes with a moral, like a conventional poem of moral uplift might. However, like a lot of good art, the experience and meaning of it changes as you bring your own time and times to it.

“We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” starts off in that pre-electric outdoors that we last talked about with Frost’s “Stopping by a Wood on a Snowy Evening.”  On a new moon or overcast night, that old dark is darker than any we routinely experience in modern urban America. Yet, then or now, eyes indeed adjust, and make better use of what weak light may be present. Dickinson next changes the scene and speaks of “Evenings of the Brain” where even moon and starlight are extinguished. Other than Dickinson’s near, but not quite, “slant rhymes,” this is a conventional poem up to this point. But wait there’s a small warning that she’s not going to develop this conventionally. Those evenings inside the brain are a larger thing than the whole of the outdoor night.

Her next metaphor is not Victorian sentiment, but outright slapstick farce. Moving forward in the dark earnestly, the nobly brave—smack! Faceplant into a tree trunk.

This brings ambiguity to her concluding moral. Is becoming accustomed to the dark a good thing? We think we’ve adjusted. We think we’ve steeled ourselves to “Brave”—or maybe we’ve just added that outer darkness to our brain, and we agree to pretend it’s normal. “Life steps almost straight” she concludes. Somehow, at least this week, as I watch our dark world, I don’t think Dickinson intends this as a consolation.

 

Feb 14, 2018

I’ve all but promised, here’s a piece using another poem by the lesser-known early 20th Century poet Anne Spencer. It may even be appropriate for Valentine’s Day--though it’s a somewhat complicated one.

Unlike our first Anne Spencer connected piece, Dunbar, from earlier this month, “Lines to a Nasturtium” is a fancier one, but the doily lace on this valentine has strange knots in it. I was going to present it first, but I didn’t feel I understood enough, and after living with it for a couple of weeks, I’m still not sure I’ve found its bottom. I don’t want mysteries of meaning to get in the way of enjoying it, so let’s just listen to it today.

Feb 11, 2018

Tomorrow is celebrated in the United States as Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday—or rather, it was in the past. In 1971, a uniform Monday holiday, often called President’s Day, centralized what had been in the past dual, separate, celebrations of Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s.

Washington (as poet Phillis Wheatley’s motto for him said) was first in war and first in peace, and we owe him a great debt for being the rare revolutionary leader that did not try to crown his success with dictatorship. But Lincoln’s achievements are every bit Washington’s equal; and his central achievement, a US government that no longer enforced chattel slavery throughout the country has in recent decades been somewhat obscured for complex reasons.

But here at the Parlando Project, where we combine music with words, Lincoln gets extra props for being as great an artist with words as any US Chief Executive. While taking the various roads that lead to this piece I read his famous Gettysburg Address, or rather refreshed myself with the words in manuscript form, for as a child I had memorized it.

At this site it’s possible to trace the slight revisions that Lincoln applied draft by draft to polish this concise statement of dedication. And the same site linked to another site that let me read (for the first time) Edward Everett’s main speech at the same Gettysburg dedication.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of how the two speeches that day contrasted. It’s no legend. Go ahead, read as much of Everett’s speech as you can. It’s the kind of grand utterance that could have caused the 19th Century to invent TLDNR 140 years sooner.

So, Lincoln could fashion a memorable, resonant phrase and express complex things concisely.  That’s the kind of literary talent that leads one to ask if he wrote poetry. He did, but as far as we know, there’s not very much of it beyond some short light verse. His poetic works consist of an attributed poem with a narrator speaking of suicide, and a three-part poem recalling his hometown.

It’s from the first part of the later Lincoln poem that I created today’s piece, “My Childhood Home I See Again.”  It was published anonymously through the efforts of a friend of his in 1847. Lincoln was in his troubled 30s when his longer poems were written, and he seems to have been suffering from depression, the depth and length of which is subject of much discussion among historical scholars.

The parts I used from “My Childhood Home I See Again” tell much the same story as English poet Thomas Hardy’s The Self Unseeing,” but Lincoln’s poem is more melancholy, even if he tries to make some pretense of it being only wistful.  One could also compare it to my own piece Homeopathic Hometown.”

 

Feb 9, 2018

Here’s a piece using an outwardly modest poem by a modest poet, Anne Spencer. It spoke so quietly to me, that at first I overlooked it when I was reading James Weldon Johnson’s seminal “The Book of American Negro Poetry” anthology, which included it. Just a few weeks later I saw a small story online about her exemplary life as a behind-the-scenes civil-rights activist, which mentioned that she was also a poet.

From it’s title we know she is following one of the Parlando Project mottos: “Other Peoples’ Stories.” When the poem utters its refrain “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I…” that “I” is to be understood as Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was at that time a decade dead at the age of 33, but who was still the most famous Afro-American poet.

Long time listeners here have already met up with Dunbar, and Shelley and Keats require little introduction to those acquainted with English verse. That first name, Chatterton may draw a blank however.

Thomas Chatterton was the most famous failure in 19th Century English literature. A poor boy with pluck he had tricked his way into a modicum of fame by pretending to be the discoverer of a tranche of medieval poetry by a Thomas Rowley. To keep the pot boiling and to engage in the roiling politics of the day, he wrote journalism and opinion pieces under more than one pseudonym, and further literary works. At the height of his career, he might earn about $9 in current dollars for his longer articles. In contrast, accepted contributors to our last episode’s Burma Shave’s jiggles were paid over $800 in today’s money.

So how does Chatterton make it onto Spencer’s words for Dunbar?

You see, Chatterton was doing all this as a teenager. Fatherless, broke, starving, seemingly at the end of his resources, he took a fatal dose of arsenic and died in his garret.  He wasn’t yet 18.

A few decades later, the British Romantics grab on to Chatterton’s case as the perfect example of rejection of the beautiful by the unperceiving. Keats, who was himself tagged as a low-born pretender writing “Cockney poetry” in “uncouth language,”  wrote a sonnet to Chatterton: “Thou didst die a half-blown flo’ret which cold blasts amate.” The too-little-appreciated-in-his-short-life Percy Bysshe Shelley, exiled from his culture for radical political and social views, writes “Adonais,” the now famous ode on the death of Keats at age 25. In it,  Chatterton is met in a heavenly throne “Rose pale, his solemn agony had not yet faded from him” as he greets the now dead Keats/Adonais.

Note here the unperceiving in each case has something to do with politics and class prejudice.

And now we return to Anne Spencer.  At age 11, the legend has it she was barely literate, six years later she was the valedictorian of her graduating class. Two years later she married and settled in Lynchburg Virginia. Eventually she wrote while raising children and working as a school librarian. In 1918, she helped found the local chapter of the NAACP. Her home became a waystop for numerous notable Afro-Americans traveling in Virginia (“Jim Crow” laws would have segregated public accommodations). James Weldon Johnson (one of the founders of the NAACP) was one of those visitors, and finding that Anne wrote poetry, he helped her work get first published in 1920.

Spencer was nearly 40 years old before that first publication. Clearly not the live fast/die young sort. In 1922 when Johnson published the first ever anthology of Afro-American verse, Spencer was, along with Dunbar, included. Concluding his introduction to that collection, Johnson said of Spencer’s verse that she was “The most modern and least obvious in her methods.”

“Dunbar” demonstrates that. Shelley’s “Adonais” is hundreds of lines. Spencer’s “Dunbar” is five. Shelley will tell it, repeating and restating his theme in stanza by stanza of glorious English Romantic verse. Spencer’s “Dunbar” sits quietly, in the midst of this history of poets who died young, whose voices were muffled by prejudice before they were stilled by death. It’s just one chorus. She groups them, tells us Paul Laurence Dunbar found himself with them, a statement of quiet, powerful, assertion.

Perhaps you need to know this history to appreciate the power of that, that “Chatterton, Shelley, Keats, and I” isn’t some arbitrary listing, a line that happens in a small poem talking about a poet—but it’s good to know history, it’s good to have a Black History month, it’s good to know that Keats and Shelley, who now are hallowed in our textbooks, weren’t greeted as worthy poets by their times. It’s good to know that one woman around a hundred years ago in segregated Virginia, quietly but eloquently wrote, and steadfastly worked, to assert a different world.

Feb 7, 2018

The place of short epigramic poetry in our culture, and just a touch of Percy Bysshe Shelley, combine in today’s episode.

When people seek to stop the expansion of poetry in definition or in practice they will aim and fire at certain targets. If you look closely and slowly, you may see the bullet holes with their worn, rusting lips frozen in mid-kiss.

“Song lyrics? When you see them on the page, you can surely tell they aren’t poetry. And what about advertising jingles then?”

I’ll reply that it’s true that we don’t know if Sappho was a copywriter for hire, or worked independently—and frankly, the advertising jingle has passed into disuse anyway. One benefit of aging is that one can remember lost, golden, ages when the rustic bards of old sang along the roads.

I speak of course of that mid-20th Century, Midwestern American Greek Anthology presented by Burma Shave. We know only the fragments of their work that scribes have preserved in illuminated HTML, but did these jingles really harm mid-20th Century poetry much?

I think not.

Here was the scheme: an insurgent company that made shaving cream in Minneapolis Minnesota took to the idea of a series of small signs, enjambed with the broken lines of an epigramic poem, signed-off at the last sign with the company’s logo: its name in white flowing script. Cars sauntered on narrower roads in those days, roads that went farther between cities that had yet to leak out suburbs and housing projects. Car radios were an option not ticked off by every frugal buyer, and the boredom on the two-lane was an advertiser’s opportunity. Huge billboards, the epics of the roadside, might have pressed the budget of the Burma Shave company, but those little signs in series were another matter. Poetry, then as now, is a bargain.

And to us, the naïve backseat riders with no tablets or Gameboys, we could hope then the horizon might give us that initial red sign and line of verse, followed by their episodic reveal, their enforced caesurae.

Perhaps the poems imagery or significance did not equal Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, but the experience—yes!—was exactly what poetry should deliver. It comes on us, with expectation, but unpredictably. It reveals itself, in time marked with intervals that tell us it is indeed time. And in the end, it pleases us in a way that the passage of a mere Pioneer Seed Corn placard or another end-of-lane mailbox cannot.

Its motives may not have been artistically pure, but we didn’t care.

Commercial motives are as fragile as Olympian ones. Around 1960, Burma Shave was sold, and the brand discontinued. The placement of new signs stopped, and only in places where no one cared to groom the roadside did they remain to gradual ruin.

Years later I would move to Minneapolis, and eventually I would fall in with some folks who created a literary magazine that wanted to celebrate the inescapable, unpretentious—yes, sometimes commercial—main drag down Phaeton’s east-west path of the city. They called the magazine the “Lake Street Review.” And down that street, I would often bike or drive past a nondescript building, just before the freight railroad tracks, just before the shopping-and-buying mall built were Minneapolis-Moline once built tractors.  When it was built, this building had been a church, but as area became industrial, the building became the headquarters, the factory and the Parnassus of Burma Shave.

I don’t know if any of us knew that. I only found out as they planned to tear it down, which they did. As the workman did a workman’s job, in the midst of the ditch of lathe and beams, a red sign with cursive white letters was found at the end: “Burma Shave.”

Feb 5, 2018

I came upon Percy Bysshe Shelley and this poem like many have, a teenager with a school poetry anthology on my desk. It’s a good teaching poem, what with its readily accessible irony—and so, “Ozymandias” came to me, nestled with poems by Keats and Byron, in the handy "The Romantics" chapter.

Stepping outside the poetry, even briefly, into biography, I found them a glamourous bunch of young men to my teenaged heart. The original live fast, die young, leave a beautiful corpse crew. Political and sexual revolutionaries, aesthetes with groupies. Did I study them or seek to be them? Well the former was on offer, the latter harder to obtain for someone of my looks and stature.

In the 1960s Byron, Keats and Shelley were the rock stars in my textbooks. To the generation before the 20th Century Modernists, they seemed that too, even if “rock star” wasn’t yet a metaphor in the shops. So, Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to be Byron, Keats and Shelley too. In America, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Paul Laurence Dunbar show that you didn’t have to be male or white to feel that urge. Even unique figures like Rabindranath Tagore were touched by their model.

Well, despite the notoriety, the tangled amorous relationships, and the requirement of a tragic early death—yes, in spite of this—in the end the romantic, idealist stance doesn’t remove the poet from the mundane tasks of writing poetry any more than drugs and sex remove from a rock star the need to come up with, well, some music once in a while.

Such is the case here of “Ozymandias.” Did this poem strike Shelley’s poetic soul in a flash of hashish inspiration while adventuring in the Middle East? Well, no. If we were to continue the musical analogies, it instead came from a silent, slow-motion written-poetry equivalent of a “Battle of the Bands,” a “Rap Battle,” or songwriter’s “Song Pull,” a friendly contest undertaken with another poet, Shelley’s contemporary Horace Smith. They both were working off the same short passage from 1st Century BC Greek historian Diodorus, which more or less gives them the plot.  Here’s Smith’s “Ozymandias.”

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,

Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws

The only shadow that the Desert knows:—

"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,

"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows

"The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—

Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose

The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express

Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness

Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,

He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess

What powerful but unrecorded race

Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

 

After they finished their competing works, I wonder how Smith felt. If one goes to poetry for meaning, these two poems make near the same point. Imagery-wise, Shelley’s choice and portrayal of the broken statue on a barren desert has some better selections of detail. And Smith, trying to make his rhyme, has one particularly awkward line, the one ending “holding the Wolf in chace” (“chace” is an Old-French word that was once used in English to mean hunt). But where Shelley kills it here is his word-music. And if you look at Shelley’s manuscript of “Ozymandias” you can see some of how he worked on these things, so they wouldn’t be “lifeless things.”

Art is not a competition. Criteria are slippery things, and what works in one poem, fails in another. Even day to day, within our own singular selves, what we seek from, or need from, art differs—but Smith’s “Ozymandias” was rightfully eclipsed by Shelley’s.

In my music and performance of “Ozymandias” I went counter to the presentations I’ve heard. The poem’s lyricism and the later 19th Century acceptance of Shelley as a portrayer of ideal beauty has masked the Shelley that was a political radical and iconoclast. As a result, many read it lightly, bringing out its sonic beauty or its pathos. I don’t know how Shelley, the political radical, would want it read, but I’ve always felt that the traveler who’s telling this tale knows all too well, in non-historic terms, about living under a hand that mocked them with a sneer of cold command.

Therefore, I emulated the spirit of another English iconoclast, Kevin Coyne, for this one.

Feb 1, 2018

Robert Frost is every bit the master of word music as Yeats and Millay. What makes Frost stand out is that he was every bit the thoroughgoing early 20th Century modernist as any of his free-verse contemporaries, while retaining an ease with accentual syllabic meter.

Here’s an example of Frost handling a subject just as a free-verse Imagist would. His aims, his presentation, hold to the Imagists’ three princples. He deals with the thing directly (as we shall see, two things, but still…), and there are no tacked-on metaphors, no stock comparisons, no special, “poetic” language. Context is shown, but not explained. He loosens and varies his meter, so the poem sings and never seems to be a shackled march.  At 40 lines, it’s a bit longer than Yeats’ poem considering “The Wild Swans at Coole,” but Frost’s extra detail is even more specific and concrete than Yeats, though both begin their poem with the poet walking in a rural wetland. Yeats slough is a well-known place to him, conditioned with 19 previous visits. Frost is far enough into his swamp to not know exactly where he is, and so experiences what he sees with a first-time immediacy. Yeats’ slough then contains tradition, Frosts’ the more Modernist “Make it new” place.

Though presented as one simple rural scene and story, “The Wood-Pile” is more at two poems, though each part speaks to the other. As Frost’s tale starts, we are in the midst of one of his characteristic journeys, just as we are in other famous Frost poems. There’s a need for decision (“Turn back” or “go on farther”) and his choice, also made in other Frost poems, is to go on regardless of whatever doubts brought the question. If he’s lost in the dark by a wood on a snowy evening, keep going. If you come to a fork in the road, pick one and go on. If you’re walking in a swamp in winter and your foot is sometimes falling through the frozen crust, well, keep going “and we shall see.”

And so, here he sees his bird. No Keatsian nightingale, not Millay’s elusive flying swans with their awkward dangling legs and crys, nor Yeats’ majestic 59 swans, but a small bird. This bird becomes a mirror to the poet. Frost’s bird too must make choices in direction, and the poet, sensibly, thinks the bird’s guided by fear. “Keep something between little me and the big lummox trodding through the winter swamp,” he humansplains. And there’s a bit of humor at human’s expense as the poet muses that the bird, like humans with their self-importance, may think that the only reason for Frost to be out in the swamp is to go after the little bird.

But, we don’t know why Frost is out in the frozen swamp explicitly. The only reason he’s given, or will give, is the Imagist poets’ reason:  “and we shall see.”

The bird leads Frost to the second thing the poem wants to present: an abandoned fire-wood cache. Here Frost zooms in close. Every detail of the cut wood and the once neatly stacked and propped wood-pile is stated. Frost turns forensic, like some New England Sherlock Holmes: this pile has been abandoned for years. Mature vines have grown through it.

Here is another context left unsaid. Why would someone abandon a purposeful wood-pile in a swamp? Frost leaves it for us to be detective and to solve the mystery. This isn’t some lot of fire-wood left temporarily to be gathered later in the day, care has been taken to stack and prop it.

The only thing I can think: someone once built a shack (now completely disappeared) on the swamp land. Frost muses, sardonically, that only someone so busy with “fresh tasks” could abandon such effort in cutting and stacking. Does he mean to say, “only a fool would be so industrious to cut and stack this wood and yet not notice he was building his shack on a swamp that would not support a homestead?”

Now, the small bird with his “little fears” and oh-so-human misapprehensions of reality—and now, the steadfast Frost of miles to keep going, even if you may be lost, are set in contrast to this choice. Your fears may lie to you—but so will your optimism.

I once heard an astringent biological statement that the length of our lives can be reduced to a slow-burning chemical reaction. Frost’s last line here is a sad and beautiful analog to that truth.

 

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