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On Poetry: Vermont Verse Starts With Frost



For the Valley News
Friday, September 09, 2016

Sydney Lea, my predecessor as poet laureate of Vermont, and I have been working on an anthology of Vermont poets that Green Writers Press will publish in the fall of 2017.

After spending seven months gathering poems from around the state by poets who have published at least one book of poetry by a reputable publisher, we have collected poems from more than 75 poets. We hope this anthology will become popular among both students of all ages and the reading public.

In my role as poet laureate, I, like most of the other state poets, wish to assume an ambassadorial role for poetry. The Vermont Council on the Arts wisely leaves the job description open for its poet laureates, allowing its selections to be as creative in their endeavors as they are in their poetry. During the four years of my tenure in this position, I intend to support and disseminate as much memorable poetry as I can — poetry by poets of all ages and walks of life.

Where to begin? Why not with a poem by Vermont’s first poet laureate, Robert Frost, who served as the state poet from 1961 until his death in 1963. Although a proud Vermonter for much of his career (he also enjoyed living in and writing about New Hampshire), Frost was famous for saying that the liked to keep one foot in Vermont and the other in the nation. While there are too many great poems in his oeuvre to choose just one as representative or uniquely strong, I will resort to choosing a timely seasonal poem, the Petrarchan sonnet entitled Mowing from Frost’s first book A Boy’s Will, published in 1913.

Mowing

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,

And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.

What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;

Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,

Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—

And that was why it whispered and did not speak.

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:

Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,

Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers

(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Frost establishes the unique sound his scythe makes in the field beside the woods as his first order of business in this poem. This sound is organic and mysterious — a whisper rather than just steel on grass. The scythe is speaking to the speaker of the poem in the breathy voice one uses to tell secrets. The speaker wonders just what this runic sense is his scythe is imparting to “the ground.” He confesses that he himself is ignorant of its secret.

He then spends the remainder of the poem searching for the correct translation of the scythe’s whisper into human language, and in so doing ultimately discovers something he didn’t know he knew. He proceeds with supposition and speculation: “Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun./Something perhaps about the lack of sound—/ And that was why it whispered and did not speak.”

Frost’s metaphysical investigation into the scythe’s whisper “to the ground” observes ironically that the scythe’s voice is as full of silence as it is with sound, which is why it whispers. Frost’s implication here is that the marriage between sound and silence in the scythe’s “whispering” requires close listening, close reading. Frost builds poetic suspense as he continues to think about this sound as the source of a pastoral secret that only the receptive “farmer” is privileged to hear and understand.

The theme of sound as essential introduction to meaning runs throughout his work. Indeed, he viewed sound as the music that precedes and carries meaning as the conveyor of sense itself.

Turning next to ruling out possibilities for the scythe’s sound, Frost eliminates a few facile options for the whisper: It is neither “the dream of the gift of idle hours,” as any farmer might tell the city dweller nor “anything more than the truth” since that would seem “too weak to the earnest love” of the laborer in the field. How fascinating that Frost writes “anything more” instead of “anything less” here, as if to say that embellishing the truth, especially with regard to labor, mitigates the truth more egregiously than telling less than the truth.

Now, within the intense, economical space of only 12 lines, Frost arrives at the answer to the mystery of the scythe’s whisper in the poem’s penultimate line. By again combining two opposites, dream and fact, just as he had done earlier with sound and silence, Frost delivers the earthly news: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” While contradictory on the surface, this line captures the ecstatic yet empirical nature of work, exemplifying what F. Scott Fitzgerald — perhaps America’s most poetic prose writer — called “the test of a first-rate intelligence … the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

“Fact is dream to the laborer in the uncut field,” the scythe whispers as the farmer swings his scythe, just as Frost “swings” his lines so memorably on the page — his “ground” — back and forth between literal and figurative sense.

Now that farmers mow mainly on tractors, one wonders what profound news Frost would hear in the sickle bar or bush hog. I wonder what we’ve lost by removing the hand from the scythe. Frost addresses the question of our human alienation from nature in the modern world in another sonnet called The Oven Bird, but I will leave that for another time.

Chard deNiord is Vermont’s poet laureate. He lives in Westminster West.