Sunday, November 30, 2008

On Education: Two (Education by Poetry)

I haven’t been in the classroom since June, so I was happy to take up Eliza’s offer to come into her Am Lit Nature classes and walk her students through a short introduction to Robert Frost.

Frost is one of our most misread and misunderstood poets. When I was in school I was given to understand that Frost was a nature poet, a pastoral poet, a genial and benevolent figure in the world of American letters. His most iconic poems, like “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken,” were interpreted by my classmates and teachers in ways that I later came to realize stripped them of their complexity, their equivocation, their essential darkness. Part of this was, of course, Frost’s fault. He cultivated the public persona of the grandfatherly presence, the crusty New England sage, the repository of genial wisdom, even as his battle with his many private demons were generating some of his greatest poems.

Another of my colleagues, when he found out that I was going to be talking with students about Frost, remarked, “I’ve never quite trusted Frost.” And that’s a good thing, I think. Frost is not a trustworthy character. He’s a shapeshifter, a ventriloquist, a writer who by his own admission is mostly interested in indirection, or what, in another context, might very well be called lies.

I remember reading Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Frost well after I had graduated from college and being stunned by the amount of pain that Frost had experienced, and generated in the lives of those around him. Grandfather, it turns out, was not a nice guy. As with most writers and artists, his poetry represents the best of him. It represents his iron-willed determination to master, to control, to get right on the page what he could could not master or control or get right in his life. I suspect that that is one reason why he chose to set so many of his poems in the world of nature. As an object of contemplation, a tree, a field, or a snowdrift is, first and foremost, exactly what it is, and there is a kind of purity, a clarity, in that. But for Frost, that essential simplicity rarely stays simple for long. He may be looking at a tree, or talking about a walk in the woods, but he’s always thinking hard about something else. This is, as he himself points out, his characteristic move as a poet, and, for that matter, a move he claims for all poetry:

Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections — whether from diffidence or some other instinct.

That remark is from an essay called “Education by Poetry.” It’s the edited transcript of a talk he gave at Amherst College in 1931, and in it he makes a number of arguments, the most interesting of which, following up on the line of thought he begins above, had to do with the essential value of metaphor as a tool — Frost argues that it is the tool — for thinking. His clearest and most dramatic statement of that point comes about midway through the essay, when he says:

We still ask boys in college to think…but we seldom tell them what thinking means; we seldom tell them it is just putting this and that together; it is just saying one thing in terms of another. To tell them is to set their feet on the first rung of a ladder the top of which sticks through the sky.

It’s a nice formulation, especially in the way that he uses an elegant and illustrative metaphor to clinch his point about the power of elegant and illustrative metaphors. Of course, he’s being reductive. He’s telling lies again. There are other modes of thought than the analogical. Frost knows that. But he expects us, as educated readers, to know it as well, and to take his metaphor as what it is, a means of making a point. As he says, in the same essay:

unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere . Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don’t know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don’t know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe with science; you are not safe in history…

To the degree that it is true that all thinking is metaphor, it behooves us to recognize both its power and its limitations. And, to Frost’s way of thinking, is the educative value of poetry: it teaches us how to navigate the landscape of metaphor, which is everywhere around us, and all too often invisible.

1 comment:

eron said...

As a Brazilian student of Literature, I have met Robert Frost in my redings and since then I have never left him.
It is good to know that someone is out there to suggest what the birth of thinking is.
Good to have read from you these comments. I have shared the text 'Education by Poetry' with teachers of English is Brazil and it has been nice.
Eron - Parnamirim/RN - Brazil