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The Wood-Pile

The Wood-Pile

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther–and we shall see.’
The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from hoe.
A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And so no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what ‘he’ thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather–
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled–and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.
No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What it held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall. I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork in which
He spent himself, the labor of his axe,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

–Robert Frost, 1914

COMMENTARY: After graduating from Harvard at the turn of the century, Robert Frost spent a decade living a quiet, semi-reclusive life in rural New Hampshire. He had inherited a small farm just west of the town of Derry from his grandfather, and for nine years he lived in a white clapboard farmhouse with his wife–going for walks, spending time with his family, and laboring (all too sporadically) at actual farm work. He wrote a good deal of poetry but published nothing with the exception of a few articles in local trade journals on the subject of raising chickens. It must have been an uncertain seed-time for him, his late 20’s and early 30’s, a time of incubation and waiting, dormancy and camouflage. It isn’t terribly hard to imagine him living like that for another 10 years, another 20, writing the best poems of his generation on unread little sheets of inventory paper and then succumbing one day to tuberculosis or a mule kick. That mysterious author “Anonymous” (in more ways than one) has written some of the best literature in the English language.

That image of solitude and invisibility–potential hidden away in the frozen swamps and snowy woods of some random nowhere–defines this little poem, which seems, paradoxically, both fleeting in its glimpse-like digressions and absolute in its suggestions of parable: the way it recreates, detail by detail, the unplanned actuality of a walk in the woods–the nameless trees, the surprising little bird, the rotting woodpile wrapped in clematis: all of this seems unpremeditated, purposeless, and yet, above all, real–the sorts of things anyone might see in a walk in the woods. But slowly, by the tiniest hints, these details turn into broad, metaphoric suggestions. That view “all in lines”–is that the lines of a poem? The wood-pile cut “four by four by eight”–is that stanza and meter? The uncatchable bird–inspiration? The “slow, smokeless burning of decay”–the way handiwork–whether of wood or of words–outlasts the moment of its making, (whether “warming” an empty spot of woods or the dusty corner of a library) yet isn’t entirely invulnerable to time either?

These can only be phrased as questions, and, as questions, aren’t really answerable. The poem isn’t fed into “a useful fireplace”–that is, it doesn’t combust into a single, practical allegory. The workman “turns to fresh tasks”–leaving the pile finished, in one sense, but futile in another. That notion of being done but not done, of being immediate yet hidden, smokeless yet burning, is the paradox at the heart of the poem and the man both.


A Baroque Wall Fountain In The Villa Sciarra

Under the bronze crown
Too big for the head of the stone cherub whose feet
A serpent has begun to eat,
Sweet water brims a cockle and braids down

Past spattered mosses, breaks
On the tipped edge of a second shell, and fills
The massive third below. It spills
In threads then from the scalloped rim, and makes

A scrim or summery tent
For a faun-ménage and their familiar goose.
Happy in all that ragged, loose
Collapse of water, its effortless descent

And flatteries of spray,
The stocky god upholds the shell with ease,
Watching, about his shaggy knees,
The goatish innocence of his babes at play;

His fauness all the while
Leans forward, slightly, into a clambering mesh
Of water-lights, her sparkling flesh
In a saecular ecstasy, her blinded smile

Bent on the sand floor
Of the trefoil pool, where ripple-shadows come
And go in swift reticulum,
More addling to the eye than wine, and more

Interminable to thought
Than pleasure’s calculus. Yet since this all
Is pleasure, flash, and waterfall,
Must it not be too simple? Are we not

More intricately expressed
In the plain fountains that Maderna set
Before St. Peter’s—the main jet
Struggling aloft until it seems at rest

In the act of rising, until
The very wish of water is reversed,
That heaviness borne up to burst
In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill

With blaze, and then in gauze
Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine
Illumined version of itself, decline,
And patter on the stones its own applause?

If that is what men are
Or should be, if those water-saints display
The pattern of our aretê,
What of these showered fauns in their bizarre,

Spangled, and plunging house?
They are at rest in fulness of desire
For what is given, they do not tire
Of the smart of the sun, the pleasant water-douse

And riddled pool below,
Reproving our disgust and our ennui
With humble insatiety.
Francis, perhaps, who lay in sister snow

Before the wealthy gate
Freezing and praising, might have seen in this
No trifle, but a shade of bliss—
That land of tolerable flowers, that state

As near and far as grass
Where eyes become the sunlight, and the hand
Is worthy of water: the dreamt land
Toward which all hungers leap, all pleasures pass.

–Richard Wilbur, 1967

COMMENTARY: Richard Wilbur passed away earlier this week, and so, after a long silence, I figured I should post one of my favorite poems of his to my blog. Re-reading it just now, I was newly impressed by his mastery of language and form.”Lines like “The main jet/ Struggling aloft until it seems at rest/ In the act of rising, until/ The very wish of water is reversed,/ That heaviness borne up to burst/ In a clear, high, cavorting head, to fill/ With blaze, and then in gauze/ Delays, in a gnatlike shimmering, in a fine/ Illumined version of itself, decline/ And patter on the stones its own applause?” This is stunning. What more is there to say? Except the obvious point that Wilbur was a poet who believed in stunning language–in poem as well-wrought artifact–unity in variety and variety in unity–a perfect, precise, and deliberate connection between part and whole and whole and part. To borrow an expression from Yeats, he believed in creating “golden grasshoppers and bees”–fine-tuned and delicate and intricate. In an age where contemporary poetry is practiced, by some, simply as high-amplitude rambling in slovenly lines that break off somewhere before the end of the page, well, he was a craftsman of meticulous effects in a time of rorschach-splatters.

One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere–it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do it is like a confession
Of having little feeling–or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

Elizabeth Jennings, 1966

COMMENTARY: When Elizabeth Jennings published her first book of poems in 1953, the critic Robert Conquest lumped her in with a group of British poets that he called “The Movement.” Made up of Jennings, Phillip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn, “The Movement” poets rejected the freewheeling style and obscure themes of modernism in favor of a poetry that used rhyme and meter, simple language, and everyday subject matter. Though certain critics accused the The Movement of superficiality, they were capable of a clarity and emotional distillation that made up for any lack of complexity.

In this regard, though the ending of “One Flesh” is naive, the poem makes up for it by the technical ease of the music and the intelligence of the metaphors. “Flotsam from a former passion” and “Silence between them like a thread to hold/ And not wind in” are striking and memorable comparisons for the separation-in-togetherness that defines the old couple’s boring and apathetic partnership. I also like “Chastity faces them, a destination/ For which their whole lives were a preparation” and “They hardly ever touch/ Or if they do it is like a confession/ Of having little feeling–or too much”–a sharp lamentation for the disappointment and diminishment that often seems on the opposite horizon of so much romantic hope.


There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Robert Frost, 1913

COMMENTARY: Robert Frost aimed at understatement. On the surface, his poems (like those of William Blake) sometimes seem simple, offhand, unplanned and casual–the singsong meter, the folksy characters, the quaint farm images, and the colloquial diction. But just as an understatement conceals, by omission, the truth that rests above the register of expression, Frost’s simple vignettes often hide layers upon layers of paradoxical meanings.

This poem (which Frost, in an interview, once said was his favorite poem from his first book) is no exception. The anecdote the poem describes–a scythe whisking and whispering over the grass–provokes, by the subtlest suggestions, a variety of questions and interpretations. For instance, if we take “whispering” to be an act of speech, then it seems reasonable to interpret the poem as a parable about making poems with the “rows” in the meadow as lines of verse, the whispering of the scythe as the subtle insinuations of the muse, and the paradoxical line “anything more than truth would have seemed too weak” a proclamation of the aim of the poem: truth telling. In this reading, poems are not “dreams of idle ours” or “easy gold at the hand of fay or elf” (that is, freebies given by the romantic soul) but rather the product of sweet, solitary labor.

But is such a reading justified? The poem never makes the connection between mowing and writing explicitly. The reader has to make that jump on his own, and, is such an interpretation, the “more than truth” that Frost says is “too weak?” Are other readings equally justified? For instance, “mowing,” at the time when Frost wrote this poem, was slang for sexual union. Given the physical suggestions of a masculine tool whisking along the ground and the well-known etymology of the word “orchid,” could the entire poem be read as an erotic parable? Like the green snake hidden under the grass, these suggestions whisper invisibly under the explicit meaning of the lines. The lines leave behind them, paradoxically, not a tidy conclusion but wild, disordered hay to try to pitchfork into squares.

From “Soonest Mended”

The summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off
With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like
This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers,
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

–John Ashberry, 1970

COMMENTARY: John Ashberry, who passed away this week at the age of 90, made a career out of poems “loose….and untidy.” Though his ricocheting surrealism, abruptly switching tracks in meaning, tone, and rhythm, made many readers feel that his poems were inhospitably disjointed, he was capable of unique and surprising effects. As the editor of Art News in New York during the 1970’s, he was interested in the abstract, ‘splotchy’ style of non-traditional art that was in vogue during that time and tried to transfer its aesthetic aims from the canvas to the page. While this resulted in a number of poems that bordered on the unreadable, the effort was important in expanding the scope and range of what was considered poetry and spawned many imitators who drew on his style and influence.

The above excerpt from a much longer poem illustrates that Ashberry could be insightful and moving when writing in his “easier” style. The opening lines evoke the planetary and elemental–the summer season, the fire-and-water star, the rotating earth. These lofty and distant images then transition, in the space of a few lines, to three juxtaposed gestures (robin-in-flight, hair-brush, grimace). Though there is much in the poem that isn’t exactly clear (what “necessary arrangement?” Who’s talking to who?), the contrast between the planetary and the personal leads powerfully to the contrast of the closing lines in which language is “Moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose/ meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.” The idea that words are both meaningful movement and an untidy scattering of chaff nicely sums up the aesthetic approach of a poet who aimed to make use of all the wild totality of the English language, from the vineyard to the dregs.

Serepta Mason (from Spoon River Anthology)

My life’s blossom might have bloomed on all sides
Save for a bitter wind which stunted my petals
On the side of me which you in the village could see.
From the dust I lift a voice of protest:
My flowering side you never saw.
Living ones, ye are fools indeed
Who do not know the ways of the wind
And the unseen forces
That govern the processes of life.

–Edgar Lee Masters, 1915

COMMENTARY: Edgar Lee Masters was a lawyer by by profession, a defense attorney, who (however often he may have defended the innocent) certainly defended the guilty enough to understand the psychology of guilt–the mental maneuvers (denial, self-justification, blame-shifting) by which those who feel ashamed often put a veil between internal humiliation and external judgement. The best poems in Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short poems pretended to be written on the tombstones of a fictitious town (though there is debate as to how fictitious ‘Spoon River’ is and which of the poems are based on real people) read like alibis from the defense box, capturing, with some sympathy, the knotty unease that comes from the effort of trying to hide self from conscience and conscience from society.

Master’s psychological insight is one possible explanation why Spoon River Anthology has become as big a best-seller as poetry every becomes–going through dozens of editions and adaptations–despite the fact that the poems are often clunky and unpolished. Rhymeless, meterless, often awkwardly combining the loftily elevated (“From the dust I lift a voice in protest”) with the stiffly prosaic (“the unseen forces that govern the processes of life), Masters poems are worth reading as monologues that seem all the more honest the more the speakers try to lie. When Serepta Mason says, “My flowering side you never saw,” (a nice line) “Ye living ones, ye are fools indeed/ who do not know the ways of the wind,” is it an honest lament of the way a person’s inner being is hidden by all sorts of masks and prejudices–remaining, for many people, the invisible and unsharable beauty of themselves–or is she simply making excuses for her failures and blaming others? Or both? The psychological questions that poems like this provoke explain why Spoon River Anthology is often used as a standard text in theater training, providing skilled actors with many opportunities to explore nuances of tone, and allowing for the kind of thought-provoking ambiguity which is at the center of memorable dramatic characters.

From Henry V (Act 1, Scene 2)


So work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor;
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.

–William Shakespeare, 1599

COMMENTARY: Shakespeare sometimes gives his most poetic speeches to minor characters. Here, the Bishop of Cantebury, one of the most insignificant characters in Henry V, makes a nice Homeric simile comparing a kingdom to a hive of bees. I like the careful almost panoptic thoroughness of the lines, the way each little character in the bee kingdom is celebrated. I like “armed in their stings/ Make boot upon the summers velvet buds” and “singing masons building roofs of gold” and “kneading up the honey.” Of course, the speech is really “about” Henry’s kingdom and how social harmony derives from cooperation, but, reading it, I lose the meaning and get caught up in the bees.