Apr 1, 2011
Desert Places by Robert Frost
To follow up just a bit on the subject of mental health in Hirsch’s tribute to Christopher Smart and my challenge concerning John Boehner, here is Robert Frost’s “Desert Places, ” a fairly well-known poem that I like all right but do not love. Desert places of the mind—probably indicating depression or at least gloomy perceptions—seem a fertile subject (ironically?); we’ve all been there, I suspect, at least briefly . However, Frost’s attempt to convey that emptiness feels somewhat blank as a poem.
The imagery is clear enough, and a couple of phrasings are moderately interesting. For example, there’s the odd but effective notion of possession in “The woods around it have it”; the trees OWN the whitening field, and that’s a new, interesting take on a snowy winter field at night. Also, I feel as well as understand the expanse of a night’s white field when it’s compared to “empty spaces / Between stars.” The size and silence of the vacuum increase if we imagine space; both the white field and black sky are vast, quiet, and unwelcoming, if not forbidding.
But the rest of the poem fails to reach out and grab me by the throat; nothing puts me in that haunting field. Because I’ve seen such spaces a hundred times, a poem about them needs to offer something new, while at the same time confirming that the poet and I have shared this experience. Frost offers little or nothing fresh on his subject. Even the title’s “Desert” seems obvious and maybe trite, maybe forced—not to mention its working against the central landscape, which is snowy, not sandy. It’s as if I hear the writer as he thinks, “Let’s see, how many blank things can I think of, besides a snowy field. I know! A desert!”
The poem’s music is noticeable, but not hypnotic or otherwise engaging—the way it is in “Stopping by Woods” or “Acquainted with the Night” or "Nothing Gold Can Stay," to mention only three musical wonders by Frost. And, still concerning music, some of the rhymes feel forced—how about “last” in line 4? Or “unawares” in line 8? Or their overall simplicity and loudness?
Moreover, the rhymes simply aren’t particularly interesting; we readers don’t feel nudged into unexpected word and thought combinations because the poet hasn’t offered them, hasn’t put us in the midst of surprising but apt pairings—he hasn’t demanded that, from time to time, we hear, see, experience things anew.
As a final complaint about language, I notice a variation on “Lonely” is used four times in three lines, while “no” and “nothing” along with “express” and “expression” occur within two lines. All this strikes me as mere repetitiveness, rather than a scary echo in the night field.
Robert Frost has written so much great poetry that he doesn't have to worry about opinions at Banjo52. But more to the point, I’ve said aloud at times that no poet has more than 20 poems we all might label “great.” So I offer “Desert Places” as an occasion to step back and remember that even the icons are human. Quite possibly none of them batted .300, and baseball is considered a game of failure, in which a 30% success rate is noteworthy. I guess the same could be said of politicians; but their personal and public "desert places," their bad days, mistakes and deceptions, can cost way too much for way too many people.
Desert Places by Robert Frost