Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Book 35 of 2014: The Poetry of Robert Frost

When I was at high school we did the obligatory poetry unit in English and I was lucky to have one of those English teachers who can make you fall in love with almost anything you’re asked to study. This was the teacher who assigned us The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark which the three of us (yes, there were only three of us in my sixth year English class) absolutely hated. We all went to class that day, having read it over the weekend, prepared to complain to him about this awful book he’d given us to read, except when we got there he spent two hours discussing it with us and completely changed how we felt about it.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is now one of my favourite books. And Mr L. had the exact same effect on my love of Robert Frost’s poetry.

A little while ago I tried to find the copy of the complete collection of Robert Frost that I read when I was at school. I bought this one thinking it was it. I always thought the edition I read at school had a picture of Robert Frost on the cover, but looking back now it might have been a painting and it could have been just a random man, as opposed to the actual author of the poems. Regardless, I treated myself to this collection because I don’t often read poetry and this seemed like a good way to read more (by starting with what I already knew I loved). This one definitely wasn’t the one I read in school because it has extra poems in it as well as plays when I’d never read before.

I still remember the groan that went up from the class when it was announced we were covering poetry. It was never anyone’s favourite. Except me. But English was my favourite subject and school and I was kind of a dork so everyone knew that. We’d looked at a poem by Robert Frost at least once before as part of a past paper question. It was probably ‘The Road Less Traveled’ (which is ironic because it got a mention in yesterday’s Chapter-by-Chapter post).

Mr L. was one of those people who could get us talking though and before we even started looking at metre or imagery or personification or any of those other things you needed to trot out in your exam paper, we just discussed the poem. I wish I still had all my notes from those classes because I must’ve written reams on it. No one was ever wrong as long as they could explain what they thought they were seeing in the text and could provide a quote to back it up.

And then when we came to study more of the poems I was surprised to find one that felt familiar. So familiar in fact that I had it memorised by the end of the second day of looking at it. That poem was ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. It’s still one that I pull out whenever I need to show off, or do a microphone test at drama, or want to calm myself down when I just want to yell at someone. I love the rhythm of it, the metre, and the way that the last two lines could almost be the sound of horse hooves beating a hasty retreat:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

We spent a whole lesson speculating on who the narrator was, what his promises were, where he was going, why he was going there. None of that stuff was ever going to come up in an exam question, but we discussed it nonetheless, and I think we all had a better understanding of the poem for it. Poems stopped just being pretty arrangements of words on a page and became little stories, snapshots of life or explorations of a feeling. Until that point the only poems I’d really liked were the funny ones with snappy little rhymes.

It took me a while to get through this book. I started it on the 30th of August and I didn’t finish it until the 14th of September but that’s because I was trying to read it the way Mr L. taught us to, as well as reading the poems and looking over all the technical aspects I studied in my literature course. Some poems I read through quickly, then flicked back to a day or so later to read again. I think poetry books like this one are the sort that you shouldn’t try to read all in one go, you should dip into them and enjoy them in little chunks, then set them aside again for another day.

As I mentioned earlier, this book contained some material I wasn’t aware of before. I’d never read the two plays which are slotted in at the end. I thought they were interesting but I didn’t enjoy them as much as the poems. I’m going to say that’s because I got myself into a frame of mind for reading poems and then immediately afterwards found myself reading a play. Had I read them as a standalone I probably would have felt differently.

In terms of reading the poems as snapshots of a wider world, I felt like reading them all together in quick succession gave me a glimpse of the world Frost inhabited. It was a world of cold winters, snow and forests, all surrounding rural life. There was a lot of serious poetry in here, but there was also some that were playful and kind of tongue-in-cheek (like ‘The Objection to Being Stepped On).

I’m going to continue to return to this book in the future, though I suspect it’ll be one of those staples of my bookcase that I’ll pick up, flick through and then set aside again, maybe for a day, maybe for a month or two. Robert Frost will continue to be my favourite poet.

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