[by Jenny Chu]
There were 18 of us, perfect attendance on the first evening of the Robert Frost and Williams Carlos Williams Delve Readers Seminar led by scholar and poet John Brehm. Non-poets and poetry lovers, nurses and teachers, first time Delvers and Delve veterans, retired lawyers and public defenders, enthusiasts of Frost and Williams and those who had never read them, were crowded around a table shoulder to shoulder. But because we had all gathered for one purpose: the desire to learn, discuss, and engage fully with the works of Frost and Williams, the coziness didn’t seem to bother anyone at all.
We started the evening with a brief summary of Frost’s life. Frost had a reputation of being a farmer with a rural sensibility, and a purveyor of folk wisdom. Even though he perpetuated this façade of being the common man, he was in fact a very sophisticated poet. He attended Dartmouth and Harvard before dropping out, and was very well read in the Greek and Latin classics. For all his intelligence, he had a difficult upbringing. His father died when he was 11 years old, and his family was very poor. Then his mom died when he was 20. His mom had suffered from depression, as did he, and his sister was committed to an insane asylum. Four of Frost’s six children died. Even as a farmer with a family of his own, he still endured financial hardship until his poetry allowed him to teach at several universities later in life.
He was an innovator of his time by writing poems that were rooted in the real world, when everyone else was writing elevated and saccharine poems in iambic pentameter. Though Frost came from the same traditional poetic conventions, he sought to change the poem by bringing it closer to natural language, while keeping the poem’s musicality, described as a sort of “talking song.” Frost believed that “there are tones of voice that speak more than words.”
As he progressed as a poet, his poems began to show more darkness. His work shouldn’t necessarily be read as autobiography, but it’s easy to see that the emotional center of his poems were contextualized by his experiences.
We discussed Frost’s poems, “Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” and “The Wood-Pile.” We studied the music and the colloquial in these pieces, as well as the tension between order and disorder, civility and wildness. Brehm said that Frost’s poems “have simple surfaces but complicated depths.” As a group we were able to reach Frost at those depths, where the complexity of being human broods beneath the quiet and unassuming simplicity of the quotidian.
In our second session we talked about Frost’s poems “A Servant to Servants,” “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” and as it was a very blustery evening that night, the apropos “The Sound of Trees,” and “Tree at My Window.”
In “A Servant to Servants,” we saw Frost’s ability to inhabit dark recesses of the mind and his incredible empathy in portraying a woman’s life in the early 1900s. The piece, a dramatic monologue from a woman’s perspective, explored the tension between her loneliness and her womanly duties. Frost was able to balance between her creative imagination and her mental illness, hinting that creativity and madness are at times indistinguishable. We discussed whether it was a proto-feminist poem, noting that these type of experiences were not being written about during that time, and whether Frost’s rendering of this woman’s suffering could have led to a greater understanding of the human condition regardless of gender.
Next, in “The Road Not Taken,” in which the famous quote appears, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/ I took the one less traveled by, /And that has made all the difference.” We studied Frost’s mischievousness. It’s a deceivingly straightforward poem, in which order and disorder are at work again. The poem’s form, rhyme, tone, and cadence are structured, while the logic flits between Frost’s wordplay. Frost wrote the poem for his friend Edward Thomas. When the two friends would go on walks and a path did split, Thomas at the end of the walk would always express that they should have taken the other path. As a group, we determined that both roads in the poem were in fact the same.
In “The Sound of Trees,” the poem took on one of the great themes from American literature – the desire to escape from civilization:
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.
The ending is ambiguous. It’s uncertain if the “I” in the poem is talking about finally leaving, or death. It is most likely both.
We continued on to “Birches” one of Frost’s most famous and anthologized poems, and finished the evening with “Tree at my Window” which explored the interiority of one’s loneliness, while finding kinship with the tree’s externality:
But, tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.
And with that, our group left Frost inside as we reentered the wind-blown world where the trees were being tossed.
I was sorry to miss our third and last dedicated seminar on Robert Frost’s poems, but I was excited to return from the Thanksgiving holiday to William Carlos Williams’s work. I first read Williams’s Spring and All (1923) on a friend’s recommendation because I had been writing hybrid-like pieces with prose that bordered the sentiments of poetry. Spring and All is a little blue book full of prose and free verse that demonstrate how language can be made anew in form and content over and over again. This made me a fan of Williams. It’s no wonder I was excited to talk and learn more about Williams’s work and his poetry with a group as smart as our Delvers.
Williams and Frost were born nine years apart, but died in the same year. This fact was shared with the group to demonstrate how close they were as contemporaries, even though they wrote very differently, and probably didn’t know each other personally. Frost at the time was very famous, while Williams though a prolific writer of poetry, plays, essays, short stories and novels, produced most of work in obscurity. Williams had originally been very influenced by John Keats’s poetic formalities, soon found himself at university mentored and befriended by Ezra Pound. This relationship catapulted Williams to act against the rigidity and orderly nature of poems written at that time, and led him to join Pound, H.D (Hilda Doolittle), and others who become known as part of the imagist movement. As Pound continued to write more allusive poetry, Williams stuck to Pound’s initial tenet “to make it new.”
Williams was fiercely experimental, and when he published Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920) he was criticized by many, including Pound who called it “incoherent,” and “un-American.” H.D accused the work as being flippant, and un-serious, and Wallace Stevens described it as Williams’s “tantrums.” It wasn’t until the 1950s when the dominant school of poetry (T.S Eliot and Allen Tate) gave way to a newer type of open form poetry. Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Cid Corman found a new prophet, father, and friend of poetry in Williams. It can be argued that Williams is even more well-known than Frost in the contemporary poetic canon, despite Williams’s work being dismissed and highly criticized while he was alive.
Before we diving into Williams’s poems, we spoke about the ways of how to enter and approach a poem. It was a good thing to discuss because the temperament of Frost is so different from Williams. Our guide John Brehm noted that “poems are works of art, and are meant to be enjoyed, not explicated.”
We compared Frost’s poem “Putting in the Seed” (1920) with Williams’s “By the Road to the Contagious Hospital” (1922). Both used the literal seedling coming up from the soil as the event for their poems, but the meaning, and the affect of both were quite different. For one, the group felt that Frost’s poem was very intimate, and seemed to invite the reader along, where Williams’s poem felt like clinical observations creating distance between the reader and the piece. We partly attributed this to Frost’s use of the “I” and Williams’s absence of the “I” in their respective poems.
We talked more about Williams’s poems, including the absurd “Danse Russe,” “Smell!,” “To waken an Old Lady,” and “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime.” Unlike Frost’s work which is much more narrative, Williams’s pieces feel like a snapshot, or moment in time. At some point, Brehm helped us figure out why the transition from Frost to Williams felt so perplexing, like being all of sudden in entirely new territory though both wrote poetry. Brehm said that “reading Frost is like watching a voice unfold on the page, while reading Williams is like watching a mind unfold,” which to me are equally wonderful in their own ways.
Weeks 5 & 6:
Our last two seminars went by too fast. In fact, the last six weeks went by all too quickly that we were all sad to see it end.
In our fifth, second to last session together, we started the evening discussing William Carlos Williams’s quotes. We went around the room and picked our favorites, and as a group we started appreciating Williams as the restless and inventive writer he was, and began to see him as a revolutionary and an innovator of the poetic form. Williams was unconcerned with tradition and myth the way Robert Frost was. He wanted to strip words of their old associations to make the familiar strange, to create a newness in language. This session was a far leap from our previous gathering, as the group had been reticent, maybe even discontented to make the switch from Frost’s tightly-crafted and flowing poems to Williams’s more clipped and contemporary sensibilities. We started seeing their different temperaments and tastes: coming to an understanding that Frost’s work refined and moved the formal conventions along, where Williams clearly broke from tradition. A Delver aptly made the distinction that “Frost is like a proper sit down dinner, with all the fine silver and china and all the course pairings, while Williams is a bit more like a potluck where you have many different choices; does it make one better than the other? It’s just a matter of what you’re feeling.”
By our last seminar, we had learned a different way to approach Williams, and became better readers of poetry in general because of it. We learned to appreciate Williams’s work, despite our initial misgivings – which I think is arguably the most valuable thing of enrolling in a Delve. We were able to, as a group, to acquire this ability to approach a text, in this case Williams’s poems, on its own terms. We were able to, as a group, to overcome our initial reactions of dismissing Williams’s work because we didn’t understand it upon first read.
I think it’s this willingness to understand something that is not immediately pleasurable or enjoyable that marks a typical Delver. Most enter a Delve not knowing anything substantial about the reading material, and despite this not-knowing Delvers are willing to admit to their ignorance and to move forth into a place of knowledge – which is an exploratory act. In our group, I observed that Delvers tend to have an intellectually adventurous disposition, and for six seminars I felt lucky to be amongst them.