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A Close Look at Robert Frost

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John Hollander
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On February 9, 1997, former Academy Chancellor John Hollander gave a master class for benefactors of the Academy of American Poets. The class took place at the New York City home of then Academy Chairman Lyn Chase and her husband, Ned. The topic of the afternoon was the poetry of Robert Frost, and Hollander focused on Frost's poem "The Oven-Bird." The following is a transcript of Mr. Hollander's lecture, which was later published in American Poet.


I'm going to talk this afternoon about Frost as a myth-maker, which is usually not how we think of him. I'm going to look closely at that poem of Frost's called "The Oven Bird," which I think very easy and very difficult at once.

Mythologizing any construction of nature, an animal, plant, a geological formation, a moment of process—this could be seen both as a desecration and a celebration of pragmatically considered fact. When this goes on in poetry—what Frost himself called "the renewal of words forever and ever"—it is accompanied and invigorated by a reciprocal mythologizing of the very words used in the poetic process. Literature is full of mythological, mostly composite creatures: phoenix, unicorn, basilisk, chimera, hydra, centaur. As nature is even more full of creatures totally innocent of interpretation: woodchuck, anteater, turbot, Shetland pony, jellyfish, and quail. But then, there are the fallen creatures, the intermediate ones: lion, eagle, ant, grasshopper, barracuda, fox, hyena . . . who have been infected with signification from Aesop on. It is one of the tasks of poetry to keep renewing the taxonomic class of such creatures, by luring them unwittingly into a cage of metaphor, which of course they are not aware of inhabiting. Such new reconstructions of animals are almost a post-Romantic cottage industry, even as the rehearsal, again and again, of the traditional ones, used to characterize pre-Romantic emblematic poetry. I want to look at a well-known instance of such reconstruction, in the case of Frost's "The Oven Bird."

We'll start with the unpoetic ornithology from The Field Guide to North American Birds: "Sayerus Oricopilus is a ground-walking warbler. It is common in deciduous woods. It builds a domed nest on the ground and sings from an exposed perch on the understory of the trees." That an American poem addressing this thrush-like bird might consider its ground-built, oven-shaped nest would seem obvious, with interpretations of some sort of pragmatical sublime, being well-grounded instead of lofty, immediately offering themselves. But the poem we are to consider does not.

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers,
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

Frost's sonnet was started in New Hampshire around 1906, but probably finished in England around 1914, far from the shared habitat of bird and poet. Its ending leaves us with a kind of riddle. The opening puzzles us also, slightly, but in a different way. It starts out with a couplet (and sonnets don't start out with a couplet, unless they intend to continue, as they rarely do, with six more of them). But both octave and sestet of this one are initiated by couplets. And in the case of the sestet, or the last six lines, somewhat strangely for other reasons as well.

From the outset, too, we notice at once how casual and how problematic its rhetoric is. "A singer everyone has heard"? Come now, people in London have no more heard that singer than a New Englander would hear a nightingale. There aren't any nightingales in this country. No, this is the conventional palaver of nature writing, of a newspaper verse of the sort you might still find in a rural newspaper in England. But the low literary prosaic tone is modulated with a jolt, as the second line declares its ulterior agenda with a "Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird." Because of the contrast of stress marking the new coinage, "mid-wood"—we say "mid-summer"; we never say "mid-wood"—the spatial reciprocal of the ordinary, temporal mid-summer, the line ends with three stresses. You might call it two overlapping spondees, confirming the opening, intrusive, almost self-descriptive, "Loud!" "Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird." The bird makes the solid tree trunks sound again, but in a first reading this always itself sounds strange. It's not just the densely alliterative pattern, first pointed out by Reuben Brower. "Sound again"—have they been unsound? No, not Germanicsound as in the German gesund, but French and Latin sonorous sound. Still, why do we pause momentarily? Do we mistake this bird for a kind of woodpecker, hitting the trunks directly and thus making them less gesund as they make them resound? But it's this purely English and non-Latin way of putting resound that then allows the matter of an echo of a prior sounding, that of the earlier, and perhaps in this poem, ordinary—and despite literary cliché, unpoetic—spring birds since silent.

Then come the first of the three reiterated assertions of his asserting. It will be apparent later why it's not the seventeenth or eighteenth century locution, the transitive "he sings" or its version in the nineteenth century and later, "he sings of [whatever it is]." What he says first is hardly celebratory, but pragmatically observational, quite this side of sounding dirge-like. The next thing he says is more interpretive, at first reminding us of the dropping of spring blossoms and of how we tend to read these as nothing more dire than the end of a particularly gorgeous overture or prelude, but then letting the resonance of the term "petal-fall" linger on, as if to make us think, "Yes, they do fall too, don't they?"

We half-notice, too, the patterning in which one dactylic foot, embracing a hyphenated compound, is echoed by another unhyphenated one: " . . . early [petal-fall] is past, when pear and [cherry bloom]. . ." Petal-fall and cherry bloom have the same compound effect, though he hyphenates one and not the other. But woven across this is an alliterative pattern, in which "petal, past, pear" enact a different kind of connection, followed by the analogous, but more potently expressive, assonance of "went down in showers." Yet this line is not end-stopped here, but flows into the plain "On sunny days a moment overcast."

There's another moment of resonance at work, one of word, rather than of word-sound. The leaves are cast under, in, and for, a moment, even as the sky is momentarily overcast. The point isn't loudly made nor brandished triumphantly, but allowed wonderfully, subtly to happen. But then things get problematic again. Who says, "And comes that other fall we name the fall"? This line is all the more complex here because it initiates the sestet, and we want the full stop at the end to be a comma, as if to say, when fall—that other fall—comes, he says, [with respect to that], that the highway dust is covering everything. The normal grammar would be that of "come the fall" as in "come Sunday," etc. The present, third-person singular verb form here suggests a counter-thrusting inversion: "And then, comes that other fall," etc. But a first reading would also reaffirm a linkage that the couplet-rhyme (again, in an anomalous place for a sonnet) is implying. Yet the couplet is broken—"And comes that other fall we name the fall." Period. "He says the highway dust is over all." Period. We are reminded by the disjunction that the covering of highway dust—the stasis in between petal-fall which initiates the fullness of leaf—and leaf-fall, which initiates the bareness of branch—spring-fall and fall-fall—this is mid-summer stuff, and we can't have the syntax go the way we'd like to. As for the coming of the real fall—the early petal-fall is the other—we needed the oven bird to point out to us that it was a version of the primary one, a shadowy type of the truth of autumn. And by an almost Milton-like extension, the autumnal fall as type of the fall from Paradise—the original one we name the fall—which brought about the remodeling of Paradise into nature, fracturing spring from fall, promise from conditional fulfillment, because they were both there in Milton's Paradise. There were no seasons. The world was a lemon tree, which of course has blossoms and fruit at the same time.

Relations between literal and figurative falling are made even more interesting by the fact that in the Romance language that's part of English, "cause" and "case" are based ultimately on cadere, the Latin word for "fall." As in the Germanic part we still have residues of the earlier usage: "it fell" or "it happened." There are all those other falls too. I'm not sure whether the poem's relative reticence on this question keeps them at a safe distance or not. Or if there's any safe distance from The Fall. Richard Poirier remarked once of this poem that any falling of leaves, of snow, of man can be redeemed by loving. And the sign of this redemption is, for Frost, the sound of the voice working within the sounds of poetry. Certainly, the cadential full stop at the end of this line—". . . that other fall we name the fall"—makes us momentarily more aware of the working of the poet's voice. But in any case, the peculiar one-line sentence, which we keep wanting to open out into a dependent clause and a full couplet with a comma, gives us a meditative pause. Perhaps it works as something of a springboard, the better to jump into a final quatrain, which in sonnet form can seem itself to initiate a moment of renewal.

Some of that last quatrain's complexity emerges in a straightforward paradox. What does it mean not to sing in singing? Well, if the singing birds do herald and celebrate spring in the morning, or— as with swallows—fills the sky with skitterish evening hymns, then the oven bird's repeated disyllabic utterance is not that. "He says." "He says." "He says." "He knows." "He frames." And here another kind of construction is fed to us by the way in the metaphor of material construction. Here's the question he frames: "We call the sounds birds make 'singing'; but this bird demands that we suspend the overtones of the word 'sing.'" His are not songs but propositions. The very subtle rhythm of the line makes this clear, for in order for the rhyming syllables to be sufficiently stretched, it can't go ". . . that he knows in singing not to sing" because 'sing' has to rhyme with 'thing,' which means it's got to be more stressed, which, unless you can't write verse, you know you've got to account for in the syntax. The relation of syntax to meter is absolutely crucial. And so, it can't go "in singing not to sing" as the intoning of the paradox seems to demand, but rather "that he knows in singing not to sing," i.e., not to be claimed by allegorizing human intention as music, but instead as speculative discourse.

By this point in the poem, the casual older fiction of birdsong, like that of the wind in the trees sighing and the brook babbling, can't be acknowledged. Those are the stuff of poetry from Hellenistic times on. So it is that he frames a question in all but words, a formulation which is quite reticent (birds don't really talk, of course, but . . . ). The very grammar of the phrase "knows in singing" is unusually resonant: [1] (as has been suggested) the bird knows—while singing not "sing," but rather discursively to raise questions; [2] the bird knows not to sing (literally) in-and-by singing (figuratively); [3] knowing-in-singing: like Sidney's "loving in truth," a kind of knowing in singing? or as if singing were itself a kind of mental process here? In any event, this song is a matter of knowledge, not of charm, of sense making a claim on tra-la-la. I think here, regarding the issue, always crucial for Frost, of the sound of making sense (what he talks about very often—he has a marvelous phrase when he talks about the "sentence sound"). It's the kind of thing which may be being undermined today by one technological habit. You notice how the air-headed cutter-out of sound bites on television news and that sort of thing will invariably cut at the end of a dependent clause, thus giving generations of poor wretched schoolchildren and others the sense that the end of a declarative sentence ends up in the air like this . . . ? I think that's the reason that so many young women produce all declarative sentences as if they were questions. This may have to do with a lack of sense of authenticity about themselves. "I work for J. C. Penney?" ("Well, do you?") We have amazing resources of the sound of syntax in English by enunciating properly, and that's one of the things that Frost talks about when he says "the sentence sound." It isn't just the way this falls into a line of verse.

This matter, as I said, is of the sound of making sense. How great jazz musicians would often play their purely instrumental solos to the words, singing the texts with a complex system of rhythms all intoned internally in order properly to inform the inventions of the melody. Charlie Parker always used to have the words of the tune he was improvising on in his head. This was crucial.

It could also be observed that this sonnet, itself, like so many other poems in Mountain Interval, which is the book it comes from, knows in singing not to sing. This is not in the way of Yeats's "words for music perhaps," a phrase which he used to designate a lot of his lyrical poems that, in its way, defines all lyric poetry in English from Wyatt and Surrey on. This is more of an implicit, revisionary take on the lyrical mode of high modernism, and may in some ways anticipate the rejection in another poem of his, called "Come In," with the sound of a thrush singing in the middle of a wood asking him to come into the dark, etc. Frost answered the thrush by saying, "But no, I was out for stars." So the dark wood is tragedy, or it's a whole other construction of what poetry is; for somebody who's not a poet, it better be about more than just poetry; otherwise it wouldn't be about much. It's about intellectual and moral seductions into a whole mode of experience which are probably inappropriate. Which some weird sense of oneself might demand that one confront. And his wonderful last lines of that poem say

I would not come in.
        I meant not even if asked,
And I hadn't been.

And of course a lot of the times that we make a fuss about an invitation and decide we probably have to reject it, we have to remember that we probably really haven't been invited: we've been inviting ourselves. Be that as may be, we come to the oven bird's question itself, which indeed may be two questions. Our colloquial phrase, "to make something of x" can mean to reshape it, use it as material for some new y, etc. But to ask, "What do you make of x?" means "How do you explain, analyze, interpret x?" "What's with x?" "What do you make of it?" These strangely paired meanings are those of "to construct" and "to construe." They both come from the same Latin verb, and are, indeed, with unfortunate consequences for serious academic discourse in the study of literature, starting about fifteen or twenty years ago, both designated by the same French word, construire. And we still use this in English—to "put a false construction on something" doesn't mean to make something sort of jerry-built and place it on top of something else. "To put a false construction on" means to lay a false interpretation over it. And that's the reason we get that unfortunate word, "deconstruction," which also simply means "interpretation." But through not paying attention, the French-speaking promulgators of that term didn't realize what they were doing with the fabric of English when they did that. Anyway, "what to make of"—those meanings are both present, complicatedly, for Frost in relation to each other.

This poem—this bird—talks neither of beginnings nor of endings, but a time that is both, in a Janus-like July, looking backward and forward at once, from an original, and to a final, fall. Midpoints are strange. They tend not to generate the ceremonies that beginnings and endings do. Midsummer in England tends to mean the solstice, June 21st or thereabouts. But this is not what the bird celebrates. We tend to think of our northeastern, American midsummer as somewhere around July 30th or so, and this is the Oven Bird's time: the somewhat indiscernible middle rather than a clearly marked center.

And thus, the bird's other possible question points toward and away from this matter. "What to make of"—how to construe, understand, interpret—the residual. Is the bottle of summer half-full or half-empty? The invitation to consider the question is not that of the ordinary, crack-pot realist, cynical put-down of epistemology. I think the invited discourse on the question, and what it would mean about you and summer to answer it either way, would lie along the pragmatic approaches to questioning in modern philosophy, is somewhere between William James and the later Wittgenstein. But another way of putting this suggests that one of these diminishings might be thought of as that of the whole tradition of talking about birds having something to say. Richard Wilbur uses the phrase "Winged words going round a stable." And in that kind of subsequent allegorizing that strong poems tend to exude, one thing to make of that diminished thing is, by means of newly animated words, the poem "The Oven Bird" itself. And then, as is the case with very powerful and deep poetic ambiguities, the invitation extends to consider the relation between the two kinds of "making of": between constructing and construing, in which representation is creation, and understandings are imagined. This relation is poetry's realm, as it may not be philosophy's.

And, as The Field Guide to North American Birds reminds us, the Oven Bird's call is characterized as "a loud and clear tea-cher."

Note: Parts of this talk were later published in an essay entitled "Robert Frost and the Renewal of Birds" that appeared in Reading in an Age of Theory (Rutgers University Press, 1997), edited by Bridget Gellert Lyons.