This Old Poem #25:
Robert Frost’s Birches
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/25/02
1 of the great errors artists & critics make is conflating their likes & dislikes for objective criteria regarding a work of art. That is, too often they will give a thumbs up to crap simply because it appeals to their political, personal, religious, or aesthetic beliefs. Whether it is well-done is irrelevant, because they like it, or the attempt. Often this conflation occurs in pop art- especially film. People like the crap of a Steven Spielberg, so cliché-ridden & stereotype-laden crap like Saving Private Ryan
& Schindler’s List gets praised, even though any 16 year old could
have penned it. Or, films like Forrest Gump (about a retard), or Philadelphia
(did you know bigotry is bad? especially when perpetrated by black bigots?) get
over-the-top praise, despite being palpably thin in story. Then there are
critics who love or hate everything an artist does- without any discernment of
often great artistic heights between the works of art. Woody Allen has had
notorious boosters (who praise his lamer early & recent films) & dogged
detractors (who damn even his unassailably brilliant late 70s-early 90s period).
We are all guilty of such biases- even me. The difference is I fundamentally recognize this. When I watch cheesy soap operas, Godzilla films, or pro wrestling, I take them for what they are. I do not try to justify them as higher arts. Similarly, there are artists & poets I dislike, aesthetically, but have to admit are pretty damned good overall. Robert Frost is 1 of those. He has a dozen or so brilliant dialogue poems, a few dozen good-great anthology pieces (including the titular poem), & 1 supreme example of great- nay, divine- poetry: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening. But generally I dislike his technically sound poetry. It’s a combination of the bada-boom Catskills comedian factor (that is, his poems are well-wrought, but often predictable in their narratives & homiletics), & what poet-critic Randall Jarrell infamously termed the other Frost (TOF). I use the modifier infamous because ever since RJ’s 1950s championing of TOF every 2-bit critic has seen fit to weave in all sorts of ridiculous connotations into RF’s poems, & justify it with RJ’s thesis. The truth is RF was a very technically solid, but often banal poet- often due to extended prolixity &/or preciousness. He’s in the pantheon, for sure, but he’s not as good as his supporters say. Still, he’s got a # of poems any poet (including me) would love to have written.
That said let’s turn to the poem in question, then I’ll grieve a bit, rewrite, & let you decide the poem’s (& rewrite’s) worth.
BirchesWhen I see birches bend to left and right
Right away we see that this is a good poem, with solid blankly versed music- but it has some glaring, typically Frostian weaknesses- namely it’s too wordy. Frost may have reveled in being a champion of plainspeak- but this poem makes you wanna say, ‘Shut up & get to the point already. Instead of pointing out bit-by-bit what is excess let me do a side-by-side for easier comparison. In the rewrite I cut this 59 line poem down to 34, lose nothing narratively, & also heighten some things that add to the overall ‘poetry’ of the piece.
When I see birches bend to left and right
When I see birches bend to left and right
what’s gone & why. Line 2’s straighter & darker adjectives
may be Frostian fixtures, but they do not enhance this poem- perhaps in a poem
on a Victory Garden, but not birches. The lines ‘As the breeze rises, and
turn many-coloured/As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.’ are also
redundant in describing the falling ice from the trees, when ‘After a rain.
They click upon themselves’ says it so well. Ditto, even more so, for ‘Such
heaps of broken glass to sweep away/You'd think the inner dome of heaven had
fallen./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:’. & there really is no need for such dramatic
personification as ‘But I was going to say when Truth broke in/With all her
matter-of-fact about the ice-storm’ when the speaker’s remembrance more
than satisfies. This is just typical artistic gizzing. The poet is ‘on a
roll’ & feels no need to prune back because he/she likes what is being
done so much that to trim seems sacreligious to ‘the moment’. Similarly the
passage ‘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. 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’ weakens the narrative- especially the
phrase ‘could play alone’. By going on & on the power of that idea (not
new, but in context very jarring at this point in the poem) is undercut. RF must
tell us rather than letting the idea show us. Going straight to
‘To the top branches....’ we get a very show moment- the boy
is sucking it up & becoming a man. In the original RF is self-consciously
going for the explication of what most readers (male or female) already know.
Ditto (again) for ‘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.’ This is just bad writing- dramatically, not technically.
It’s cringe-inducing mawk. ‘May no fate wilfully misunderstand me/And
half grant what I wish and snatch me away’ is just more telling, not
I challenge you, take the rewrite & original versions, print them up, & show the rewrite to 10 people you know to read. Ask them what they think of the poem, what the basic storyline is, etc. Then let’em read the original & ask them the same questions. They will give you the same answers. The point is that nothing is gained by the 25 extra lines in the original. But something is gained in the concision. The phrase ‘Not to return’, in the original, is merely an addendum to the idea of being snatched away- but in the rewrite it is both a clarifier & a comment on the preceding lines: ‘I'd like to get away from earth awhile/And then come back to it and begin over.’ This is the speaker aware of his plight & sharing it knowingly with the reader- a moment of communion absent from the original where RF just piles on & gilds the proverbial lily. He could do better, & did so in many of his classics. This is an overrated poem. The rewrite is a great poem, but the original is just a good poem with potential. In retrospect even RF would see that he could do better. After all, I’ve shown he did worse!
Final Score: (1-100):
Robert Frost’s Birches: 82
TOP’s Birches: 95
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