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Last semester, I walked into the college classroom where I taught a survey of American literature to discuss the poetry of Robert Frost.

I may have walked into the classroom with a scowl. I can’t be sure.

The first time I encountered Frost’s poetry, I was reminded of greeting cards. I believe I mentioned this to my English teacher at the time: “Isn’t it a little Hallmarky?” She told me I was missing something. I believe I mentioned this to my father, too, that night when I got home, eyeing the giant book of Frost’s poems on the shelf behind his recliner, beside the Complete Works of Thoreau and a bunch of leather-bound Harvard classics: “You like Frost, too?” I think he nodded and puffed on his cigarette.

I have been, for most of my life, somewhat of a cynic. More likely to appreciate Sexton and Plath, Eliot and Cummings, Barthelme and Brautigan, than Frost.

Perhaps I hid my feelings, smiling at my students as I whisked into that classroom, the long skirt of my dark dress swishing behind me. But I did not want to be in that classroom that day. I was exhausted. Ten weeks pregnant. Not to mention teaching an overload and advising the college literary magazine, which was about to go to press.

I was tired. A strange, chemical kind of tired. I felt drugged.

Before my husband and I conceived, after almost a year of trying, I did not fully appreciate how much pregnancy would affect me. Intellectually, I understood that my blood would become laced with hormones with fancy latinate names. Human Chronogonadotropin. Progesterone. However, I failed to appreciate just how much these hormones would change my personality. During my first trimester, my personality became disturbingly similar to that of the prototypical Victorian female hysteric. If I cried – which happened far more often than usual, as I had previously been somewhat of a stoic – I hyperventilated. I laughed like I hadn’t since childhood. And the anger: I don’t even want to admit how often I’ve gotten angry, and this from someone who was previously unable to stay mad for thirty seconds.

So there I was, at the end of class, teaching Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I started by asking the students to summarize the obvious subject matter, while we looked at the structure: there’s this guy with a horse, stopping by woods on a snowy evening, clearly. Then I asked the students to describe the setting. They pointed out the bells, the snow, the fact that it was “the darkest evening of the year.”

“Is it Santa Claus?” one of them joked.

Several students looked at her as if she had lost her marbles.

Another looked at her as if he was thinking the same thing.

“No,” I explained, trying to stifle a yawn, remembering my comment to my high-school teacher about greeting cards. “But the darkest evening of the year, that could mean winter solstice, which is December 21 – close to Christmas. You’re picking up on the wintry atmosphere. The sound of bells, the snow, the quiet  trees in the forest. You’re onto something. Except – ”

Here I paused, looking over the poem to jog my memory. I had only reread it briefly before rushing to class, since I’d read it a hundred times before.

“Except – this is not a holiday poem. There’s something else going on here. Remember, Frost is famous for writing deceptively simple poems with more going on underneath the surface. What’s the deal with the second stanza? The description of the ice and cold wintry forest, I mean this is a lovely scene, so it’s clear why he’d want to stop and look for a moment. But it seems like the speaker wants to stop – for a while. Look at that business about his horse: ‘My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near… He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake.’ Why does the speaker stop for long enough to worry his horse?”  

“He’s tired,” someone ventured.

I nodded, encouragingly. “Why do you say that?”

I already knew the answer to this question; I already knew, intellectually, the dark undercurrents of this poem, that the speaker is attracted by the dark deep forest, the lovely quiet, a disturbing desire to lie down in the soft blanket of snow and sleep. But as I waited for the student to answer my question, my shoulders sagging with preternatural exhaustion, I saw the dark forest stretching out before me, heard the bells of a horse, the lovely strange hush of virgin snow.

“In the last stanza, he’s talking about sleep,” the student answered, finally. “Twice, he repeats it. Where you said the rhyme scheme breaks down, and something important was going to happen.”

I nodded, reading the last stanza again. Aloud.

“These woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

And as I read these lines, my throat constricted. My eyes teared up. For the first time, that day, I found I could feel the speaker’s exhaustion, the strange disquieting temptation to disappear into the woods.

“What happens if you fall asleep in a snowy forest?”

The room went quiet. We had read Jack London’s “To Build A Fire,” the week before. I looked up at the class, watched their faces, heard the exclamations of “oh” scattered throughout the room, the Santa students looking at one another with understanding.

After the discussion, I shut the anthology, clearing my throat, marveling at how much the poem had gotten to me. Apparently, along with everything else, my taste in poetry was shifting.

And now, weeks later, having read and enjoyed my late father’s Frost collection, I can’t help but wonder if pregnancy hasn’t awakened me, somehow, from an over-intellectualized emotional slumber. If my personality was somehow deficient before, lacking the proper hormones to fully appreciate Robert Frost. Because I don’t think he’s sentimental, anymore; I think I was a cynic. And I hope, after I give birth to this baby, and my body stops producing these hormones, I can still see the dark forest stretching out before me, hear the bells, appreciate the lovely, dark, and deep of those woods.

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Mary McMyne MARY MCMYNE writes prose and poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Los Angeles Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Pedestal Magazine, Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism, New Delta Review, and a number of other journals. Her project reimagining the Odysseus myth from the perspective of a Vietnam soldier's wife earned her the Faulkner Prize for a Novel-in-Progress. A graduate of the MFA program at New York University, she teaches English, education, and creative writing courses at Lake Superior State University, where she is co-editor of Border Crossing, a journal of literature and art.

85 Responses to “To Fall Asleep in the Dark and Deep”

  1. Becky says:

    I think it has to do with growing up.

    When I was first exposed to poetry, first started thinking of myself as a person who enjoyed poetry and even, maybe, a poet, I had all kinds of these prejudicial, often–unbeknownst to me at the time–self-aggrandizing aversions to certain poets.

    Whether they weren’t intellectual enough, or too “uterus-obsessed” (that was a favorite complaint about a lot of female poets for me), I was always trying to define my taste and my voice and competence in poetry by what I thought it wasn’t or shouldn’t be, who was sooo booorring and awful, etc.

    It had nothing to do with the poems. There was nothing wrong with the poems. It was me. I was attempting to commit rebellious-poetic-teenager patricide. I was trying to define myself by, as sharply as possible, denouncing my literary “parents” and declaring severance of my connection to them. Lookit me! I’m a big girl!

    Of course, that might be a necessary step, but I think it’s one any healthy person should move beyond at some point. I mean, you don’t have to like Robert Frost, for example, but too vehement a reaction to him–or anyone, for that matter–is always suspect to me.

    I mean, he has value. As do most poets of incredible fame, influence, and renown. At some point, a person begins to sound foolish trying to deny it. I ended up feeling foolish a couple of times and was forced to let it go, lo and behold, just to find that my appreciation for poetry had developed its own identity and wasn’t inversely dependent on anyone else anymore.

    I apologize for the novel. I have been thinking about this a lot lately.

    • Mary McMyne says:

      Don’t apologize!

      I agree wholeheartedly. A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law, who teaches linguistics and used to write poetry himself, came over to find me reading my father’s Frost book. I had been going through the collection, trying to see if the other poems had merit. I told my brother-in-law about my reaction to teaching the poem, asked what he thought of Frost, and wondered aloud if it was just pregnancy hormones. My brother-in-law said, “I don’t think it’s hormones. I think you’re just maturing.”

      That comment sort of hit me in the face.

      But it’s true. Although I think my hormones provided me with an obvious (and helpful) change in perspective in this case, age has a mellowing effect; you develop a certain mellowness, a fixedness of gaze, a fearlessness, where once there was fear of sincerity.

      Nevertheless, I am so laughing at your comment about female uterus-obsessed poets. In college, for a poetry workshop, I wrote a parody of Anne Sexton’s “In Celebration of My Uterus,” called “In Celebration of My Omelet.” I only remember a few lines: “Each omelet is a three-egg abortion,” “Everything in me is scrambling…” Oh, was I tough!

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

        Any chance you can unearth the parody? Sounds like something I’d well enjoy, and not just because Sexton rather annoys me.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Hmmm… it’s around here somewhere. I’ll check.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Alas, apparently it’s “somewhere” more difficult to access than I thought. I used to have it saved on a CD somewhere, but I don’t even know where that is now, and all the drawers that once contained my youthful literary indiscretions have been replaced with teaching portfolios, student evaluations, and application materials. But thank you for asking!

        • Irene Zion says:

          Keep looking, Mary!

          This is something we all want to read.
          The death-knell for anything in my house is my deciding I’ll put it somewhere “safe.”
          I never find it again.
          It turns out to be safe from me.

      • Becky says:

        See, THAT’S the spirit! I never had the sense to actually parody any of them, I just sat around lamenting that they were my gender colleagues in the cross-temporal classification system of poets.

        I mostly just bitched and mocked a lot.

        “Oh look! Another poem about housework! GAWD. Maybe you should stop sleeping with other people’s husbands, Anne Sexton. *scoff*”

        I get get a little embarrassed for myself when I look back at some of my “scholarly” work from that time. I sound jealous. I’m sure I was.

        One poet I used to rail on relentlessly was–get this–William Carlos Williams. Why? How is that even possible? I had heard there was some feud or disagreement between WCW and T.S. Eliot at one point, and I was picking sides. I was defining my particular beliefs about poetry in terms of a 50 year-old feud between two dead men.

        My (occasionally fanatical…ahem) love of T.S. continues unabated, but I’ve realized that hating WCW is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of it.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Oh, I love T.S. Eliot too. My undergraduate homage to him was a loooong paper on “The Wasteland” (which I actually turned in, wine-stained) in which I looked at positive imagery of staircases and light to prove it was not just a “gripe at a dying society” as he called it, much later in life, after he converted to Catholicism. In my teens and early 20s, “The Wasteland” used to be my favorite poem of his, but as I get older, I find I prefer the canonical Prufrock (which I remember once thinking just PALED in comparison to “The Wasteland”).

          I never had any particular problem with Williams, but I sure did get annoyed by Pound. Still do. I can only teach “In a Station of the Metro” as an illustration of Imagism (which I think was a great movement, but I don’t think his poetry is the best illustration). Not sure what else to do with it. (I do talk about haiku, cherry blossoms, transience, alienation). But really, it’s just not that beautiful. Any ideas on how to approach it, anyone?

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Of course his politics put me off too. But how do you teach a survey course of American literature and skip Pound? And I hate teaching students a poem that doesn’t sing with life.

        • Becky says:

          I try not to confuse the politics with the craft.

          His influence is sort of not open to debate, in my opinion, regardless of his character. We don’t raise up his personality, we raise up his poetics (and his influence as a mentor/promoter), you know?

          And, of course, it is sort of obtuse to pretend he was the only anti-semite in all of American literature or all of Europe, even among the allies at that time.

          At the end of the day, his interest in fascism had less to do with that than a infatuation with a sort of classical revival/golden age of Europe-in-art thing, if you ask me. I don’t think he was as interested in a master race as he was with the Old Country as the center of the art world.

          I find Pound very difficult to read, on the whole. Not difficult as in painful but difficult as in… it’s really challenging stuff.

          I’m only now beginning to put concerted effort into unpacking him. So I have no advice, but I’ll let you know if I come across anything.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Oh, no, his influence is not up for debate! I teach Pound in two classes, both surveys–Late British Literature, and a new American literature survey intended to cover, believe it or not, the highlights of American literature from beginning to end in a single semester (it’s called Major American Writers–thankfully I get to choose which writers to include). Generally, in each case, having introduced the American Modernist movement (alongside European contexts, like Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in music and a Picasso painting in art, if time allows), I then teach Pound, starting with the Imagist Manifesto (which I think is helpful to understanding many of the sudden changes that occur after that point in poetry), and “In a Station of the Metro,” trying to do it as much justice as possible. But I find that poem and the Cantos in both anthologies somewhat sterile. If you find a poem that really speaks to you, let me know, because I sure wouldn’t mind adding one in or switching it out.

        • Becky says:

          I didn’t mean you were, no no. Not at all.

          I was referring, in a general way to a sentiment floating around in teaching. I had this one professor who loathed modernism and modernists, primarily for political reasons (by her own admission because the famous ones were old white men), and proceeded to try to teach an American poetry class with barely any mention of them at all.

          I wouldn’t put up with that kind of tomfoolery and turned my 15-minute presentation on modernism into a 40-minute subversion, capped off with an argument with my teacher in front of the whole class about this issue of Pound’s politics. Did I mention my professor was Jewish?

          It was pretty intense. Subterfuge!

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Ballsy! How did that go–did the professor take offense, or did you get a good grade regardless? I try to walk the line between both extremes. For example, in that Major American Writers course, I begin with Native American creation myths, even though they’re orators, because I can’t stand leaving them out. But that doesn’t mean I skip Pound. For some reason, my literary and poetic tastes seem to run to dead white men anyhow, which always sort of embarrasses me, since (1) I am not one–as a woman, I feel like I should be drawn more toward woman authors; (2) politically I tend to disagree with a lot of them; and (3) I don’t want to alienate students by focusing on solely on them. So I make it a point to teach a diverse group of writers, in all senses of the word. But I have always gotten a little *more* excited about Faulkner and Cummings and Eliot. And now, apparently, Frost.

        • Becky says:

          I think she didn’t like me too much, but I still got my A grade.

          I mean, you know…it wasn’t like I tried to shank her or anything, and I turned in all my other work and did well, so I think she realized she didn’t have much of a choice.

          Or maybe she appreciated me making things “interesting.”

          Since I was a little bit older, non-traditional student, I never had the fear of authority or grade retribution that a lot of my younger classmates had. I just wasn’t intimidated like that. I kept it civilized, but I never avoided being assertive or speaking my mind out of fear that doing so would be detrimental to my grade. I figure a solid 80% of an A is making a teacher notice you, anyway…

          My tastes run to dead white guys, too. I don’t fight it. The heart wants what it wants.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Missed all this, somehow.

          For me it’s Pound > Eliot > WCW, though I respect all three quite a bit. Eliot has the problem of being a despicable personality, but I never mixed that up with my assessment of his poetics.

          http://copia.posterous.com/the-triumph-of-bullshit-2

          Following is how I analyze Pound’s In a Station of the Metro. For my part I find it one of the best examples in English of a purely accentual couplet:

          http://copia.posterous.com/quotidie-30

          In the same article I touch on Prufrock. It was a response to some puzzling criticisms by none less than Richard Moore.

          As for politics, Pound was misguided, but I think the perniciousness of his politics has always been exaggerated, not least by those who sought to prosecute him so vehemently. He paid in spades, and he saw fit to ditch his “petty bourgeois prejudices”, which Eliot never did (Eliot was just as anti-Semitic as Pound, even though there is evidence to indicate that Pound did much to encourage Eliot to actually express those views).

          I think historically it’s hard to avoid taste in dead white guys. But as for contemporary poetry, from what I see, women are kicking ass right now. And I’m not really a political feminist as much as I’m a strict egalitarian. I call what I see. Various ethnicities also seem to be producing work with the most energy and yes craft. I really have no theories to go with these observations, though, and to be honest, I think everyone could do with many fewer theories wadded into their soapboxes.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Thanks for linking both of those, Uche. I laughed aloud at the Eliot lines, didn’t know about Eliot’s politics, and appreciate reading your discussion of meter in Pound. I always teach the poem as Eastern in both structure and content (at least as far as the referent in the analogy: the final image of petals on a wet black bough always makes me think of cherry blossoms) but I haven’t looked in depth at its meter. You’re right about the poem being accentual. I still find it, though technically interesting, a bit sterile; intellectual as opposed to emotional. Do you have any recommendations for moving Pound poems? Theoretically, everything he does seems more than competent to me, but as I said before his work always seems a bit sterile. It’s almost as if he is so much of a critic and theorist himself, that’s who he’s writing for?

        • Becky says:

          I don’t know about Eliot being a despicable personality.

          I never spent time enough with him to know.

          Seems to me that any such characterization is just more politics. Liberal thinkers in general can’t bring themselves to say “who cares” about anti-semitism in pre-WWII generations, but correct as it may be, sympathy and identification with Jewish peoples that is so common in the Christian West now didn’t exist then. That was a result of what people saw in the wake of the war. I think using especially harsh language to decry his perceived shortcomings is one way for people with guilty cultural consciences to feel okay about lifting up his poetics. For my part, I’m not afraid to say “I don’t care” about Eliot’s anti-semitism. As far as his treatment of his wife…There seems to be a fair amount of evidence that Eliot was mentally ill, either in conjunction with or as a result of his first wife’s mental illness. His mental illness is usually described as a “nervous condition,” while his wife’s is categorized as “hysteric,” but at the end of the day, both of them had one or more stays in the sanitarium.
          Indeed, people who suffer from chronic depression and/or anxiety can be nasty. But that’s not them, necessarily. Too difficult to sort out from 50-100 years later, in my opinion.

          I assume there’s plenty of things people could produce, after I died, as evidence that I was a monstrous individual should they choose to set out with that goal. I have to assume that “despicable” (not necessarily just in your use, Uche, but in general) is a similarly oversimplified assessment of Eliot’s full personality & character, as it would be in the case of almost anyone’s.

          Later in his life when he was married to his second wife, he softens considerably. There is a whole mountain of virtually unknown and generally ignored love poems Eliot wrote for his 2nd wife, most of them showing an uncharacteristic (at least insofar as most are led to believe about the nature of Eliot’s character) emontionality and tenderness that is missing in his more intellectual earlier work. And many of his poems written in French (at least one that I can think of off the top of my head), showed surprising sympathy for lower and working classes, often turning his sharply pointed tongue on bourgeois establishment and authority figures to make his case. I produced a translation of one of Eliot’s french poems for the same teacher who I subjected to my treatise on Pound, and she didn’t know what to say. She didn’t even know he wrote poems in French. I mean, people see what they choose to see, I guess.

          So, at the end of the day, I reject the notion of even saying, “he was a monstrous person, BUT his poetics were incredible.” For me, it’s just, “His poetics were incredible.” I can’t say anything about his personality, and I’m not totally sure how germane it is at the end of the day. I’m not a New Critic, per se, because I understand the value of knowing and considering his cultural and social context, but having that information is in part what has caused me to realize that holding it against our own contemporary standards for social and political correctness yields perverted understandings of him and his work.

        • Becky says:

          Heh.

          Another novel. Looking now with shame at an attempted objective post which lays bare an obviously personal identification with Eliot.

          *mascara running* LEAVE TOMMY ALOOOONE!!

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Ha!!!!!

          Here, here to that too!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I think we’re well into agree-to-disagree territory with Eliot. Yes, the worst aspect of him was the way he treated Viv, and of course Viv is not blameless, and it was a complex situation, but in the end Eliot failed to even approach what most people would consider basic standards of decency. And of course you can tell if someone was a despicable personality from report of others, and from their own writings. New Critic or not. Whether or not that matters to you is a fair personal choice.

          I do want to make sure I’m clear that when I express my preference for Pound over Eliot, I do so strictly in regard to the poetry, and not the personality (they were both very unlikeable, anyway). I’m very curious. Have you read the Lausanne draft of _The Wasteland_ draft before Pound edited it? In my opinion it’s a real eye-opener. Pound rescued that poem from perdition.

          I’d guess the French poem you mention is Dans le Restaurant, which to me was an attempt to put his foot into the space between Laforgue and Baudelaire, which failed as he fell into an oubliette of irredeemable pap. He did much better to adapt that matter, shorn of Schmaltz, into the Wasteland. Funny thing is that it renders some of the worst pre-Pound faults of _The Wasteland_ into French.

          @Mary, Eliot’s anti-Semitism is well manifested in his poetry as well. From “Burbank with a Baedeker” to the truly nasty “Rachel née Rabinovitch” of Sweeny among the Nightingales, and beyond.

          And I think I’ll leave off with that, because I do like Eliot’s work, and I’ve studied it quite closely, and my opinions on him will always be variegated.

        • Becky says:

          Peh.

          Hold whatever mistaken opinion you like. I’m sure you’d say the same to me.

          But it was not Dans le Restaurant.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          @Mary, re Pound and “In a Station of the Metro,” you have to remember that though he was under the influence of Arthur Symons and the Fenollosa papers, which pushed him towards focused image, he also had just translated “The Seafarer” and his ear was well attuned to Anglo-Saxon-derived alliterative/accentual verse. He wasn’t even capable of writing outside that mode, as his Fenollosa-based “translations” attest. So I think if you teach it completely from an Eastern standpoint, you’re losing most of the actual poetry.

          As for moving Pound poems, that’s probably all a matter of taste. I’m Igbo, and we’re famous for being very direct, and not much given to extrapolation of emotion, so maybe Pound just suits that nature. I will say that from my perspective _The Pisan Cantos_ might be the most moving poems I’ve ever read. Pound was watching his artistic ambitions as well as his very life crumble around him, and he put all that into the poem unflinchingly. You are right there with him in the cage, suffering the nervous breakdown, and facing the fact that after decades at this work, you cannot “make it cohere.” But of course _The Pisan Cantos_ is a very difficult work. It rewards study IMO, but I won’t presume to urge you to discover whether I’m right.

          Examples of more accessible and moving (IMO) Pound poems are:

          * Dance Figure
          * Doria
          * The Tree
          * Mauberley’s E.P.Ode, sections IV & V (“THESE fought, in any case,…”)

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Oddly, I don’t get e-mail notifications in this thread. I only accidentally found that the conversation had continued after my last salvo a week ago (?). And just now I only saw Becky’s “Peh…” response because I refreshed the page after writing the Pound comment. I hadn’t noticed before, but seems maybe only the thread starter (Becky) and post author (Mary) get those?

        • Becky says:

          It’s the grand mystery of TNB threading, Uche. Don’t question it.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          @Uche, I think the comments are not notifying you because they’ve stopped nesting at this level.

          If I had to categorize the way I teach “In a Station of the Metro,” I would say I do so from an Imagist perspective (after having read the Imagist manifesto) and then talk about the connotations of the central image, which are – at least for me – Eastern (and you must agree with the general critical consensus that the structure of the poem is, in and of itself, intended at least to look and act like haiku–if not sound like it, which I think is what you are arguing it doesn’t do, based on what he was reading then). Then I encourage students to discuss their own perceptions of the poem’s concrete details, and discuss what ideas might stem from their associations with the image. As an instructor in a sophomore-level lit survey, as opposed to a course on Pound or a poetry writing course, I don’t think it would be on-topic to explore with the class what Pound was reading at the time. However, I do think I will talk this summer, when I next teach it, about the accentual nature of the poem and its sound, which I thank you for bringing to my attention.

          Thanks for the poem recommendations too; I will check them out.

          Also, I haven’t seen “The Wasteland” before Pound got to it, but I knew it was drastically different. Having read Pound’s poetry and nonfiction myself in a couple different graduate and undergraduate classes, I sort of get the impression that he would’ve made an excellent editor. A better editor, even, perhaps, than a poet…

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Certainly, Mary. It’s not my place to question your approach to teaching. The beauty of teaching is the individuality of the teacher and student makes each class a unique experience (OK, talking about schmaltz ;) ).

          I’m just obviously as passionate about Pound as Becky is about Eliot, so I want everyone else to see the multitudes I do, and that’s all healthy-like.

          I must say I’m surprised at your impression on the critical consensus on the poem. It’s been a while since I’veread Hugh Kenner or IA Richards or FR Leavis on Pound’s Imagist period, but I thought it was commonplace that he was combining the aesthetics of his older Provençal and Greek translations, and attempts at Villon imitation with his newer discoveries in Anglo-Saxon and in the Fenollosa papers. Maybe it’s a more recent critical trend to look at that period of Pound more strictly from an Easter lens? If so, I still maintain they’re missing a good deal of the trick.

          Are you required by curriculum to teach “In a Station of the Metro” in that class? Seems a shame to have to teach a poem you just don’t feel, especially when there are so many other examples to be had.

          Since I don’t get e-mail notifications, I’ll just try to remember to check back here in a few days.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          I’m not required; I just don’t think it should be skipped. That’s one problem with teaching a chronologically organized literature survey; there are always some pieces and authors that I feel I should cover, even if I don’t care for them, in order to give the students an understanding of the overarching historical literary narrative. The reason I think this particular piece has to stay in, for example, is I think it is a good illustration of Imagism, which I think is important to teach in order to prepare students to understand how and why Modernist poetry came to be. Since Pound was so influential in this, I like teaching his own work right after the manifesto as the first case study, but another Pound poem would serve, if it illustrated the principles outlined in the manifesto as well as this one does. I’ll look at those other poems of his that you mention, like I said. The thing is I love and understand the idea of Imagism, and what it did for Modern poetry, so it’s not like I’m against the theory of what Pound is doing. It’s just this particular poem doesn’t seem to work for me. In class, we always have an interesting discussion; I just never feel anything if that makes any sense.

          I think I’ll do some more critical research, because this poem has always puzzled me, but the introductions to both anthologies I’ve got the poem in both mention (a) Imagism and (b) the Eastern influence, in briefly introducing the poem, and both of those strands of thought were echoed by the criticism I went back and read a few years ago when I first had to teach it at the college level. Admittedly I haven’t studied this particular poem at the graduate level; so perhaps that is why I don’t remember anything of its other influences.

          And you know, the “problem” of having to teach a poem that doesn’t speak to you, isn’t really a problem. As the above essay illustrates, my tastes are always changing. Different poems speak to me from semester to semester, and I am always noticing something new.

  2. J.M. Blaine says:

    To Fall Asleep in the Deep & Dark

    My favorite title of the last year I think.

    That’s delicious.

    For my goth needs I always
    went more towards the poetry
    of Robert Smith.
    But I am a big Thoreau fan.
    Not so much his wordsmith
    as his philosophies.

    • Mary McMyne says:

      Thank you. Of course it’s lifted from Frost himself.

      And yes, I think I read at least as much Cure as Thoreau in my younger years! My favorite album was Disintegration.

  3. sandi says:

    Really loved this post. It’s haunting, honest, brave…just like the poem.

    It’s funny how we can change like whether, whether the cause is an incident, hormones, whatever. Especially when the person assumes him/herself to be rock hard, no changing, no how. And then a simple Frost poem makes you aware of how deeply you’ve changed, how affected you are.

    I’ve found recently that novels I loved previously no longer hold my attention, no longer speak to me. Others that I’ve kept b/c I was ‘supposed’ to, but never was able to finish, now sit deeply in my mind. I love them.

    Change happens.

    • Mary McMyne says:

      Yes, and it’s so interesting when it does…

      All semester, I had been looking forward to teaching Cummings, but his poems had almost no effect, compared to Frost’s, this year. And for my birthday, my husband bought me a signed copy of an out of print book by Donald Barthelme, who has been my favorite writer for years. But reading it, this spring, I found it almost too intellectual, even slightly pretentious, although I could still appreciate his creativity, his invention.

      Did I mention the day I taught Frost was my thirty-second birthday?

      I’m finding I really like getting older, mentally.

      • Irene Zion says:

        The “minister” read
        “i thank you god for most this amazing day”
        at our elopement.

        I can recite it perfectly
        and assumed that his job would be to read what he was going to perform
        ahead of time.

        It was comical.
        It sounded like a kindergardener
        trying to read
        and making things up
        he didn’t understand.

        The best laid plans….

        • Mary McMyne says:

          I love that poem. Wow, what a lovely, romantic thing to have read at your elopement.

          We eloped too. New York City Hall. All we wanted was to honeymoon in Tokyo, so there was only one witness, who served as photographer/witness/bridesmaid/best man/reception attendant. The service lasted 60 seconds. Nothing was read. The judge was very quick. Many others were waiting. Afterward I plopped our single guest in the face with my bouquet, then we three ate breakfast at Kate’s Joint. Then we two went home and got ready to get on our plane…

  4. Judy Prince says:

    Thanks, Mary, for your lovely look into the soul of a poem and of learning and teaching.

    Many times, from exhaustion and reading/grading too many papers, I’ve gone into the classroom, ideas set, texts well read—–and been gobsmacked at the revelations imparted from “somewhere”.

    It’s like a truly fine play in a theatre. The hushed, awaiting, audience members pull from committed actors a fresh sensitivity to their lines, a new interpretation of the meaning of the role they’d played countless times before.

    • Mary McMyne says:

      You’re welcome! Thank you for reading.

      Love the theater metaphor! Yes, I love teaching on days like that. I walk out of the classroom invigorated, electric, having drawn something wonderful from the experience myself. Unfortunately, other days, I feel like I imagine an actress must feel deep into her third season performing a mediocre play. You perform well, you say your lines, you act the part, but do you feel something, anything?

      But it’s worth it because of the good days, and the feedback from students who claim you reach them even on the days you don’t even reach yourself.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Thanks, Mary, and I’m totally with you about the so-so teaching days. You’re right, as well, that students may be deeply influenced by something you’ve said or pointed out in a text or in their writings…..and we never (or rarely) know that they’ve been affected by us.

        What you replied to Zara really struck me: “As a child, I always thought you were supposed to grow more cynical as you aged. But I find, perhaps because I was so cynical in my teens and twenties, the opposite is happening for me.”

        We get these ideas about our future selves, and they’re totally whacko! But we hang onto them like bats on a rafter. HA!

        I shouldn’t laff at us, though. Some folks do indeed get more cynical as the years go on. On my father’s 60th birthday I happily asked him what he had learned. He said, “Don’t trust anybody”. Sad, that.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          That is sad. I hope I have something different to say, if I make it that far. And I hope I do!

        • Judy Prince says:

          The Universe doesn’t zap us like a jealous hen, Mary. We become more of what we are.

          Here’s a much better way to say that. It’s a paraphrase by Carol Drinkwater (from her memoir _The Olive Farm_) that she said is from Goethe. I prefer her paraphrase to Goethe’s actual words (translated to English) which have a quite different meaning. She said: “We build the future by enlarging upon our past.” I totally love that!

        • Mary McMyne says:

          I prefer your first statement to Drinkwater’s, Judy: “The Universe doesn’t zap us like a jealous hen. We become more of what we are.” What a lovely idea.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Thanks for your kind comment, Mary—-and the courage to say it in public! ;-)

          Dunno why, but it just occurred to me how awesomely different your life will be when the baby’s arrived. Lots of TNBers have babies and young’uns, and some, like me, have grandkids, so you’ll hear echoes in comments about the altered lifestyle that children bring to us.

          While pregnant, I remember often thinking about being a kind of third party, a bystander in the physical/emotional/mental drama that the Universe was taking me through. At times I loathed the enforced changes; at times I felt almost like an anointed figure; and at times I just threw up (always it was the food I MOST loved! go figure).

          Then the baby arrives, and you become invisible. Except, thankfully, to the baby.

          Oh, there’s a TNB baby! I’ve only heard about it, so I’ll let Brad or another longer-tenured TNBer tell you the story.

          When’s the due date?

        • Mary McMyne says:

          I am lucky to have never thrown up, even once, though I did have a lot of nausea first trimester. I inherited this, I believe, from my mother and grandmother. But I relate to that idea of feeling like a bystander, an observer; I have a strong drive to analyze and reflect deeply upon changes that I suspect most people just inhabit. I am enjoying that very much. The back pain and exhaustion coupled with insomnia, not so much.

          I am all ears about this TNB baby though!

  5. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    The world’s coming a-new because of that baby. Rather beautiful turn of events.

  6. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely piece, Mary.
    And congratulations.
    It’s interesting when you suddenly realise that you are more romantic and than cynical huh? I found this out about myself earlier this year and I was shocked! But in a good way…

    • Mary McMyne says:

      Thank you, and thank you.

      Yes, it is! I think pregnancy is, by definition almost, a state of hope and optimism. At least it is for me. This happened to a close friend of mine too, during pregnancy, the shedding of cynicism. As a child, I always thought you were supposed to grow more cynical as you aged. But I find, perhaps because I was so cynical in my teens and twenties, the opposite is happening for me.
      And I find I prefer myself this way.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    I was never exposed to much Frost, apart from this one – there’s an episode of The Sopranos where it gets brought up and Meadow, the smartest one in the family, talks about how it’s a reference to death.

    There’s something of a nexus of poetry going on at TNB this week. I like that a lot. I wish I could get pregnant so I could appreciate it more.

  8. Richard Cox says:

    I think it has everything to do with hormones. I think we ascribe too little of the world’s majesty and cruelty to the vagaries of our strange and individual minds.

    But then again I’ve always been a sucker for sentimental art, so I have to defend it somehow. ;-)

  9. Uche Ogbuji says:

    OK, sacrilege and all, but I just can’t get Telefon out of my head whenever I see/hear that poem :D

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076804/

    • Mary McMyne says:

      Luckily, I have not seen that film! I can’t believe the quote from the poem is actually on the main imdb.com page. “Remember. Miles to go before I sleep.” Oh brother!

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Yeah, you’d better not, I suspect. Of course it’s probably handy to be able to tell a certain sort of audience that poetry once shared a film with Charles Bronson. Not that I’m dissing that audience, considering I’ve watched a good number of Bronson films, myself.

  10. Matt says:

    Mary,

    I really dug this post. Like a couple of others have mentioned, I’ve found–to my great and utter surprise–that I’m far less cynical as a thirty year-old than I was at fifteen.

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Frost, even when my too-hip-to-be-cool poetry friends in college used to bag on him. I think it’s become kind of easy to bag on him, partially because it’s deceptively simple to mistake his illusion of simplicity for actual simplicity, and because he’s so well known even outside of poetry circles there’s no cache of cool associated with him.

    • Mary McMyne says:

      Thanks, Matt.

      How wonderful to be able to appreciate Frost as an undergraduate. Somehow, I was more like your friends. I spent those four years all walled up…

      • Matt says:

        Well, I was a fiction writer while they were poets, and we were far less cliqish where these things were concerned–having read or not read certain poets wasn’t an indicator of social status. I just read what I wanted, and what I liked, I read more of. The poetry classes I took just helped open my eyes in that regard, rather than fixing me with horse blinders the way they seem to have done for so many others.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          You know what? I considered myself a poet at that time… Maybe that’s what it was about, a sort of self-definition as Becky described above. (I started writing fiction soon after that. That was all I did for a long time… When I had my first poem–a prose poem, BUT STILL–published this year, I felt like I was fulfilling some serious childhood dreams. I used to scribble epic poems about St. George and the Dragon at twelve or thirteen on long car rides.)

        • Matt says:

          I’ve always considered myself a fiction writer, first and foremost. But what was the first thing I ever published? A poem, of course.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Matt, I’m not really a fan of Robert Frost, but I must say that your quote “I just read what I wanted, and what I liked, I read more of” is the perfect inspiration for people approaching poetry. I’m glad you found classes that encouraged you in that way.

  11. TeraMark says:

    Thank you Mary, I really enjoyed this story.

  12. Joseph says:

    Than you Mary for sharing.

  13. Mary Richert says:

    Now, this, is beautiful. I’ve never been a big Frost fan, either, but even when I read that last stanza, I choked up. You really set it up well with the description of that chemical tiredness you felt. I think Frost must be for more mature readers who have the capacity to understand his subtlety. Many writers (some of my favorites) would take the same ideas and hit you over the head with them, but Frost treats them like the natural experiences they are. It doesn’t make them less powerful but somehow a bit less jarring and scary. I never even put my finger on it until now. You’re a very good teacher! :-D (And good luck with the rest of your pregnancy!)

    • Mary McMyne says:

      Thank you, Mary! That means a lot. And thank you for wishing me luck with the pregnancy, too; I’m in a sort of peaceful place right now, second trimester, but I hear things get pretty tough towards the end. And then, there’s the delivery…

      • Judy Prince says:

        Ah yes, Mary re the delivery and all its options: fathers assisting, Lamaze training, underwater births, home delivery with midwife/physician, moms video’ing the birth. Mind-boggling.

        I once wrote a 3-part article on birthing techniques, discovering massive amounts of facts. One which I remember bcuz of its import: Ana Erofeevna, a Russian researcher with Pavlov, also experimented with dogs. She put out filled bowls of food for hungry dogs, and just as they were chomping into the food she’d zap them with an electric prod. They kept eating, seemingly ignoring the pain. ‘Twas this that foundationed the Lamaze method of mothers breathing in response to the uterine contractions. Of course, the world is only aware of Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell associated with food-bringing, not Erofeevna’s discovery.

        I was enthralled with the idea of childbirth at home. As one doctor said (she had, in the 1930s and 40s, delivered hundreds of babies at their homes in Chicago with great success): There’s much less chance of infection, more privacy, and the mother and family are in their own environment. And it’s obviously less costly than a hospital delivery. She added that on the rare occasions when there were complications, a doctor was despatched immediately to the home or an ambulance to take the mother to the hospital.

        At the time I interviewed her, fathers were not allowed into labour rooms in Chicago hospitals. A month after my son was born, however, it was made legal. Hospitals recognised that they had to make concessions to parents.

        • Mary McMyne says:

          I feel bad for the dogs in that experiment!

          I know birth is a natural proess, but my mother had an emergency c-section with me (involving lots of blood) so we are pleased to be registering at a v. progressive local hospital that does mother-baby couplet nursing and keeps us all three in a family suite. My compromise to trying this at home! I haven’t decided on what techniques I’ll be using yet, but we have our first birth class next week. Very excited about that!

          We toured another hospital around here that insisted on taking the baby away to a “nursery” only an HOUR after birth! We saw the babies in the nursery. They looked so sad and lonely. As I looked at the babies, I thought, how am I supposed to breastfeed? And why does the baby have to go if it’s not sick? Then when the nurse walked us through the process and informed us it was only an hour after birth the baby was taken, I became enraged. Seriously, my fists clenched up and I thought, Nobody’s going to take my @##@%$@# baby away. One of my first experiences with this newfound pregnancy anger. I have a feeling this is a permanent change too. I can see how it might be useful, evolutionarily.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Mary, you’ve chosen wisely to be in a hospital for the delivery, given your mom’s difficult delivery of you.

          Do tune the righteous “mother anger” to the appropriate people’s ears! Insist upon a nurse or staffer to show you how to breastfeed, how to place the baby next to you on the bed, you lying on your side with one arm above your head and under the pillow to get it out of the way of the baby. At first, baby’s grabbing your nipple will hurt, but the nipples acclimate astonishingly quickly.

          Human breastmilk is less fat and is more easily digested than cow’s milk, which, duh, is for calves, not for babies! Mom’s milk’s curds (think cottage cheese here) are much smaller, so babies process it faster. That means that every hour and a half baby will be hungry—-not every 3 or 4 hours, as with cow’s milk. Soon, you’ll simply get the baby in bed with you and your husband, lie on your side and go to sleep as baby’s nursing. You will not roll over and scrunch your baby. It’s something subconsciously like the way you wouldn’t pee or poop in bed. (homely example, but it fit better than others) It’s pure heaven to cuddle round the nursing baby in bed, and then you both fall asleep!

          Further, folks don’t tell you, but it is absolutely true that breastfeeding is orgasmic. It is the soul of orgasm. Oxytocin (not oxycontin, folks!), the
          “love” and emotion-bonding chemical is released when baby sucks. Within a second, you’ll have an instant reaction and the milk will begin to flow (called, unfortunately and misleadingly, the “let-down” feeling). There’s a REASON that the Madonna and Child paintings show her looking so happy!!!

          La Leche League (Grace Kelly was an adamant backer and supporter-spokesperson for it) was a huge help to me in the world of physicians who thought it was an odd and even perverted practice. I recall saying in a newspaper comment on a doctors’ debate that they had “mammary envy”, and I’m not sure I was way wrong. ;-)

          The LLL has physicians, chemists, nurses, and lots of breastfeeding mom volunteers, most helpfully ones in your own neighbourhood. I got a bad infection from an ankle wound which required antibiotics to heal, and the ER doctor insisted I’d have to stop nursing my then six-month old son. I got LLL’s doctors’ and chemists’ opinions and continued to nurse my son ’til he was past 2 years old with no effect like the ER doc had insisted (that my kid’s second set of teeth would be horribly discoloured).

          Family and friends said that I’d be nursing my son on his lunch hour from high school, the way I was going, but much of that ribbing was coming from ignorance and jealousy, especially the females who “bought” their doctors’ explanations as to why they “couldn’t” breastfeed: e.g., milk “too thin” or nipples “not large enough”. Fact is, the doctors were ignorant. They trusted a fake superiority of rubber and glass or plastic to the real things.

          Many wonderful and incredibly dedicated mothers who must work but want to breastfeed their babies, “express” their milk into baby bottles and save them for someone to give to the baby when they’re not available. I applaud their decision and wonder at their energy. One of my own reasons for nursing, besides its obvious physical/emotional benefit to baby and me, was that I didn’t want to be bothered getting out of bed to sterilise bottles or sit and give a bottle to the baby. What silliness! Not to mention the expense.

          Best thing was getting a diaper-cleaning service from a dear friend!!!

          On that note, I wish you marvelous pure joy and sweet intimate times with your baby and your husband. Blessings!!!!

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Thank you, Judy, for the best wishes and blessings.

          I appreciate your advice too, and sharing your story with pregnancy. I did a great deal of reading about breastfeeding for novel research a while back actually and knew about the powerful role oxytocin plays in mother-child bonding. I’m very much looking forward to breastfeeding. I will be working during the spring, but hopefully using FMLA to spend more time with the child then, so I hope to do real breastfeeding (rather than having to pump) as much as possible. I can’t imagine going through pregnancy years ago when things were so much less progressive. Good for you, for doing it the old way, and not listening to the doctors even then!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Good for you, Mary.

          In a sense, yes, things were trickier in the late 60s for parents who wanted things done naturally, but it was an era in which we wanted a return to natural things such as organic food and honouring the land as the Europeans seem to’ve done for hundreds of years. We also sought freedom from gender-stereotyping and race-stereotyping. Sounds pretty much like now, doesn’t it?

  14. Joe Daly says:

    I enjoyed this whole read, but I found myself most appreciative of the lesson/reminder that even the things we know have the potential to take on powerful new meaning for us as we go through life.

    Very, very nice companion to my Sunday morning coffee. Well done.

  15. Irene Zion says:

    Mary,

    You will still have these emotions forever now.
    Once you are pregnant,
    once you have a baby,
    you will see things
    forever
    marvelous things
    that you never
    ever
    saw
    before.

    I wish I had had a teacher like you,
    I really, really do.

    (Sorry, I’m late, my computer was in the hospital and I only had my phone.)

  16. Judy Prince says:

    Mary, dear Rodent has been saying for years that Robert Frost was influenced by his English friend, Edward Thomas. I asked Rodent to send me a poem of Thomas’s that may show some of his influence on Frost “Stopping by the Woods”, and he sent this, “Lights Out”, preceded by an accompanying comment of Rodent’s:

    Rodent: “I just reread it, and it’s much more overtly about the temptation to suicide than Frost’s is!! If it’s a direct influence on the Frost poem, Frost toned it all down considerably!!!

    ******************

    Lights Out

    I have come to the borders of sleep,
    The unfathomable deep
    Forest where all must lose
    Their way, however straight,
    Or winding, soon or late;
    They cannot choose.

    Many a road and track
    That, since the dawn’s first crack,
    Up to the forest brink,
    Deceived the travellers,
    Suddenly now blurs,
    And in they sink.

    Here love ends,
    Despair, ambition ends,
    All pleasure and all trouble,
    Although most sweet or bitter,
    Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
    Than tasks most noble.

    There is not any book
    Or face of dearest look
    That I would not turn from now
    To go into the unknown
    I must enter and leave alone
    I know not how.

    The tall forest towers;
    Its cloudy foliage lowers
    Ahead, shelf above shelf;
    Its silence I hear and obey
    That I may lose my way
    And myself.

    Edward Thomas

    • Mary McMyne says:

      Oh my goodness, Judy, I love this. Again with the forest metaphor… but especially the last line… “and my self.”

      Ten years ago, about nine months before my father was diagnosed with cancer – he may have had it already, though he wouldn’t have known – I drove up north with him to Pennsylvania, to visit his family for a couple of weeks. I remember one night in particular very well: I was sitting on the stoop of my uncle’s apartment, talking with him and my uncle.

      A bit of background: my uncle is a paranoid schizophrenic and Vietnam vet who has a Master’s degree in psychology (his thesis was on parapsychology, focusing on out-of-body experiences–a fascinating thing; I’ve read it). My uncle is a wonderful strange man when he is on medication, very creative, musical, and thoughtful. Unfortunately, after my father died, he stopped taking his medicine and now lives off his social security check, which he cashes without depositing in the bank, staying in shelters and motels. He doesn’t speak to any of us, and the last few times he did he got violent. But at this time, he was on medication.

      That night, we were all sitting outside, drinking beers, listening to classic rock, watching the sun set, talking about spirituality and death. A breeze was blowing off the mountain. My father said what scared him the most about dying was the Buddhist idea that you might become part of a collective, that you would lose your identity, your Self. My uncle’s response was, “What if in losing yourself, you become more yourself?”

      Somewhere around then, I stopped being afraid of death.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Wow, Mary—-what a mind-attuner, that quote of your uncle: “What if in losing yourself, you become more yourself?” No wonder it stopped your fear of death.

        I recently finished a gentle, nearly overlooked book (which, unfortunately I don’t have to hand, so can’t tell you the author or title) written by a hospice nurse, each chapter given over to a brief background of a dying patient, especially spotlighting their last days and moments. It sounds like a complete downer, no? ;-)

        Well, it gave me, as you were given by your uncle, an actual *appreciation* of what we call “death”. This quote, by one of the dying patients especially jolted me to a grateful peace: “Death is like walking from the living room to the dining room.”

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Well, it was somewhere around then. Not necessarily a result of those words, but after it happened, I did think of those words a lot. Still do.

          I think in some senses, dying is a very individual process. In contrast with the above statement about changing rooms, my father told me dying was one of the most interesting things he’d ever done.

        • Judy Prince says:

          What a fantastic thing for your father to say, Mary. An entirely new perspective than what we hear all the time…..and fear much of the time.

          Any other revelations from him?

        • Mary McMyne says:

          Tons, but I think I will save them for future essays. They deserve to be delivered in scene, with reflection, intact, as opposed to scattered in random comments. But thanks for asking!

        • Judy Prince says:

          Just what I had in mind, Mary. Take your time. I look forward to your father’s revelations as seen through your capable creative screen.

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