Oct 4, 2010

FROST, "BIRCHES." Gifts, Part 3.

(Student? footnote!)

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

I realize I’ve grown tedious with analysis—in which we ANAL-eyes everything, as some students sometimes say (the ones who got Ds). But I’ve gone this far, so I’m plowing ahead. Come along if you like. There will be no sprinting.

By the way, my motives aren’t all that self-centered. It’s an old idea (and one I share) that the arts, including poetry, are legitimate new ways to perceive the world we walk through. Or, the arts are ways to “speak” in a particular manner the perceptions we’ve all had, but have not articulated to our own satisfaction. In order to talk about those arts, to get beyond “I like it,” it helps to look at details, which might require some technical thinking and language. So here’s a teaspoonful; try not to slurp.

As counterpoint to the long, prosy look and feel of the lines in “Birches,” there is the rhythm. It’s easy to overlook because we tend not to listen for it, especially in a rushing world of free verse, much of which is merely prose talking. Or yammering. Or belaboring the obvious. Or regurgitating.

Also, Frost achieves such naturalness that we might be surprised to find traditional meter. But in fact “Birches” is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter; two syllables of tuh-DUH, more or less, and more or less five tuh-DUHs in each line).

Iambic meter is the rhythm closest to the natural cadence of English speech; even so, it offers an understated musicality to a poem that looks and feels like prose. Or, if it does feel like poetry, we might not realize why.

The first four lines consist of perfectly regular iambs, five per line—therefore, pentameter. Now that we’ve heard that, at least subconsciously, in the very opening, Frost can stray from it occasionally if he needs to, for the sake of naturalness, or for emphasis—or to avoid a childish, sing-song, “hickory-dickory-dock” effect.

There. That’s enough of the academic biz for awhile. I hope somebody out there will comb through the poem for other gifts from Frost. Good and great poetry must offer them, whether as music, or word pictures, or depth of emotion or intellectual reasoning. But speed reading will miss too many. We don’t go to Gregorian chants because they’re zippy and easy.

I was late in arriving at respect for Frost, and one reason is that I thought he was simplistic. Now I’m sure he’s anything but, even in popularized poems like “Stopping By Woods” and “The Road Not Taken.” So I hope there will be some scouting out there—of Frost or other poets. Life is short, but the gifts are many, and poetry’s cheap. So hie thee thither and get ye to gathering. And remember, the tortoise will gather more than the hare.

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


Ken Mac said...

nuclear plants? !

Banjo52 said...

(This connects to a photo at Ken's place). Yes, Fermi II, nuclear power twin towers, just north of Monroe, on Lake Erie. Photo and article at Wikipedia.

Jean Spitzer said...

The end of Birches reads to me like Frost is talking about death and reincarnation (in a form capable of love).

Banjo52 said...

Jean, I hadn't thought of that, but I see your point.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I must fall into the D camp. I laughed at ANAL-eyes.

Allow me to "Linger-Longer" at pictures. I do appreciate your academic explanation of "unrhymed iambic pentameter" Hand to heart, I had two windows open, yours and Birches, trying to get the ta-duh rhythmn going but alas, I'm hopelessly duh

Brenda's Arizona said...

Man, I have got some serious reading to do here. I'm still thinking of the 'lucky me' story. And pondering the beauty of the photos... trees! in transition! with lovely colors!

I will linger longer in a bit. But I have to refresh on iambic meter before I can process this.

Banjo52 said...

PA and Brenda, funny. And Brenda, I think you're giving too much to the garden. Blogs are more important. You can't eat a . . . That didn't come out right.

taDUH. As in these two pairs of iambs: "I went." "It sucks." There's no way you could accent the first syllable of either of those two-syllable units. Right? Some two-syllable units might be debatable, depending on context, but most are not. "HAM-mer" is the opposite of an iamb (called a trochee [pronounced troe'-key]) in which the first syllable is stressed. "ar-RIVE" MUST be an iamb, yes?

For what it's worth, this meter stuff was often a way to get math whizzes interested in poetry. And I'd think lovers of board games like chess, monopoly, but I have no evidence.

I suppose I've entered terminal Nerdtopia, but I think it's fun. Is "Brenda" an iamb or trochee or neither? How about "Spitzer"? "Pasadena"?

I have a theory about names and meter, but you'll have to beg.

Brenda's Arizona said...

BEG-ging. As in trochee.

Banjo52 said...

Now was that so hard?

My brilliant theory is simply that English-speaking parents tend to choose strong (that is, metrically stressed) lead-off syllables for their kids. Of course, many are one syllable, so there's no choice. But of the two-syllable first names (like BREN-da), most are trochees, not iambs (or anapests or dactyls) :) and :0

Exceptions: Gerard (M. Hopkins), Tobias (Wolff). Savannah. Rebecca.

This knowledge won't create world peace, but I feel sure that authors think hard about it in naming characters. Ditto for other sound devices. Is there any way Faulkner's "Ab Snopes" could be a good guy?

Jean Spitzer said...

I can't play. Like PA, I can't analyze the different stresses, though I like the rhythms.

Anonymous said...

If you get a chance, go here: http://trulyfool-trulyfool.blogspot.com/2010/10/dark-one.html

And get to the Dickinson. I'm sure you disagree with me.

Banjo52 said...

Scandalous Charleston at Trulyfool!

Which Dickinson?

(I'll probably have to take tomorrow off).

PJ said...

I listened to Frost read it - I put the link in the previous post and got the most from it that way. To be honest I like poetry for the emotions it evokes and the visual delights so analyzing the structure, well, it seems. like. work. to. me while effortless for others.

Banjo52 said...

Paula, thanks for the link. You know you're in the majority about what to be enjoyed in a poem. If there were world enough and time, I'd try to convince everyone that we can have the cake and eat it too.

Did I just mix a metaphor?

Brenda's Arizona said...

"If there were world enough and time enough"... isn't that from a poem? A Keats??? A sonnet?? You are killing me here.

Really, I can hear it in my mind. It is pounding out over the iambic pentameter I am practicing. Is there such thing as iambic quadrameter? Or iambic hexameter?

Brenda's Arizona said...

AHA! Found it! "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell. EXCELLENT choice!
I had an old boyfriend who sent me the Coy Mistress poem, written in longhand. He awaited a reply. So what could I do but send back (written in longhand, with a fountain pen) Sir Walter Raleigh's "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd".

Oh my. I must go read more old love letters. Iambic meter will await.

Jeff M said...

I've been reading the poets Robert Haas, Jim Harrison and W.S. Merwin. Good for autumn-comings.

gothpunkuncle said...

Fine examples. I keep these in mind:

It was the best of times... = iambic
London bridge is falling down = trochaic

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I followed the AH link and I'm back. Kill me first, then the poem and leave the bits for the anal-yst. Yup, you can tell the english majors from the rest. But I'll keep working with tamber despite or because of the fact that I'm doused in bleech. It turned suddenly cold; strong chemicals and deep cleaning keep me warm

and about that ukulelel

check this link out What do you think?

I've been looking on Craigs list and pawn shops but I like this one best

Banjo52 said...

Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress."

tetrameter and hexameter. And heptameter (7). You betcha. Way to go. Dy-no-mite.

PA, they're good lookin'.

PJ said...

Maybe I'm just too distracted knowing we're putting Digit down on Saturday. I tell you, I'm having one of the worst weeks of my life. It's very subtle but insidious. I feel like an assassin. I think I'm going to take the rest of the week off.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Ooooh, PA, I like those ukes! I have a mandolin to go with the guitar... but a nice uke and banjo would be a quatrain, right Banjomyn?

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, there ought to be some good stuff there, for sure. Hass would be my first choice, but Merwin has some dogged admirers. I don’t know Harrison’s poetry, think of him more as a novelist. Any recommendations?

GPU, yep. With your trochaic, how about ending with “DOWN-ward” to complete that last foot?

Paula, Yeah, you gotta take of yourself. How many two-week periods of your life are going to have this much morbidity? I do hope your good brain kicks in at times to assure you that “assassin” isn’t the right word. But I remember it well, and my good brain was on break every time, except the last. I suppose I was harder by then, but there was also NO doubt about the decision.

Brenda, a Qua-somethin’ for sure.

GPU, might that combo be made to sound all right?

Lovers' Lane