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Something Worth the Trip: Why Read Poetry?

What do you expect from a poem when you see that it’s written in iambic pentameter? In the worst poems, I expect inflated, self-aggrandizing rhetoric, like an old gasbag who thinks that he has high things to say; in the best, a delicate yet majestic structure, more like a hot air balloon wrought from marble, its gentle rise as inevitable as it is impossible.

The one who always surprises me is Robert Frost. His material would be country dirt rather than marble, but the effect is as marvelous, or more. Never before Robert Frost were such easy, casual cadences wedded so subtly to the grand rhythm of sonnets and tragedies. Consider the humble grandeur of these lines:

The Pasture

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.

I think you’ll see why I call them humble, but—grandeur? Surely only minor things are happening here, reported without fanfare. In fact, nothing is happening or being reported at all. We have only a handful of promises.

Well, then, what is a grand promise? And don’t say that it’s one that promises something grand! On the contrary, the greater the thing promised, the frailer and clumsier the promise itself. First of all, a promise must be plausible to be grand:

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

This is almost a poem already. The rhythm makes its own ambitious promise to say something worthy of everything that has been said in this meter before. Just as a faint trace of a once-familiar odor, wafting across your path in a place where you weren’t expecting it, can throw you back decades of a sudden, to an old love or an old hope, so two lines of five feet, fused paradoxically with the most artless expressions, can evoke the whole tradition of English lyric.

You can get lost in this feeling. Getting to the bottom of it is like trying to calculate pi: you keep making progress, but you’ll never be done, and you have to ask yourself: “What am I doing this for? Have I got what I came for yet?” And you might wonder whether you can ever reach that point in a poem.

This is where the promise comes in:

(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.

Why watch water clearing? There’s a question that’s not too different from “Why read poetry?” The murky, troubled surface of the workaday world with its demands and desires settles slowly, musically into a lovely simplicity, in which everything is clear, and we in turn seem for once really to be ourselves.

But isn’t that just a dream? The real world is the one in which we have responsibilities we can’t defer, and we as individual personalities seem to disappear when you take these responsibilities away. Worse than a waste of time, poetry can make us feel discontented with the life it beguiles us from.

So the poet promises us he “sha’nt’ be gone long.” Clearing the spring will be a pleasure—it’s not just about what it accomplishes. But the poet promises that we won’t be swallowed up by either productivity or leisure. He’ll get us back in time for our lives. There’s room for this.

The grand promise of a poem has to have exactly this kind of modesty in what it offers. Unlike, say, a typical fantasy novel, whose whole purpose is to steal us away from the ordinary world as completely and for as long as possible, leaving us hungry for more, the humble grandeur of Frost’s poetry promises to show us, just in the time we have, something worth the trip:

—You come too.

I’ve only read half the poem here. So, a couple questions for discussion:

  1. How do you understand the time-line of the two stanzas? Are these two separate occasions, or is the speaker rattling off the chores of the day, one after the other, or what?
  2. Could this poem just go on ad nauseam with more examples of pleasurable work one could do in a pasture? Or would that just ruin it the way Raffi ruined “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” with all those tedious extra verses? If so, why do we even have the second stanza at all?
  3. Why does the speaker describe the calf’s tottering? I don’t mean it has to symbolize anything (although maybe it does that), but just in the context of inviting someone to come out and do a chore or two with you, what would move someone to describe this particular detail?

Featured image “12” by flickr user in_rainbows69, used under CC BY 2.0

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One Response to “Something Worth the Trip: Why Read Poetry?”

  1. Someone once said, “Two are better than one.” The whole poem knows this, so quietly, from beginning to end: “You come too.”

    But the poem also experiences this truth, it learns it more deeply as it goes. Because the speaker takes his attitude from another, inviting her, offering her details chosen out love and summoned by his imagination’s live yet quiet search, he is able to recall in radiant freshness the actual beauties of his tasks.

    His good work becomes better in the prospect of sharing it with her.

    There is a progression in the stanzas, the first (seemingly complete in itself) in fact clears the way for the second. This is true literally. The spring is cleared so that the mother cow and calf can drink pure water. To refresh the spring is on its own a good thing, but it’s a better thing to do it out of care for the animals who drink and pasture here.

    The progress works on another level too. The beauty of waters clearing themselves of clouds that raked up leaves have caused to rise is a lonely kind of beauty–it’s a movement from confusion to clarity, turmoil to stillness, from the turgidness of life to an elemental simplicity. The speaker wants to share this contemplative moment–that would be good. In the clarity that poured over him in recollecting this moment in her presence though, something better occurs to him.

    To share a moment of solitary purity is good, to share a moment of active care is better. A cow licks her calf to clean it, but also to make its muscles wake up, tingle, ache and grow strong. We do not move toward our truer selves only as angels are sometimes imagined to do, by staring into the clear heart of things. We need images of a love that wants to help, and can help with daily work of living–a love with all the rough tenderness that is communicated by the motherly lick of a cow-tongue, so that one can totter upright.

    To be together in the clear apart-ness that we know when we stare into the mystery of things. To be together in looking after each other, moving each other awkwardly forward, even licking each other into shape. These are two parts love’s one. The first part, good in itself, clears the way for the second, which is better.

    The speaker knows, the moment after he speaks, that the prospect of seeing the small, gangly calf and its mother’s sensible, coarse textured care will startle and move his hearer (for it has startled and moved him). He need say no more. She will come now, or she won’t. And the tasks do need to get done. One stanza was good, two was better. A third might threaten to make the poem a display of the speaker’s ingenuity; but, by falling silent, he gives her a moment to decide to come too. He makes room for two.

    “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.”

    Posted by Adam Cooper | June 15, 2014, 2:54 pm

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The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.