Some poems of Robert Frost lend themselves well to allegorical interpretation, though that was not always the intent of the poet.  The following poem is one often quoted in that regard.

This poem is set in the New England countryside, where stone walls are common as separators of one property from another.

I will divide it into segments for ease of explanation.


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Frost says there is something in Nature that does not like walls, something that shows that dislike by causing a swell in the ground beneath the wall, caused by the freezing and expansion of moisture in the soil.  In saying this, Frost gives Nature a personality.  The swell beneath the wall raises the rock wall above it, causing boulders to topple, leaving a hole in the wall so large that even two men could walk through it side by side.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs.

Another way stone walls are damaged is not by Nature, but by hunters chasing after a rabbit.  The rabbit will hide in a space between the stones in the wall, and to get him out, the hunters will take the wall apart in that place, not leaving one stone on another.  Frost says they do so “to please the yelping dogs,” who want to get at the rabbit.

…The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

Frost adds that as for the gaps he is talking about — the further evidence that something in Nature does not like walls — nobody seems to see the holes in the wall made, or hear them made.  Nonetheless, in the spring, when it is time to do the yearly mending of the stone walls — those mysterious gaps are always found.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

He tells his neighbor who lives beyond the hill know about the gaps in the wall, and they pick a day and meet at the wall, walking along it and repairing the gaps by replacing the stones — they “set the wall between us once again,” closing holes where one might walk through, and making the stone wall a firm and strong barrier again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:

‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’

As they work along the wall, each walks on his own side of it — on his own property.  Each man picks up and replaces the boulders that have fallen on his own side.  Some of the stones are shaped like loaves of bread, which are easy to place; but some are so close to ball-shaped that Frost says playfully, “We have to use a spell to make them balance: ‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’  In other words, they just re-place the ball-like stones and hope they will stay in place as the men move on down the wall — though sometimes the round stones do not remain where they should.

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

Handling the stones makes the fingers of the men rough.  Frost sees it as a basic kind of outdoor game, one man on one side, one man on the other, each moving at his own speed and skill.  Nothing more important, just another country chore to be done.

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

The poet thinks there should be some purpose to a wall, and where this wall is, it is not needed.  His neighbor’s side has pine trees, and the poet’s side has an apple orchard.  He tries to make the point that the wall is not necessary by telling his neighbor that the apple trees will never cross the property line and eat the pine cones beneath the neighbor’s pine trees.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

The neighbor, however, is traditional and conservative, and repeats a saying he has likely always heard:  ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’  By this is generally meant that a good fence will keep neighbors from overstepping their bounds, without someone having to remind them — and that makes less likelihood of trouble between neighbors.

But spring is making the poet feel mischievous, and he says that he would like to put a new notion in his neighbor’s conservative head by making him think:  Why do good fences make good neighbors?  Isn’t that for farms that have cows, to keep one farmer’s cows out of a neighbor farmer’s meadows and gardens?  But in this case, neither neighbor owns cows.  So why is the wall even needed?  And he wants to tell his neighbor,

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.

That is what he would like his neighbor to think about.  Before building a wall, the poet would use reason and common sense, and ask what the result would be — he would want to first know exactly what he was walling in (keeping to himself) or walling out (excluding).  And he adds, he would want to know if building the wall would be likely to offend someone.  This is the part of the poem most likely to be quoted in many different circumstances.  Before we build walls between ourselves and other people — whether actual walls such as the “border wall” proposed between Mexico and the United States — or psychological walls, such as excluding people in one way or another from our lives or institutions — we should think carefully about why we are doing it, whether it is really a good idea, and whether we are likely to cause offense to others by it.

And now the poet finishes the notion he would like to place in his neighbor’s hard head,  returning to his original, beginning statement:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself.

He wants his neighbor to see that there is something in Nature that does not like — that is opposed to and works against — walls, and wants them down.  The poet could use the term “Elves,” to personify that mysterious anti-wall force in Nature, but he knows it is not actual elves, and he would rather the neighbor might come to  the realization of that anti-wall force for himself.

Now the poet ponders his tradition-bound neighbor as he watches him mending the wall:

I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

The poet looks at his conservative neighbor carrying a stone in each hand to place on the wall, and says he is like “an old stone-age savage armed.”  Frost sees him as someone who is primitive in mind and driven by tradition and belief rather than reason and common sense.  He sees the neighbor moving “in darkness” — not just the darkness of the woods, or the darkness of the shade of trees, but the darkness of the absence of rational thinking — the lack of the ability to think new and different thoughts.  But the neighbor will not use his head or his heart, and will not violate the saying he heard from his father:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”  He is like a fundamentalist to whom the Bible is law and final, and will not allow reason or thinking to affect him.  And he likes recalling the simplicity and finality of what his father taught him so well that he repeats it again:  “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Some people are like that.  It is common among fundamentalists of several religions to hold beliefs so rock-hard that they will not permit any reason or argument to penetrate or question them.  One often finds the same thing in political beliefs, or in long-held racial or other prejudices.  But in any kind of “wall building,” physical or psychological, one should always seek to know just what is being excluded and why, and should always bring reason and good sense to bear on such matters, mixed with a very good and essential dose of human compassion.


Here is a seasonal poem by the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963).

This is a very simple poem, but deep in its simplicity.  I will separate it into segments for ease of discussion.

The main and only figure in it is an old man — apparently a a bachelor or a widower — who lives alone in an old farmhouse.


All out of doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round him—at a loss.

The old man — lantern in hand, has walked into one of the rooms in the house.  He holds an old kerosene lamp, and by its light he can peer at the windows — all dark, but he can see on the window panes the thin frost that has crystallized here and there — almost like separate stars.  What “looks in” from outside is darkness, but he cannot look back at it because of the lamp he is holding tilted in his hands near the pane — the light reflects off the panes, forming a barrier to the outside in his sight.  So all he sees is the frost and the flat darkness of the panes.

He has come to this room, which apparently contains nothing but some old barrels, but he stands there, having forgotten why he came.  That is the forgetfulness that often comes with old age, and it is age that keeps him from remembering.  So he just pauses there a moment, waiting to remember — but he does not.  It apparently is a seldom used room, and because its door is usually closed, the heat from the stove has not entered the room to prevent frost forming on the window.

And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping there, he scared it once again
In clomping off;—and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.

He had made a hollow noise with his heavy shoes as he had clomped heavily across the boards of the house floor and into the room.  It is hollow because he is walking the floor over the cellar beneath.  The poet says the clomping “scared the cellar under him,” but of course that is a kind of lighthearted way of saying that though there was a hollow sound made in the cellar, no one was there to hear it — the only thing in the house that his clomping about could have scared would have been the cellar — in other words, no one at all.  So he made that hollow sound with his walking to the room, and again with his walking back from it.

He also — the poet says — “scared the outer night” with his heavy steps — a way of showing how loud his hollow-sounding steps sounded in the stillness of the house.  The outside had its own winter sounds, like wind in the trees, or the cracking of branches — but nothing like the hollow sound of the old man’s clomping on the floor over the cellar — a sound like someone slowly beating on a wooden box.

Then he sat there in the room by the stove, with his dim kerosene lamp burning on the table.  It was a light only for him in his aloneness, and he was a light only to himself — he had no one else to commune with in the night.  So sitting there, feeling himself as he was, and “concerned with he knew what” — he experienced the feeling of his body on the chair, the simplicity of his own few thoughts, like a faint, quiet light — “and then not even that,” as he senses the weariness of the night and of his age, and decides to go to bed and extinguish his lamp.

He consigned to the moon,—such as she was,
So late-arising,—to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.


The old man, on going to his bed, leaves the snow on the roof and the icicles along the outer wall of the house in charge of  the late-rising moon in one of its phases — it is a “broken,” or partial moon, not a full moon.   It is “better than the sun” for this matter, because the coolness of the moon is in keeping with the cold and the night.  That just means he is leaving the thoughts of the day — which are simple thoughts of the snow and the ice and the farmhouse — behind him as he goes to bed.

He sleeps, his bed in the same room as the stove.  A log in the fire shifts and falls as it burns, making a noise loud enough to disturb the old man momentarily in his sleep, but not enough to wake him.  He only changes his position in the bed, and his breathing becomes slower and more relaxed — and he sleeps on.

The poet now concludes:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.


One aged old man — one man alone, the poet tells us — cannot fill a house.  He cannot fill a farm, or a countryside.  One needs family, or friends and neighbors for that, and this old man is all alone in his old age.  But then the the poet continues, revising his view somewhat:  if an old man can fill a house, or farm, or countryside, then this is how he does it — in his simple and lonesome and solitary and aged way.

If we look at this poem from the perspective of hokku aesthetics, we can feel a strong harmony between the night, the chill and depth of winter, and the age of the old man.  We can also feel a harmony between the single lamp light he holds in his hand, and his solitary life.  Though he is old, his life continues to dimly “burn” like a single lamp flame.

Robert Frost had the most amazing gift of writing as though he were a rural New England farmer, in spite of his having been a college English teacher later in his life.  His poems — at least those like this one –often give us in words somewhat the same feeling we get from the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.


Today we will look at one of the best-known winter poems — Robert Frost’s


Whose woods these are I think I know.  
His house is in the village though;  
He will not see me stopping here  
To watch his woods fill up with snow. 

The poet is passing by a forest at evening.  He thinks he knows who the owner of the forest is, but it does not matter.  The presumed owner lives in the village, not out here in the country, so he will not see the poet stopping to watch the snow falling and covering the trees and ground.  No one will suddenly appear to ask him why he is there or what he is doing.

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year. 

The poet is there with a little horse, and he supposes the horse must think it strange that the man wants to stop without any farmhouse — the kind of place where he would usually stop — nearby.  Instead, the poet has paused between the snowy woods and a frozen lake, on this, the darkest evening of the year.  By “darkest evening of the year” the poet means it is the longest night of the year, which comes at the Winter Solstice.

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.  

The horse gives his head or body a sudden shake — which rings the many harness bells attached — to indicate that the creature feels there is something amiss; it must be a mistake to stop out in “nowhere.”  Other than that quick shake of the harness bells, the only other sound in that isolated location is that of the easy wind filled with light and fluffy snowflakes.

From what has been said so far, we can see that the poet’s little horse has harness bells — sleigh bells, which were worn about the neck or around the body just behind the front legs, or in both places,  so the poet has come to these snowy woods in a sleigh pulled by one horse.  The bells were used on sleigh horses so that people in the path of a sleigh could hear it coming, and move accordingly.

The 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.

The poet thinks to himself that the woods are beautiful, they are dark, and they are deep; he would like to just remain there in the chill, dark silence — far from the noise and worry of the human world — but he cannot.  He has made promises.  He has places he must be, appointments he must keep.  He must continue on his way back into the everyday world of people, because he has much to do before he can rest that night — miles yet to go before his work is finished and he can sleep.

The repetition of the last line

And miles to go before I sleep

is for emphasis, as if one is saying, “I have a long way to go, yes, a long way to go.”

The charm of this poem lies partly in its simplicity — simple words and simple rhymes — and partly in the sensory experience it provides — the cold of the night and the snow, the sound of the flakes blowing in the easy wind and the metallic jingle of the harness bells, the dark depths in the forest.  But the charm is also in the lack of details.  That is important.  We do not know who the man is, or what promises he has made that he must continue on his way, or even where is is going.  That raises the unanswered questions in our mind that we find so often in old and modern hokku, and they give a similar effect — what we may call the “unanswered question” experience.

What we do know is that for him, this pause to watch the snow falling on the deep and dark woods is a respite, a brief relief, a moment of rest from all the cares of his life.  It gives the reader too an immense sense — for the moment — of peace and tranquility, before we are called back to our responsibilities.

Though there are many possible explanations of the who and why, it would have been a fitting poem for a country doctor in the old days — one who had his visit or visits to make among scattered farmhouses, but who stops for one brief moment of peace somewhere between, to watch the woods fill up with snow.  However, he has people or patients he must see, so cannot pause as long as would like — but must continue on his long way, knowing that he will have much to do before he can finally return home and sleep.  Perhaps you have your own interpretation of the man and his duties and his goal — or wish to apply them to someone you know or to yourself, in a metaphorical way.  But the best is not to interpret them at all — just accepting the poem as it is, with its unanswered questions.

We could say that this poem — aside from its beauty — is a contrast between what we must do as humans who have our duties and responsibilities, and what we would like to do.  In terms of Chinese philosophy, it is a contrast between the yang of activity and the yin of peace and stillness and rest.  And of course the poem is set in the cold winter — the most yin time of the year.

Many people apply this poem symbolically, and then the man’s journey through the night is his duty-filled daily life, and his brief pause by the dark, chill forest is the call of death and rest — but the man has responsibilities in life that he must fulfill before he can rest in death.  Yet Frost does not actually say or imply anything about death, and I do not think the poem is to be read in that way.  In my view, Frost’s poem is both simpler and deeper than that — the often overlooked depth of everyday things like snow and cold and darkness.  But it is just human nature to find meanings — to take something and see it as a symbol of something else — so people tend to give even simple poems meanings beyond what the poet intended.  We see the same in the interpretations people attach to Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” particularly the lines

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Yet Frost himself made clear that he had intended no profound philosophical meaning in those simple lines.

I think what people tend to miss in Frost is that the depth and profundity in life lie in ordinary, everyday simple things — not in the intellectual interpretations we attach to them.  That is also the message of the verse form known as hokku.


Tomorrow — December 21st — is the Winter Solstice, the ancient holiday of Great Yule.  It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night.  It is also the turning point after which the days once more gradually lengthen, and the nights shorten.

That is why, in ancient times, it was seen as the “rebirth” of the sun, which had been crossing ever lower and nearer the horizon after Midsummer’s Day.  Yule was celebrated as the sign of the return of light and warmth, a time of celebration and feasting.

Some of us still keep the Yule holiday with its twelve days.  Because it is the Winter Solstice, it is the “natural” winter holiday.  For those of who keep up Christmas traditions without the dogma, it is not an “either/or” matter.  Because Yule continues for twelve days, it easily incorporates the Christmas gift giving for those who wish to continue that.  And of course all the greenery indoors that one associates with Christmas was originally part of Yule and still is.  In Welsh the holiday greeting this time of year is “Nadolig Llawen,” meaning “Happy Birth.”  One can apply that to the Winter Solstice as well, when one remembers the ancient tradition that it is the rebirth of the sun, which metaphorically it is.  The sun once more begins to climb higher and higher as it arcs across the sky, eventually bringing us to spring.

Yule is a reminder that even the darkest times, there is hope for better.  The world, with its daily news filled with violence and dismal prospects for the environment and humanity could certainly use some of that now.

Sometimes the smallest things can take us out of ourselves and our personal preoccupations, bringing a bit of light to dispel dark thoughts, as in this winter poem by Robert Frost:


The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.






Today I would like to discuss a “snow” poem by the noted American poet Robert Frost.  To understand the title, we must not mistake “desert” as meaning a hot, dry, sandy place.  Instead, Frost uses it in its old sense, meaning a place wild, empty, uninhabited, as we find it in the word “deserted.”


Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

Frost passed a field with night coming on, and watched the snow falling into it.  He saw the ground nearly covered and made smooth by the falling snow, with the exception of a few weeds and stubble sticking up out of it.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

He tells us that the snow-covered field gives no impression of being a “human” place; instead, it belongs to the woods around it — to Nature.  He tells us the animals are all “smothered” in their lairs — the burrowing creatures are hidden below ground, their entry ways covered over with snow.  So there is no living creature to be seen in that landscape at all, and the writer tells us that he is too “absent-spirited” to count as one — his mind is still and quiet, and so he finds he has become just a part of the loneliness of the place rather than an exception to it, in his passing.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

As lonely as that snow-covered field amid forest is, Frost tells us that it will become even more so, as snow continues to cover it more deeply during the night, turning the field into a smooth expanse of featureless whiteness, an even surface “with no expression, nothing to express” — something blank that of itself has no meaning, but just is.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

“They,” meaning people, “cannot scare me with their empty spaces between stars,” he says.  He is not troubled or intimidated by the discoveries of astronomy that reveal immense and empty distances between the stars in the sky — stars “where no human race is,” uninhabited like the snowy field.   They cannot frighten him because he already has such emptiness within himself, as he recognizes on passing the white and snow-covered field, and feeling one with it, feeling he is nobody, no exception to its emptiness. So it is within him to scare himself with the knowledge of the emptiness of things, and he has that realization far “nearer home” than the distant and vast emptiness between the stars.  It is in the snowy field and it is in himself.

Sometimes we, like Frost, can feel such emptiness in the world, and can feel ourselves part of that emptiness.  One has the choice of being frightened by it or of just accepting the peace of it, a peace that acceptance brings.

There is a peace in just “being nobody,” somewhat as in Emily Dickinson’s amusing little “anti-ego” poem:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

We do live in a “frog-filled” world in which people are constantly advertising themselves, which is one of the reasons why it is so pleasant to turn to “egoless” verses, verses in which the writer is one with the emptiness of Nature.

This poem of Frost’s reminds me of the prevalence of solitude in Japanese hokku, a solitude that has a hint of loneliness, but without a sense of pain or fear.   It is more like the natural solitude of someone like Henry David Thoreau.  We find it in Chiyo-ni’s excellent hokku, set not as night comes on, but rather on a winter morning:

In field and mountain,
Nothing moves;
The snowy morning.

As Byron wrote in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

There is a pleasure too in loneliness, as the old hokku writers discovered.




Tomorrow brings New Year’s Eve, followed by the calendar year 2014.

The old Romans had a god — Janus — for whom our month of January is named. He had two faces looking in opposite directions, one forward, one backward. That conveys well the feeling one has at the closing of the present year, when we consider what is past and what is yet to come. One is known, the other is not.

The ending of the year also brings the feeling of transience and impermanence so common to hokku. Nothing stays. New children will come into the world, and many people will leave it. Those remaining will continue to age and change, as do all things.

There is a winter poem by Robert Frost that reflects the passage of time, but in an unusual way. It is called

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten —
If I ever read it.

The poet sees a patch of snow lingering in a shadowed place after it has melted elsewhere. It is just a left-over, small scrap of snowy ground, and if one did not know better, from a distance it would look like a newspaper blown by the wind that finally settled in the corner when it was wetted and made heavy by rain.

It is not particularly lovely, but is dirtied by little specks of grime “as if small print overspread it,” that is, as if it were in fact a newspaper speckled all over with little black letters of print. That is simile, recognizable by the “as if” which is Frost’s equivalent here of saying that the scrap of remaining snow looks like a newspaper covered with specks of type.

That leads to the little “point” of the poem, which Frost speaks in metaphor, by saying that the patch of leftover snow is “the news of a day “I’ve forgotten — / If I ever read it.”

This little poem is Frost’s way of pointing out, very simply, the passage of time. The remaining scrap of snow speckled with grime is (metaphor) “the news of a day I’ve forgotten,” that is, it is a remnant of a snowy day that is past, a day the poet has already forgotten and would not even be reminded of were not the snow lying there in the protected corner. But the most significant words are the last:

If I ever read it.

By that he means, “If I was ever really aware and paying attention to what happened on that day.” He is not talking about world news or even local news. He is talking about the small events of the day — the flight of birds, the pause in snowfall, the tracks of some animal in the snowy yard.

That is often the case with us. The days pass us by without our really being present and aware in them. Like the god Janus, we are too often either looking to the past or looking to the future, seldom in the present day and the present moment. So the “news” of the present all too often goes “unread,” the little things of life all too often pass unnoticed as we go about our busy lives.

Frost’s poem is a good reminder to spend, in the coming year, more time in the present, and less in regrets for the past or concerns about what the future may bring. We can be certain it will bring both news we may like and news we may not, but that is an old story constantly repeated; thus things have aways been in human life.

I do not want to let this moment pass by without thanking all of you who regularly and faithfully read my site, as well as those of you who are new here. I am always pleased to receive your comments, and I read them all, whether you receive a return message from me or not. I also pay attention to requests for articles on a particular poem or topic, so I am always open to suggestions.

I hope the New Year may prove beneficial to all of us, not necessarily in material ways, but certainly in matters of the spirit.



There are few trees so beautiful in the snow of winter as the birch, with its paper-white bark highlighted with slashes of black. The American poet Robert Frost wrote a very well-known poem about birches in winter. Reading it is like listening to the musings of a New England farmer, but of course Robert Frost is only “rural” on the surface. He was really a very sophisticated writer, and it is this combination of the apparent simplicity and rusticity of a farmer combined with an obviously deep mind that gives us the particular pleasure we find in reading Frost’s poetry.

As usual, I will divide the poem into segments for convenience:


When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

The poet, out in the woods in winter, has observed the slender birch trees bending this way and bending that, unlike the straight, upright stance of other trees around them, trees with bark that seems, in winter, much darker than the white, leafless birches. He tells the reader, as though just speaking conversationally, that when he sees the birches leaning over instead of standing straight, he likes to pretend to himself that some country boy has been swinging them. Why? Because, of course, it is a pleasant thought that reminds him of his own childhood, and also sets him to musing about other things.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them

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.

Our poet, though he likes to imagine and pretend, is nonetheless also a realist; he knows that the birches do not really lean because a boy has been swinging them. The true reason is that the birches are bent down in winter ice storms. An ice storm is a rain that falls into a colder layer of air and freezes on whatever it touches, which in a forested area is trees. They become coated with a heavy, silver-white layer of shining ice, which is why when I was a boy, people used to call such an ice storm a “silver thaw.” It is very beautiful, but can also be damaging because the weight of the accumulating ice can break branches. Nonetheless, a good ice storm is a very lovely sight, particularly when the sky clears and the sun shines upon a glittering world.

If there is a wind, it moves the branches, causing their ice coating to click as they tap one another, and the sunlit ice takes on various tints and colors as the “stir,” that is, the movement of the ice-coated branches, cracks and crazes the ice. “Crazes” here means that it creates a network of fine line cracks all over the icy surface. Frost calls the ice coating “enamel,” likening it to the melted glass laid over metal and other bases in the making of jewelry and other objects, a craft called enamelling.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

As the sun warms the ice-coated branches, It gradually begins to melt the area where ice and branch meet, and so the ice begins to fall from the branches like “crystal shells,” as the outer ice casing loosens and breaks away. The loosened ice fragments fall and shatter and slide about on the frozen, hard crust of the snow that covers the ground beneath and around the trees. Frost likens the heaps of ice casings fallen from the branches to “heaps of broken glass” to be swept away, but of course that is another poetic fancy. He says there is so much of this ice “broken glass” on the snow that one would think the “inner dome of heaven” had fallen.

This notion of heaven (the sky) as a transparent dome is very ancient. It is the view of the world found in the Old Testament, where if one looked up into the sky, one could see through the transparent, round dome that covered the earth into the blue “waters above the firmament,” a kind of sea of waters held up by the transparent dome, the supposed reason why the sky is blue. Of course Frost did not believe such a “glass” dome really existed, he just considered it a pleasant fanciful notion, like his pretending that a boy had been swinging the leaning birches.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:

Have you noticed how Frost keeps alternating from poetic imagination to factual reality? First he talks of birches bent down by a boy swinging them, then he says that is not the real reason why birches bend; then he goes into another fantasy about the transparent, glassy dome of heaven having fallen, and the shining debris needing to be swept away, and now he is back to talking again about why ice storms make birches lean. The heavy load of ice encasing them in an ice storm bends the birches down to “the withered bracken,” that is, the dry and withered ferns. And, he says, the birches do not seem to actually break, but nonetheless, once they have been bent over for quite some time in an ice storm that lasts a long while, they never are again able to “right themselves,” that is, they are never able to stand up straight once more, but continue to grow in a leaning position.

And now Frost alternates from reality back to poetic fantasy again:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Years after the ice storm that has weighed the birch trees down, bending them over toward the ground, one may still see, in spring and summer and autumn, the trunks of the birches bent over in the woods, trailing their leaves on the ground. And here the poetic fantasy is that the birch trees are like country girls with long hair, who after they have washed it, get down on their hands and knees and throw their long hair over their heads to spread it out and dry it in the warm sunlight. Comparing the leaning birches trailing their leaves to girls on hands and knees drying their hair spread out upon the ground is of course a simile, as we can easily see from the use of the word “like.” When we say one thing is “like” another, we are using simile (pronounced SIM-il-lee). When we say one thing IS another, we are using metaphor. Frost used metaphor earlier in the poem, when he said the fallen ice was “heaps of broken glass to sweep away.”

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)

Frost tells us plainly that he knows he is alternating between truth and poetic fancy, and now that he has taken care of the “truth” about ice storms causing birches to lean, he says to the reader, “Well, now that that obligation to truth has been fulfilled, am I now free to just be poetic? Of course we really know that he has been going back and forth between “truth” and poetic fancy all along. But now he launches into a more detailed description of his poetic fancy that leaning birches are so because a boy has been swinging them:

I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.

I grew up in the country, so I know well how the play of country boys is often what they can find for themselves, whether in summer or in winter. And Frost likes to think that this swinging of birches was a form of self-entertainment found by some isolated country boy for amusement to break the monotony of his daily chore of taking the cows out to pasture or bringing the cows back home.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer…

Frost’s imaginary boy, playing by himself, liked to pretend the birches were opponents in battle that he could attack and “subdue,” that is, overcome and conquer by bending them down with his own weight. He would climb them until the slim trunks bent under his weight, and ride them down to the ground, over and over again, until all the tree-firm stiffness was “beaten” out of them, and not a single one stood straight and tall, not a single one was left unconquered. That is Frost’s fantasy, based on what country boys really do.

And now Frost discusses swinging technique:

He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

The country boy knew that he could not swing his feet out too soon, because if he was holding too low onto the tree trunk, his weight would not bend it down to the ground. So he had to carefully and patiently climb to the more slender part of the tree, the top branches, climbing carefully so as not to bend it too soon, climbing with the same care one would use to fill a cup up with liquid to the maximum it could hold.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

Having reached just the right height on the birch tree, the boy, still holding onto the top of it, would fling his feet outward, the momentum of it helping to suddenly bend the tree so low that the boy’s feet would touch the ground.

Now, having discussed all of this, both reality and fantasy and even the technique of swinging birches, Frost begins his poetic and philosophical point:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.

The poet says that he (as a boy), was just such a swinger of birches (reality), and so he dreams of going back to being a swinger of birches again (fantasy), though the second time metaphorically. And here is how he sees himself as a future swinger of birches:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

When one is weary of daily life as an adult, and all the thought and bother it requires, when life becomes difficult and confusing, like a forest in which there is no path to follow, and when life’s pains and trials get to be too irritating, like walking through cobwebs that stick to and itch on one’s face, and “one eye is weeping” from a twig having struck it (symbolizing the sorrows and sadness of life at times), then Frost tells us what he would like to do to get away from it all for a time:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

The poet wants to get away from all the trials and troubles and sorrows of life for a while, but only for a while. Then he wants to come back refreshed and renewed, to start over again.

May no fate wilfully 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.

Frost does not want the forces that control the world and life to intentionally misunderstand what he wants; he is no defeatist. He does not want to leave the world by some drastic method, such as committing suicide or dying and leaving the earth permanently. No, he loves the world too much for that. He just needs a break. Earth, he says, is the right place for love. By “love,” he is speaking of the love of the ordinary things of the world, of forests and paths and trees and cows and farms and simple life and simple relationships. And for those, he tells us, earth is the right place; he does not know of any afterlife where such things might be better. So he does not want to abandon life permanently. He just needs to get away from it for a while, to regain his perspective and strength.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

This, of course, is just the poet’s fantasy. He says that he would like to “go,” that is, to depart this life (whether temporarily or in death) and leave the world, by climbing up a tall birch tree, just as he did when he was a boy. He would leave earth in that way, climbing carefully higher and higher, farther away from life and the world, until finally he had gone as far as the tree would bear him, and then it would bend its top and set him down back in life and the world again, and that, the poet says, “would be good both going and coming back.” Why? Because leaving would be a pleasure, and returning refreshed and renewed would be a pleasure too.

And that, the poet tells us, is why being a swinger of birches, though simple, is such a pleasant thing. One could do much worse in life than be willing to leave things occasionally for a refreshing break of sorts, then coming back to them again and seeing them anew, beginning one’s life anew.

In my view, that is a good way to live. When one becomes too attached to things, too troubled by the difficulties of daily life, it is good to get away for a time, to climb away from them for some moments or hours or days or months of simple pleasure and renewal, and then one can come back again and see things anew, start life a different way. Life, that way, can be a constant process of rebirth (whether literal or metaphorical) into a better life. But the trick in this is coming back to life with a different perspective than that which caused one to leave it. And that requires one to examine one’s life, the direction in which one is going, one’s goals and objectives. And if we find we are on the wrong path, then when we come back from our swinging of birches, we must chart a new course, change our lives for the better, we must start over again, as though for the first time.



In recent postings I have talked about how important unity is to hokku– how a relationship must be felt by the reader among the elements included in the verse.  And I have talked about how the reader must make a small intuitive leap in order to “put everything together,” to see how those elements relate.

Here is another basic example.  There are numbers of hokku which have to do with human psychology, and even use the words “I” or “me,” which ordinarily we avoid, but which treat these  (or should) objectively, the same way one would write about a buzzing fly or a croaking frog.

This summer example is by Taigi:

“There goes a firefly!”
I almost said;

The key to this verse is the last line, which is really the setting in which the event happens.  You will recall that in hokku, the “setting” is the wider environment or context in which something occurs.  Here it is solitude, and in this solitude the writer suddenly sees a firefly flitting past.  In the childlike excitement of the moment, his first urge is to call it to the attention of someone.  But even before the words can escape his mouth, he remembers that there is no someone; he is alone, and so the words remain unspoken.

The focus in this verse should not be on any kind of emotionalism, not “Poor me!  Here I am all alone!”  Instead, it should be on the natural urge to share something exciting with someone else, a common human trait.

It is very easy for Westerners to wrongly focus on the personal aspect of such verses, because so much of Western poetry deals with the “I”  — “I think,” “I want,” “I like,” “I hate,” “I love,” but in hokku, humans are just a part of Nature, and their emotions are not to be exalted above it.  Hokku is more like the rarer Western poetry that treats human psychology objectively.

In that regard, Taigi’s hokku is a shorter and eastern version of the objective sentiments found in Robert Frost’s poem The Pasture, only in Taigi the “you” is present only by its absence:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf 
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.



Today I would like to talk briefly (you will soon see the reason for brevity) about what I call “poets of private language,” “PPLs” for short.  A poet of private language is one who writes poetry that is often so obscure that only the poet knows for sure what he or she intended, or whether there is any genuine meaning in it or just an assemblage of words.

Rusty Blackbird, Euphagus carolinus (@ Frozen ...
Rusty Blackbird, Euphagus carolinus (@ Frozen Head) (Photo credit: Michael Hodge)

A prime example of a PPL is Wallace Stevens, whose shoulders bear a considerable part of blame for the degeneration of  American poetry as the 20th century progressed.

Why do I say it degenerated?  Because other poets, following the lead of such writers as Stevens, came to the conclusion that poetry  does not have to be understandable; instead, it could be read as an abstraction, as one views an abstract painting, which does not depict the “real” world, but rather the “abstract” world of the intellectual mind.

Such poems are often assemblages of words with reasonable grammatical connections, but with very little sense that can be made of them by the reader.  The poet may know what stimuli brought forth certain images from his or her mind, but he does not share this with the reader, who is left adrift in a sea of verbiage without compass,  sail, or rudder.

We may take the fact that Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens once got into a row as symbolic of the gap that lies between comprehensible poets (such as Frost) and often incomprehensible poets (such as Stevens).  One may take a Frost poem, and with little difficulty make sense of it.  But a Stevens poem often seems little more than educated gibberish, or as Frost once said of it, “poetry that purports to make me think” (my emphasis).

We can think of PPLs as the literary equivalent of non-representational (what used to be commonly called “abstract”) art.  Abstract because it fits the general definition:

Not relating to concrete objects but expressing something that can only be appreciated intellectually.”


Nonrepresentational: not aiming to depict an object but composed with the focus on internal structure and form.”

Abstraction may work in painting, where one can appreciate color, form, texture, and composition even if there is no representation of anything recognizable or meaningful.  But it does not work well in poems, which is a major reason for the general loss of public interest in poetry in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond.

Given that the poetry of Stevens is often an attempt at abstraction in words, we must take such poems not for meaning, or even for sound, but in many cases as things that just are, like a non-representational painting hanging on a wall; not as something that means (i.e. is understandable), but rather something that just is.

Now if a poem by Stevens is not something that means, but just is, then one might easily mistake it as fitting precisely the definition of ideal poetry given by Archibald MacLeish in his Ars Poetica, (The Art of Poetry):

A poem should not mean,
But be.

The key lies in how one interprets MacLeish.  If one understands him, incorrectly, to mean that a poem should have little or no discernible meaning, but should just be an abstract assemblage of words pulled from the poet’s imagination,  then Stevens would fit.

That is not, however, what MacLeish meant, as we see from the fact that the poem in which the famous “not mean, but be” is found is itself comprehensible; we understand what his poem means (MacLeish later changed to advocating poetry full of meaning and social commentary).

In fact the ideal example of a “poem” that does not mean, but is, may be found in the hokku, for example in this autumn verse of Bashō:

On the withered branch

A crow has perched;

The autumn evening.

That does not “mean” anything beyond itself; it is not a symbol or a metaphor or a simile of anything else.  It is just a sensory experience, and it has no “speakable” meaning beyond that.

Compare that with the beginning of the well-known (at least among English teachers) Wallace Stevens poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:

Among twenty snowy mountains

The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds, 
Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.

It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman 
Are one.

A man and a woman and a blackbird 

Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Now on the surface this appears to have some meaning; it is recognizable words assembled in a reasonable grammatical fashion.  But when we try to extract genuine, comprehensible, explainable meaning from it, it is not there.  It is like a building facade on a movie lot; when one walks behind it, nothing is there; it is just a deceptive front with no back.

In attempting to explain Stevens poems such as this, the academics find themselves pulling the kind of “snow job” that almost every student who has no understanding of a subject has tried to pull on a teacher; one uses lots of words, but says virtually nothing, as in this example of interpretation of the poem I found online:

In section I, the given, “Among twenty snowy mountains,” is both enticing and imprisoning. The tight chiasmic embrace of “A-mong . . . moun-tains” encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives “tw-en-ty” and “sno-wy.” Movement intervenes through semantic reference, but it is enacted through the play of signifiers when the spell of the phrase is loosened in the second line by the advance, of regular iambs and the “rhyme”-ing, unstressed in “moving” and stressed in “thing.” The final “moving” of the sentence’s subject, the “eye of the blackbird,” moves us from a natural given to an imaginative or imaginary one, still ontological, in the movement that is necessary for the flight of the poem. The paradox of predicating this imaginative and emotional reality–a bird’s eye is anatomically incapable of movement–stresses its metaphorical value.” (http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/blackbird.htm)

The only thing useful in that is the fact that a blackbird cannot move its eye.

Now you know when someone is reduced to such academic gibberish as

The tight chiasmic embrace of “A-mong . . . moun-tains” encloses the playful euphony of the adjectives “tw-en-ty” and “sno-wy”,

that they really do not know what the @#! is going on in the poem any more than the reader, but they are working hard to fake it.

The best and most honest summary I have found of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, aside from Frost’s remark that it purports to make one think, is a comment by Elva McCormick, who knew and talked with Wallace Stevens.  She had asked him what his poem The Irish Cliffs of Moher meant.  His illuminating response was, “I don’t think you’d understand this unless you wrote it.”  And McCormick’s very perceptive response to that revelation was, “I think that’s true of many of his poems” (see Parts of a World; Wallace Stevens Remembered, pg. 119).

It is significant that Wallace Stevens never actually went to Ireland, never really saw the Cliffs of Moher; he pulled the words out of his head, and that summarizes his poetry in general; he is a poet of the intellect, the world created in the mind, not of the real world around us.

It is an approach that holds no appeal for me, and that is why I spend so little time on Stevens and poets like him, generally using them only as examples of what to avoid.


ADLESTROP: Significant Simplicity

There are some poems that seem initially lightweight, but nonetheless remain in the mind because that hasty impression is wrong.  In fact the first somewhat negative judgment may be just the reflection of a cultural prejudice that a poem must be about something very significant or important.  But perhaps it is simply that our society has an odd and somewhat distorted idea of what is significant and important.  We see that, for example, in the ongoing destruction of our natural environment, carried on in full knowledge of the likely disastrous results.

Imagine a memory — perhaps little more than a minute in its origin — that remains with you for some inexplicable reason.  That is what we find in the poem I discuss today, written by (Philip) Edward Thomas, who lived from 1878 to 1917;  not a great many years, but long enough to give us this poem.

To appreciate it, we must think back to what in some respects was a quieter time — the year 1914, to be precise — but a time in which life nonetheless was changing rapidly from what it had been.  The writer is on a train — a steam train in those days — that made an unaccustomed (“unwonted”) stop, and out the window on one side was the signboard of the station:


Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one was left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

 And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. 

For some reason unexplained, the express train made an unexpected stop at a station in the Cotswolds, the low, rolling hills of Gloucestershire.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one was left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name…

The steam is of course the steam of the train engine.  We are left, for the moment, in what seems to be an interval in time.  A passenger takes advantage of the pause to clear his throat.  Out on the platform no one exits the train, or boards it.  The station is bare.  And the writer, in this interval of emptiness, sees the signboard giving the name of the place — Adlestrop.

But notice how he does not stop even for moment with that image of large letters on the signboard, but adds to it immediately — linking to the next stanza without even a mark of punctuation separating —

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

He sees willow trees and spires of willow-herb — which we call fireweed in America, but to Thomas it is “willow-herb” because its long, narrow, pointed leaves look like those of willow trees; and he sees meadowsweet, with its tufts of creamy-white flowers that bloom from June onward.  And he sees haycocks in the fields — conical mounds of hay left to dry in the warm sunlight so that when they have lost their moisture, they may be carried in wagons to the barns and stored there as food for the beasts in winter.

Note how Thomas is able to appreciate the beauty of such things, calling them

No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

This stillness of plants and clouds and haycocks reflects that of the bare station platform, but adds to it a warmth and a life that has its own simple beauty, as lovely, yet as beautiful in their loneliness –“no whit less still and lonely fair” — as the scattered small clouds in the blue sky over the fields (“no whit” means “not even the least bit).”

 And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. 

In that interval at Adlestrop — that time that seems out of time — the song of  a blackbird is heard nearby, and Thomas hears the sound as the closest of  — he notices it now — a great many, singing birds farther off, yet all around, whose multitudinous songs grow fainter and less distinct as they extend into great distance.  And Thomas realizes he is hearing, behind and around the nearby blackbird,

 …all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. 

This is really a love poem to a moment past, made all the more poignant by our knowing that Edward Thomas died in France on the 9th of April, 1917.

If we were to approach Adlestrop very chronologically, we might say that the emptiness of the station has nothing at all to do with the war and the resulting absence of men — and indeed there is nothing in the poem to say it did.  Thomas noted in his journal a stop at Adlestrop on the 23rd of June, 1914; slightly over a month later, on July 28th, the First World War began.   The poem, however, was not published until 1917, at which time it was very easy to read into it the absence of men gone off to war.   And it seems to have actually been written after the start of the war, in January of 1915.  So this is one of those cases in which it is best to just go with what the poet himself offers — an empty station platform — without assuming reasons for it other than those the poem itself offers:  that it was a hot afternoon; that it was an “unwonted” stop of the train.   But it is inevitable that a reader noting the time of actual writing will see the poem against the background of an England very much at war, very much under great stress, and that makes the peaceful interlude at Adlestrop, with its evocation of the British countryside in its plants and trees and singing birds beneath a blue sky dotted with small clouds all the more meaningful.  To me, Adlestrop is a look through a train window at the peace of pre-war England — England before the great upheaval that took the flower of its youth.

Thomas was born in England, the son of Welsh parents, and the Welsh, as everyone should know, love poetry and song.  The remarkable accomplishment of Thomas, in this verse, is to recognize the significance of what to most would have been an insignificant moment in an insignificant place, a mere unexpected stop on the way to matters of importance.

Thomas preserves for us the signboard, the empty platform, the hissing of the train, the blooming flowers nearby, the haycocks in the field, the little clouds scattered in the blue sky, and the chorus of birds heard from a single blackbird nearby to all the birds of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire.  And he has made, oddly enough, the sound of an anonymous passenger clearing his throat into timeless poetry, with all the rest.

It is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see and think of no importance.

Given the “significant simplicity” of Adlestrop, perhaps we should not be surprised to learn that Edward Thomas used to go on long walks with a visitor to England at that time, the poet Robert Frost, and that Frost was a significant factor in Thomas taking up the writing of poetry.

There is a striking line in Stella Gibbons’ otherwise light novel Nightingale Wood that expresses what one feels about the birds heard in Adlestrop:

The country through which they moved was chiefly grazing land with some under wheat and barley, and it had the unconventional charm of Essex landscapes; the little hills with oak coppices climbing them, now in early rose-brown leaf, the loops of a river shining in a wide, tree-hidden valley to which all the roads seem to lead, and the near and distant cries of birds like the country itself singing.




We reach and strain with our thoughts, trying to grasp what poetry is, trying to somehow distinguish it from all that is not poetry, but without success.  Then we come across something as simple as this statement by A. E. Housman:

Poetry is not the thing said, but a way of saying it.”

And it is as though the sun has risen, dispelling the darkness; because that is exactly what poetry is.  It does not lie in the thing said, however significant it may be.  It lies, rather, in how that thing is said.

All of the traditional paraphernalia of poetry, whether rhyme, rhythm, alliteration or assonance, are merely means to this end — saying the thing in a way that makes it poetry.  Their use, of course, is no guarantee at all that the result will be poetry, but we know that they are used with poetry as the goal.

Prose, we may say then, is the reverse; it is not so much how a thing is said as what is said.  It is meaning that is important and the key element.

We should not misunderstand this and think that poetry has no meaning, but rather that what meaning it carries is molded to the manner in which it is presented, however important the meaning may be — if it is to be poetry.

We may separate the meaning from the poem by explaining it in ordinary, everyday English, but by doing so we cause the meaning to lose its poetry.  If that were not so, we would all constantly be speaking poetry.

 So poetry is a way of saying something, a special way, and there are various tools and manners that may be used in so speaking — again like rhyme and measure and rhythm, alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), but not all of these tools are essential for writing a poem.  It all comes back to a way of saying something.

We may go on to remark that obviously, then, poetry is not ordinary, everyday speech, which concentrates more on just saying a thing than on how that thing is said.  Poetry is the changing of one’s common speech pattern to say a thing in a way that makes it more pleasing or interesting or effective, or all three combined.

Sometimes the line between poetry and ordinary speech may seem blurred at first, but with a little reflection it is recognized nonetheless.  When W. H. Auden wrote his poem September 1, 1939, he was talking about the outbreak of World War II, the invasion of Poland by German forces — and he was seemingly conversational in doing so; we see, however, that this would not have been his everyday speech — not the way he ordered a meal, nor the way he talked to a friend.  And it is that little change that makes all the difference in transforming something from prose to poetry:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night

 We find the end rhymes — dives / lives, bright / night, afraid /decade.  And we find “odd” ways of saying things, such as

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth…

Eliminate the rhyme, however, say instead that people all over the world are angry and afraid, and the poetry dissolves — vanishes into prose.  

We tend to think that poetry is cut up into lines (and it usually is), while prose is divided into paragraphs.  But actually poetry and prose are somewhat like human gender behavior, which shades from one extreme to the other.  Some men are very stereotypically masculine; others are very stereotypically feminine; but between the two poles are found all the people who fall somewhere between.  In the change from prose to poetry, as in human gender roles, we find a graduated scale.  Some poets border on prose, but never fall completely into it, or they would not be poets.  There is still something to their way of saying the thing that is recognizable as poetry.

But the matter is a little more complex.  Even in prose, people often do not write as they commonly speak.  They leave little things out; they use “big” Latin or Greek-based words, instead of plain and simple Anglo-Saxon; they say things more concisely, and perhaps more effectively.  There is a vast difference in even so small a matter as an invitation to dinner:

1.  Do you wanna have dinner with me tomorrow?
2.  Your presence is requested at a dinner honoring the accomplishments of H. N. Featherwood.

And then there is poetry:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table; 

One comes to recognize and to distinguish poetry from the other two kinds of speech, the ordinary and the formal.  What one must be wary of is prose that is disguised as poetry by being divided into lines in imitation of poetry.  Some people who write this way think they are writing poetry, and some critics are deceived into thinking the same.  But those who realize that poetry is not just dividing prose into lines on a page, but rather is a way of saying something that is different both from ordinary and formal speech, will not be fooled.

Some would-be poems include the bare minimum of the special way of saying something that is poetry, and sometimes not even that.  We should not confuse that kind of writing with the “conversational” yet quite poetic manner of Walt Whitman in his Shut Not Your Doors:

Shut not your doors to me proud libraries,
For that which was lacking on all your well-fill’d shelves
       yet needed most, I bring,
Forth from the war emerging, a book I have made,
The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page. 

But, you may say, no one talks like that!  And I reply that you have grasped the point.  No one talks as Walt Whitman wrote in poetry.  You may think they do for a few words or a line, but the poetry will out.

The same may be said for Robert Frost, another sometimes even more “conversational” poet.  Look at the beginning of his Birches, where he fools us into thinking that we are just listening to the rambling conversation of some New England ruralite, and it is only gradually as we read on, and feel the rhythm, and begin to sense his increasingly revealing way of speaking, that we become aware that what seemed to begin as conversation was actually just the path into poetry:

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.
Ice-storms do that.  Often you must have seen them
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
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust —
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. 

When reading Frost, one often has the feeling of being tricked into submitting to some sort of peculiar farmer’s incantation, because what seems ordinary speech at first increasingly weaves a charm of words, as though Frost were a kind of New England shaman chanting away, putting a folksy spell upon us, as in his After Apple-Picking:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 

This incantatory nature of his writing is one of the most pleasing things about Frost.  And again, it is a way of saying it; it is poetry.

So we know, in theory, what poetry is and what it is not.  But that does not mean we have defined poetry.  We must still be able to distinguish between poetry and mere verse — between what is genuinely poetic and what just uses some of the tools of poetry but does not succeed in being poetic.  For that we can only return to another statement of Housman: that poetry is known by its effect on us.  But here we are back again at the beginning, reduced to saying that “good” poetry is a matter of opinion and taste formed by education and experience.




I am always surprised and amazed by those who speak of hokku as though it were something outdated and to be discarded.  The emphasis today is on “new,” “new,” “new” and “different,” “different, “different.”

What people with such childish thinking do not realize is that everything one sees is continually new, continually different.  It is their way of seeing that is the same.  That is why Thoreau told us that what we need is not new clothes, but rather a new wearer of clothes.  We must change how we see things if we want to follow hokku well.

I like very much — and apply to hokku — what Robert Frost once said of his own kind of poetry:  “It is an old-fashioned way of being new.”

Buson wrote this summer hokku:

June rain
In the downspout;
The ears of old age.



There is a very interesting old summer hokku by Ryusūi:

Mayoigo no   naku naku tsukamu   hotaru kana
Lost-child ‘s  crying crying grasping fireflies kana

A lost child;
He cries and cries
And grasps at fireflies.

Some verses make such excellent metaphors for one thing or another that we must resist the temptation to read them as such, because if we do so read them, we lose the poetry at which hokku excels — the poetry of the “thing-event” itself, with nothing added.

Westerners often simply do not understand this, because Western poetry very seldom enjoys something for itself; they think that one must add a “poet’s eye” to it, meaning additional commentary or metaphor or speculation or elaboration or ornamentation.  But in hokku it is just the unspoken significance of the thing-event that is wanted, none of the rest, thank you!

What do I mean by a “thing-event”?  I mean simply something being what it is, doing what it is doing; a leaf is both a thing (a leaf) and an event (leafing).  Human beings human-be.  Nothing exists stable and unchanging, not a stone, not a river, not a galaxy.  So the “thing-event” in this verse is the little-child-crying-as-he-grasps-at-fireflies.

Robert Frost, in his poem “A Tuft of Flowers,” wrote:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside the reedy brook the scythe had bared…

The mower in the dew had loved them thus
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.”  That is the very spirit of hokku and its humility.  When we want to be “poets,” we are taking the focus away from what we write and putting it on ourselves — and that is the opposite of hokku.  Our writing should not be to draw the thought of the reader to us, but rather to just let him or her experience the unspoken significance of the thing-event, whether it be a tuft of flowers spared by a scythe or a little child weeping and grasping at fireflies.  As we say in hokku, we must be silent so that Nature may speak.

Now, having warned the reader that Ryusūi’s hokku is NOT a metaphor, NOT a symbol, we are now free to say again that such a hokku, though it is neither of those things, nonetheless does make a good metaphor for human life.

It is interesting that in Japanese, the first word of the expression meaning “lost child” — mayoi — also is the Japanese translation of the Buddhist sanskrit term māyā, which means “illusion.”  Māyā is the illusion of existence, our attachment to the idea of a personal “self,” our getting caught up in thinking that running after wealth and power and fame and sensual pleasure are real and important.  People forget the old saying, “Birth is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.”  They neglect their spiritual development, spending all their time on television or parties, or (gasp!) the Internet.  They do not know or have forgotten the old Buddhist parable from the Mahayana Lotus Sutra:  A group of children were busy playing in a house that caught fire, too absorbed in their games to notice.  Their father called and called for them to come out, but they were so wrapped up in their entertainments that they paid no heed to the fire or to him.

We are all in a burning house.  We are all lost children.  And we weep and weep about it, but what do we do?  We continue to “grasp at fireflies,” even as we weep.

We are perfectly free to use a hokku as a metaphor, but we must not make the mistake of saying or thinking it IS a metaphor.  And when we so utilize it, we must give up the poetry of the hokku in order to make our own use of it, putting it to a task for which it was not intended, no matter how well it does the job.