Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

I love Julia Alvarez

I’ve liked her poetry for a long while, but I especially love what she’s done with the AP’s request for an inaugural poem. I’ve written before about my problems with Frost’s poem for Kennedy, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that I wasn’t alone. Alvarez voiced many of the same reservations, though in a far better–and poetic–way than I did. Here’s her poem:

The land was never ours, nor we the land’s:
no, not in Selma, with the hose turned on,
nor in the valley picking the alien vines.
Nor was it ours in Watts, Montgomery–
no matter what the frosty poet said.
We heard the crack of whips, the mothers’ moans
in anthems like an undertow of grief.
The land was never ours but we believed
a King’s dream might some day become a deed
to what we did not own, though it owed us.
(Who had the luxury to withhold himself?)
No gift outright for us, we earned this land
with sorrow’s currency: our hands, our backs,
our Rosas, Martins, Jesses, our Baracks.
Today we give our land what we withheld:
the right at last to call itself one nation.

I’m teaching occasional poetry in my Poetic Forms class in a couple of weeks, and I planned to bring in the inaugural poems anyway. I’m adding this one to the list.

January 18, 2009 Posted by | inaugural poems, Julia Alvarez, Robert Frost | Leave a comment

I guess I can see that

A couple of days ago at Sadly, No, Mister Leonard Pierce looked at some responses to the National Review Onine’s symposium on books. To the question “If there were only one book on conservatism you could recommend to a newcomer, what would it be and why?” Richard Brookheiser answered “The Complete Poetry of Robert Frost. Not very detailed at the policy level, but lots of reality.”

I have my doubts about the reality part, but I’m guessing Brookheiser is referring to poems like “The Gift Outright” when it comes to his approval of Frost’s poetry. After all, it’s a paean to the British-centric view of US history.

But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.

I can see why a conservative would like this poem. It simplifies the early history of the US down to a single people and ignores everyone else. Dutch, German, French, Spanish, even the slaves are disappeared from the narrative–“we were England’s,” according to this.

But that’s nothing compared what Frost does to the natives who were living here when the Europeans showed up.

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Frost pulls off a nice double whammy here–without mentioning Native Americans directly, he has us give ourselves this land through “many deeds of war,” thus acknowledging that there were people there before us who had a claim (one could include Mexicans in with this group as well), but then refers to the land as basically useless before we got there to improve it: “unstoried, artless, unenhanced.” Of course conservatives like Brookheiser like this poem–it feeds into their sense of supremacy, of privilege, of the idea that until the white, English-speaking man came along, the land was crap, waiting for us to do something useful with it.

I think Brookheiser, at least with this poem, got it backwards. Plenty of policy–white, English supremacy, no mention of women or other ethnicities, genocidal policies toward native peoples, and revised history. Not much reality, though.

July 5, 2008 Posted by | Richard Brookheiser, Robert Frost, Sadly No, The Gift Outright | Leave a comment

It’s not less travelled

Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is probably one of the best known poems of the 20th century, but for entirely the wrong reason. I teach it nearly every semester in my Interpretation of Poetry classes, not so much because I enjoy it, but because I’m tired of hearing people invoke the final three lines as though they’re conveying some statement about the need to explore one’s own path in life. It seems like when I ask my students if they’ve covered this poem–and they nearly all have, in high school–that’s the reading their teacher thrust upon them. Well, I’m tired of it, and I’m taking a stand.

The problem is that too many readers hit those last three lines like an awkward kid on roller skates hits the wall, and they never look beyond them.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

What a ponderous close, if that’s all you take away from the poem. But it’s what comes before that gives that close a cruel twist.

Frost spends most of the poem pointing out that the path his speaker chose wasn’t less travelled.

Then took the other, as just as fair,…
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.(6, 9-12)

There’s no difference in the roads, at least not that the speaker can make out. And that’s the point. If we take this poem as a discussion of life choices, which is how it’s most often read, then what Frost is really saying is that we don’t know how our choices will play out. Assuming we’re at a binary life choice (also a mythical situation, most of the time), we can only see so far down the roads we have to choose from, “to where [they bend] in the undergrowth,” you might say. Beyond that, we’re blind. We don’t know how those decisions will affect us in the long run.

So why does Frost’s speaker tell this story “with a sigh / ages and ages hence”? Because he’s being bugged by people to tell them the secret of his success, I presume, to answer the question “how did you wind up here?” The people asking him don’t want to hear something boring like “I just put one foot after another;” they want something profound. So the speaker gives them “I took the one less travelled by.” It’s a lie, but it’s a lie they want. The fact that the options pretty much look all the same just whizzes over their heads.

May 28, 2008 Posted by | Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken | 1 Comment