Oct 3, 2010


(Any student using any of these words or ideas should be sure to footnote properly).

Birches by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

These are some pics from northern Michigan, which unexpectedly cued Frost’s “Birches” for my previous post and again today. So let me comment on what I like in the poem, though it certainly has plenty of fans already.

In addition to the literal portrait of a boy swinging on birch branches, I hear Frost trying to show how we all might want to experiment with the infinite—which in the mind and spirit of the boy is the upper air where the birch branch takes him.

But note that Frost is careful to announce that he doesn't mean any kind of death wish. The speaker wants just a taste of whatever's next for humans, but he also wants to be sure he returns to earth, the right place for love.

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.

The poem feels somewhat long and talk-y, and I wonder if Frost considered breaking it into stanzas (or verse paragraphs, as they’re sometimes called in cases like this). White space can make writing more inviting.

That might sound simplistic, but I’ve heard a lot of intelligent readers mention how much they like dialogue in novels. White space might be only part of the explanation, but it’s a factor. (You might have noticed that I try to keep my Banjo paragraphs short if at all possible—and it usually is).

From another angle, however, the length of the lines and the argument in “Birches” also illustrate a hobbyhorse of mine for any poem: there must multiple gifts for the reader along the way. Anyone who goes slowly and reads aloud, will probably not go more than five lines without finding something unusual or appealing or rewarding.

Consider the first five lines:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them . . .

In spite of the abundant birches in Michigan, I never noticed, or paid attention, to the way a line of birch bark sometimes crosses darker branches of other trees (or vice versa), as if the two species are in a kind of tension or conflict.

And wondering whether a swinging boy or an ice storm caused that bent branch is something I feel I should have wondered about. I’m glad Frost took care of it for me. Reminding us what we could have, or should have, noticed is often what poetry does for readers, if they open themselves to it. “You must have seen them,” Frost says. It’s as if he knows I didn’t see them. I feel gently chided by an avuncular voice and spirit.

Here are lines 6 – 10:

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Do you like the fancy word, “onomatopoeia,” which denotes a word that sounds like the thing it refers to? Isn’t “click” a magical example? And Frost won’t let up; we also are knocked with other “k” sounds: “many-colored, cracks, crazes, crystal.” Does anyone care to dispute that the hard “k” is a sound of vigor, if not violence? So, as pretty as the images might be in lines 6 – 10, there is also something like the sound of attack, or at least force and breakage. There is nothing gentle in the “k” sound, and that creates a kind of counterpoint to the pictorial loveliness, as if to say, "Don't get too sappy: the birches are nice to look at, but there's some upheaval and menace going on as well. There's about to be shattered glass . . . . "

In lines 6 - 10 there is also sibilance—a few “s” sounds in proximity of each other. That’s usually considered unpleasant, once again to prevent our acceptance of everything as just lovely, just lovely.

I can hear someone yelling at me for splitting hairs. Look. If I had to wake you at 5:00 a.m. for some difficult, unpleasant journey or task, should I say, “ooooohhhhhhh” (like warm, melting chocolate, maybe) or “sssssssssssss,” like a rattler about to strike.

One more thing: when you see ice-coated trees, do you think “enamel”? Me either. Don’t you think we should have? Look what we missed. That’s one more reason that he’s Frost and we’re not.

Part 2 tomorrow or soon. Hope the anticipation doesn’t keep anyone awake.



Jean Spitzer said...

About your list of poets/writers who didn't sentimentalize childhood.

I have one to propose who wrote for children: Astrid Lindgren.

Anonymous said...

I love this poem, and knew from the start he was talking about himself. It's wise and witty and wistful, "I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better."

Thank you for bringing him back to me. (JS, Pippi rules.)

Jean Spitzer said...

Pippi is one of the best discoveries I got to make as an adult, reading to my daughter.

On the topic of the Frost poem, I read the lines about not being misunderstood as a "warding off of the evil eye"; maybe that's just my Eastern European background.

Anonymous said...

I agree. His charming way of saying, "knock on wood" -- birchwood, specifically.

PJ said...

Here's Frost reading the poem:


Lovers' Lane