And a Certain Famous Poem by Robert Frost
Already I’ve met the goal of reading poems by four poets I have never before recorded. But since I got excitable and couldn’t wait for week four, I counted that last one as a bonus.
So, now, officially for week four, I have two poems about my favorite creatures on the planet—birds. Both poems are written by Edward Thomas. One is about a bird of the daytime and one a bird of the night.
I’m actually a little surprised that I hadn’t recorded anything by Edward Thomas before. I remember reading “The Owl.” I think I heard it discussed on a podcast at some point, and possibly by Robert Pinsky. But I can’t seem to find that now. I remember being so impressed by it that I was eager to dig into it and try it out in my own voice.
Why I Record
Maybe you’ve figured that out about me by now; I either record a poem because I have fallen in love with it, or because it fascinates me, and I want to see how it works. Probably both. Language in action is what fascinates me, so reading, practicing the pauses, figuring out the pace, basically deciding on the right vocal interpretation is, in my opinion, is the best way to embrace a piece and understand it.
Maybe that’s true of singers and musicians too when there is a song they love. There is a deaf poet I know who brings his poems to life through sign language and I have to guess that the poems feel more complete to him once he’s done that. Just this morning I was discussing with a dear friend who reading my poems out loud is how I figure out where the bumpy spots are, what works and what doesn’t.
Good art makes you want to interact with it. And if it’s your chosen medium, like poetry is for me, you just naturally want to taste it. I swear, even reading poetry quietly in a waiting room, I’m hearing it in my head.
Edward Thomas and a Misunderstanding
But back to our poet for this last week of poetry month. Edward Thomas. You may or may not have heard of him. While some have referred to him as a war poet, it might be more accurate to say he was a nature poet who turned soldier and died as one. He was a Welshman who became good friends with American poet Robert Frost, who inspired him to turn many of the works in his notebooks into poems.
It has been speculated that the Thomas’ misunderstanding of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is what led to his death in the war. John Green covers the theory in this video. This article in the Guardian also deeply delves into it and discusses the influence Frost had on Thomas and highlights some of their interesting correspondence.
Frost himself, long before the recent book by David Orr, warned that the poem was “tricky.” To be fair, plenty of people have talked about this, and even I took up the discussion in the description section of a video on my YouTube channel back in 2012, three years before Orr’s book.
That doesn’t make me special or smarter than Orr, or any of the professors I’ve been listening to and reading for 25 years. They all said some version of the same thing about how people fail to understand this poem, simply because they fail to pay attention. It’s just that Orr was savvy enough to put out a book on the topic through a popular press.
Frost is being kind to us when he calls it “tricky.” There is no special trick to interpretation. All you have to do is what most people haven’t done; read more than the first few and the last few lines of the poem. Because in the middle you’ll find the speaker arguing with his own false claims when he says:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Got it? Both roads were the same, and the unreliable narrator stops to confess this fact to us before he ends by saying, not what is true but what he will be telling himself years later:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one . . .
Yeah, he took the one that was exactly the same as the other one, and there was no way he could have known what might have happened had he taken the other.
But isn’t this how we humans are? We make up our history retrospectively to fit our current outlook. And that, dear friends, makes for a much better and more honest poem, than the bullshit “I-did-it-my-way” mantra of self-independence that our culture has told us it meant, mostly, because nobody took the time to read the whole poem and see it actually said.
I wasn’t going to get into all of that. Too late! I’ve tainted your idea of Edward Thomas. But regardless of what he may have misunderstood about his friend’s popular poem, Edward Thomas was a very fine poet himself. He was also a bit of a tortured guy who struggled with poverty and fought with his wife, though by all accounts they did love each other, and she spoke well of him after his death. Look him up for yourself, and read some of his poems.
Here are two to get you started. I’ll save the close readings for our discussions in tbe comments. Happy Poetry Month!
The Hollow Wood
Out in the sun the goldfinch flits
Along the thistle-tops, flits and twits
Above the hollow wood
Where birds swim like fish—
Fish that laugh and shriek—
To and fro, far below
In the pale hollow wood.
Lichen, ivy, and moss
Keep evergreen the trees
That stand half-flayed and dying,
And the dead trees on their knees
In dog’s-mercury, ivy, and moss:
And the bright twit of the goldfinch drops
Down there as he flits on thistle-tops.
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.