Poetry Thursday: Robert Frost

 

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‘Love at the lips was touch

As sweet as I could bear;

And once that seemed too much;

I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,

The flow of – was it musk

From hidden grapevine springs

Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache

From sprays of honeysuckle

That when they’re gathered shake

Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those

Seemed strong when I was young;

The petal of the rose

It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,

That is not dashed with pain

And weariness and fault;

I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark

Of almost too much love,

The sweet of bitter bark

And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred

I take away my hand

From leaning on it hard

In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:

I long for weight and strength

To feel the earth as rough

To all my length.’

“To Earthward” by Robert Frost

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Robert Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963. He had a long life, but it was plagued by grief and loss. His father died of tuberculosis when Frost was only 11, his younger sister had to be committed to a mental hospital, and his wife suffered bouts of depression, and died relatively young of heart disease. Of six children, only two outlived their father.

He always wanted to be a poet, and his first poem was published when he was only 19. To earn a living he worked in mills, as a teacher and then a farmer in New Hampshire and Massachusetts .

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Above: Frost as a young man.

Although he is usually thought of as a rural poet, writing about life and nature in New England, Frost is much more than that. His simple language and conversational tone, belies the often dark mediations on universal themes of love and loss.

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‘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.’

“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

His poetry is so calming and beautiful, but it must have been a hard won beauty for him personally. Despite the pain, his poetry lives on.

Skunk Hour

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by Robert Lowell

Nautilus Island’s hermit

heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;

her sheep still graze above the sea.

Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer

is first selectman in our village;

she’s in her dotage.

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Thirsting for

the hierarchic privacy

of Queen Victoria’s century,

she buys up all

the eyesores facing her shore,

and lets them fall.

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The season’s ill—

we’ve lost our summer millionaire,

who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean

catalogue. His nine-knot yawl

was auctioned off to lobstermen.

A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

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And now our fairy

decorator brightens his shop for fall;

his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,

orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;

there is no money in his work,

he’d rather marry.

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One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;

I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .

My mind’s not right.

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A car radio bleats,

“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat. . . .

I myself am hell;

nobody’s here—

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only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

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I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air—

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

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Poetry is one of my favourite genres and I hope to post on a particular poem regularly.

There’s so much happening in this poem, with its vignettes of a declining town, its alliteration and precarious line endings. Also what a great image of a mother skunk and her tenacity!

The ‘hermit heiress’ is a self centred loner, and the repetitive use of the possessive pronoun ‘her’ emphasises her elitism and her dreams of past glory. She longs for a past before her exclusive world was invaded by outsiders like our ‘summer millionaire’. Deluded, he wishes to find acceptance in the heiress’s world, unaware that it is crumbling.

Poignantly, the possessive pronoun used about the ‘fairy decorator’, which here instead of selfishness and exclusivity, indicates a subtle pride in his work and tenuous outcast identity.

Lowell became known as one of the first ‘confessional’ poets, and his mental torment is expressed with dramatic intensity in lines like ‘my mind’s not right’ and  ‘I myself am hell, nobody’s here’, which references Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

The skunks are shown to have a unity and sense of community missing in the human world  of the poem. They take the poet out of his nightmare experience, into a feeling of hope that he will survive, due to the example of their stoicism and single mindedness. ‘a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail’.  I love this poem with its strong imagery and its ending of a mother skunk that ‘will not scare’.

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Lowell was born in 1917 to an old Boston family that could trace its origins to the Mayflower, and is his poetry he is both repelled and fascinated by his Puritan heritage. He had a tumultuous life, having three difficult marriages, and dying in 1977. Much of his poetry deals with his mental illness. He suffered from bipolar disorder and had frequent stays in mental hospitals to manage his condition

He wrote intensely and uninhibitedly  about his family, his privileged background and his mental health struggles in “Life Studies” from which this poem is taken.

In an era where on-line confessions about our innermost thoughts are so common, it’s difficult to comprehend how the candidness of his confessional poetry was so incendiary. His best poetry is intimate, disturbing and very powerful. He is without doubt one of America’s best poets of the twentieth century.

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This Faber edition of his selected poems is a good general introduction to Lowell’s work.

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