Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Desert Places"

It’s getting into that desolate time of year—frozen ground, morning fog, dry yellow grass in the pastures mixed with the snow. Tho I’m someone who tempramentally craves a mediterranean climate, I’ll admit there are some charms to early winter: afternoons in a warm house watching a snowfall, & watching the winter birds flock to the feeders amongst the flakes: juncos & chickadees, & cassin’s finches (the latter invariably throng our feeders during snowstorms); for all that, there’s a starkness & harshness to the winter landscape that also puts one in mind of a larger starkness & harshness: lonliness, isolation, a bleakness at heart. Winter can be all these things at once—beautiful & desolate, charming & disturbing.

One learns these things living in a northern clime. As we all know, poet Robert Frost lived in New England & got firsthand exposure to this. I don’t care what Mark Twain said about the coldest winter he ever spent being “a summer in San Francisco”—the coldest winter I ever spent was a winter in Burlington, VT when the thermometer didn’t break zero for days at a time & I was working on a crew clearing cross-country ski trails for the Winooski Valley Park District.

But Frost’s poems also acknowledge the elegance of winter, & one’s delight in that. I’ve always admired this week’s poem, “Desert Places” because it mixes bleak imagery & dark thoughts with more light-hearted gestures. In some folks’ hands, this combination wouldn’t work, but I think he pulls it off masterfully—of course, I once had a class of under-graduates at University of Virginia disagree with me rather heartily on this subject, so “to each his own,” I guess.

Hope y’all enjoy this poem, tho (speaking of southern universities). Oh, & check out the Frost pic: proving that he wasn’t a crotchety codger of 60-something his entire life….

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost
A Further Range
1936 Robert Frost

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