For the Birds Radio Program: Robert Frost's birthday
There are a great many people who live or have lived on this little planet who I consider heroes, but only a few whose birthdays I know, much less celebrate. Today is the birthday of one of them, Robert Frost. It’s strange to celebrate his birthday on March 26 by reading his poems, since so many of the ones most resonant for me are about different times of year. I’ve always thought the yellow woods those two roads diverged in were autumnal, and he celebrated woods that were lovely, dark, and deep on the darkest evening of the year—the winter solstice. One of the most resonant Robert Frost poems for me—a poem that gives me great comfort in my own life, is “Reluctance,” which ends,
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
But that poem is filled with autumnal images such as dead leaves lying “huddled and still, no longer blown hither and thither.” So how about some Robert Frost poems about spring? “Mending Wall” is set in early spring, when Frost and his neighbor are repairing the stone fence between their properties after winter. Although I love this poem in which the phrase “good fences make good neighbors” is used ironically, the only time the men really do come together and feel like good neighbors is while repairing the fence that divides them. I much prefer “The Tuft of Flowers,” set in summer while mowing a field. Here two men are working at different times, and never even see one another, yet when Robert Frost sees that the man working ahead of him had spared a lovely little tuft of flowers from the scythe, he feels-
a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
Men work together,' I told him from the heart,Whether they work together or apart.’
It’s hard to find a Robert Frost poem that doesn’t have at least a reference or two to birds. I particularly love his poem about the “Ovenbird,” though it’s not a spring poem either. He notes that the Ovenbird is
a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
And Frost concludes that
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Poetry gives us metaphors to help us understand and deal with some of the most profound moments of our lives. Two roads have just diverged in my own life, and I’ve been trying to make sense of what to make of a diminished thing. Having read many biographies of Robert Frost, I know he led a difficult and sometimes heartbreaking life, but that he kept his own sanity by creating poetry. Writing poetry is an act of faith, hope, and charity all rolled into one—the writer has faith that people will read his work, and hope that somehow his words will shed light on something difficult to express any other way. And the greatest act of charity is forging bonds between human beings, only possible with true understanding through honest communication.
The poetry of Robert Frost has been a lifeline for me. And today’s the right day to celebrate the man and all he’s given us.