Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Frost on poetry: "the happy discoverer of your ends"

Here's a little relief from politics and its discontents--excerpts from a discussion by Robert Frost entitled "Conversations on the Craft of Poetry" (1959)." Any aspiring poets in the crowd, please listen to a guy who knows--who really knows.

In response to the comment: "I once heard you say that for a poem to stick it must have a dramatic accent," Frost replied:

Catchiness has a lot to do with it, all of it, all the way up from the ballads you hear on the street to the lines in Shakespeare that stay with you without your trying to remember them. I just say catchy. They stick on you like burrs thrown on you in holiday foolery. You don't have to try to remember them....

And when people say that this will easily turn into--be set to music, I think it's bad writing. It ought to fight being set to music, if it's got expression in it.

And here are some comments of Frost's that especially resonated with me. He's describing the process of writing a poem (even Frost's prose is poetic, isn't it? His "voice" is instantly recognizable here as his and no other's, like a fingerprint):

...I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.

...I have a tune [when writing poetry], but it's a tune of the blend of [meter and rhythm]. Something rises--it's neither one of those things. It's neither the meter nor the rhythm,; it's a tune arising from the stress on those--same as your fingers on the strings, you know. The twang!

...You know, you know that, when I begin a poem I don't know--I don't want a poem that I can tell was written towards a good ending--one sentence, you know. That's trickery. You've got to be the happy discoverer of your ends.

...I've often said that another definition of poetry is dawn--that it's something dawning on you while you're writing it. It comes off if it really dawns when the light comes at the end. And the feeling of dawn--the freshness of dawn--that you didn't think this all out and write in prose first and than translate it into verse.

Those who follow this blog know I've written about Frost before, here and here in particular. Many who are familiar only with his most famous poems think he's a sort of Hallmark Card poet. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To prove it, I'll offer one of his darker poems today, a poem for winter. This one sure isn't happy. But I bet that, when he finished it, he was nevertheless the "happy discoverer" of its end:


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.

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