The beginning of spring has, since 1996, also been the season for National Poetry Month, which is April. Both events bring to mind Robert Frost.
Frost's image may seem more Autumn-like than anything else. After all, he was a poet whose reputation didn't begin to establish itself until he had reached middle age, as he published his first book of poems, A Boy's Will, in 1913, at the age of 39, and his last, In the Clearing, in 1962, at the age of 88.
By the time his last book-length publication became available, in a release that had been arranged to mark Frost's 88 birthday on March 26, the poet had become a very public figure, having the previous year participated in the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. When we remember Frost, we usually recall the image of the white-haired, wizened man that appeared on a 1974 10¢ stamp, that is, a figure well into the autumn, if not winter, of his senescence, to adapt a phrase Gore Vidal coined.
In spirit Frost is, nonetheless, a spring poet, at least if we associate spring with the mischief of "Mending Wall"; it is the mischief of renewal, not physical but conceptual.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do [walls] make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
Frost spent his poetic career not simply avoiding clichés, a practice every young poet is warned to do, but undermining them, or illustrating their uselessness to the world as it often is.
"Mending Wall" is among the most famous examples of Frost's way of dealing with clichés, perhaps because in that poem he so clearly articulates one of the problems of relying on them. It's not that good walls never make good neighbors; it's that the phrase's wisdom is valuable only in certain contexts, where there are cows, or farm animals.
For the poet's neighbor, the phrase contains the wisdom of the ages: its truth transcends our quotidian life and must be accepted no matter what its condition may be. "He moves in darkness as it seems to me," the speaker notes, teaching us, if not the neighbor-whom the poem's speaker leaves to find his own way out of the dark-to allow the light surrounding us to revive our thinking and world along with it.
Frost, of course, isn't always so obvious, nor is the value of "Mending Wall's" thought exhausted by its concern for the darkness in which our clichés can trap us, but clichés were one of his interests. Among the ones that he sought to undermine was the personification of the natural world as a sort of sympathetic creature, as in the following war sonnet that shows the world going about its business, very likely in the spring, with little concern for our problems:
The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird's nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.
On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O'ernight 'twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.
To celebrate Frost's birthday this early spring, we should well remember that our world may sometimes be indifferent to us, but being indifferent to it, including Frost's place in it, may well leave us in the dark.
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