Sunday, October 13, 2013

ModPo 2013 #36 Boundaries and Cycles: On Frost's "The Mending Wall"

Image of Frost on the wall from 

Robert Frost, "Mending Wall" 

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Robert Frost has always been a favorite of mine. I've stopped by the woods of "Stopping By The Woods" and I've always been haunted by the much quoted "miles to go before I sleep." Well, first of all, I'm fascinated by snow and secondly, Frost is a master of the form. While it's been argued over and over about how the times have changed and that the form needs to follow the times, I have to tip my hat (what a strange idiomatic expression for a Filipina!) to the guy for sticking to his guns (another idiomatic expression...but perhaps one more in touch with the Philippines) and doing the most he could with the traditional form.

I appreciate his argument while I don't necessarily subscribe to it. Many, many years ago, I wrote free verse long before I was formally introduced to it in grade school. My teacher corrected my poems by making my lines rhyme! My stepmother asked to meet my teacher and she gave my teacher a piece of her mind. I can imagine my grade four self meeting Frost (one frosty evening) and petulantly asking, "But why should poems rhyme?" And I can imagine his answer, "Little miss, it's like playing tennis without a net!" Hahaha!

"Mending Wall" is a multilayered and self conscious argument for the net, for the rules, for the form. Oh! But rules are meant to be broken! He reminds me that rules must be learned before they can be broken. That I can appreciate.

I like how he makes the cause of the broken wall so mysterious: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." And then he links this to "elves" which he also quickly dismisses. I like how that is also metapoetic and universal. It's metapoetic because he is living at a time when the "wall" of structured poetry is being broken left and right by poets he does not like (Stein, for one). It is also universal because any kind of structure is always being broken down by chaos. It's a constant struggle: order and chaos. Frost makes the argument for order but he creates the false binary of order versus chaos.

Did the speaker agree to "good fences make good neighbors"? The speaker points out that the neighbor in the poem is not aware of its significance, repeating only what he has been told. The speaker, of course, is not as dim and has thought this over. He repeats the phrase. I have no doubt the speaker is advocating this phrase. It is clear from his self-conscious choice of honoring the tradition of mending the wall. I read this on two levels. The first being, good structure makes good poets. It is in recognizing and keeping to the boundaries that the good poet, the good human being is at the height of his humanity. The second being, boundaries define human interaction. There are no human interactions if there are no boundaries. I agree on the second (more than the first) that boundaries have their role in any interaction.

There are many other facets outside the order that Frost recommends. Yes, there is a classical elegance to the form that he chooses. However, the first world war (and then the second) has left the world in such fragmentation that classical elegance no longer applies. For something to grow, it must leave its boundaries. The cell cannot be in stasis, biologically speaking.

I appreciate, too, what Frost is saying about the wall: it will always be broken. It takes a certain kind of effort to continuously mend the wall. It says something about the cyclical nature of humanity as well. There will always be a struggle to break free...but at some point, that "breaking free" will become a tradition in itself which will again be broken.

This brings me back to canon, to Pound (and criticism), and to ars poetica. Like any piece of art (which may not have been considered "art" during its time), the poem captures the scent, the shape, the image, the structure of its times. And definitely, Frost captured an aspect and an argument of ars poetica. "Mending Wall," I'm sure, was his response to imagism. I hold this up as part of the prism of poetry. It is multifaceted, multicultural and always engaging. I hope to capture as much as I can of the variety and richness of the voices I hear out of ModPo.

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