Frost's poetics and the mending wall

A debate continues

Screenshot of the ModPo "Mending Wall" live webcast, October 11, 2012. From left to right: Taije Silverman, John Timpane, Al Filreis (moderator), Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Bob Perelman.

One October 11, 2012, I hosted a debate on Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Well, not quite a debate, but I knew that I, sitting in the middle of four poets, would be on the fence, as it were, with two on a side.  The live webcast, hosted by the Kelly Writers House, was associated with the 36,000-person free online course "ModPo," and was viewed synchronously by dozens in the room with us and thousands watching digitally around the world. We made a recording immediately afterward, and have posted it to YouTube here (1 hour, 9 minutes). (And here is a recording of Frost performing the poem. We began our discussion by listening to it; the performance is certainly important to at least the beginning of the debate.)

The differences between the sides, two versus two, didn't really emerge until the end of a fascinating discussion, but they did indeed emerge, Rachel Blau DuPlessis first finally expressing concerns about the attitude of the poem’s speaker, then Bob Perelman joining the view, pointedly. To be sure, all four poets — Bob, Rachel, and John Timpane and Taije Silverman — spent much of the time assembling a full close formal (and meta-poetic) reading of the poem. Its thematics — and politics — derived, as is apt, from the poem's quality as itself an instance in form of the speaker's impulse to have and also to keep apart from the stilled human object of his beautiful but empty annual cultural rite. Later John Timpane thought some more about his own position on the poem’s speaker; I'm pleased that he has given me permission to publish his statement here.


The Speaker in “Mending Wall”: Exactly How Much Should We Dislike Him?

An amicus curiae brief

John Timpane

How should we feel about the speaker in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”? Many readers feel discomfort – but what degree of discomfort is appropriate?

Not to pre- or proscribe anything; I speak only for myself. I wouldn’t be writing, sure, unless I had an opinion I think is best. As with Anne Elk and her Theory of the Brontosauruses in Monty Python: “this theory, that I have, that is to say, which is mine, ... is mine.”

To the speaker. Is he a prig? A cad? An overweening would-be dominator? A human juggernaut laying low all before him? An untrustworthy, double-dealing, snide, cowardly, monomaniacal amphibologist?

Donnez-moi une break.

The worst thing the speaker does in “Mending Wall” is to credit himself with greater lateral awareness than his neighbor has. This act is, to be sure, unattractive. And the portrait of the neighbor in “Mending Wall” is at least potentially (we can’t really know for sure) unfair.

What makes us uncomfortable, however, isn’t really the fairness issue. We have every reason to suppose we’re reading a reasonable self-assessment, and a reasonable, if partial, assessment of his neighbor. It’s the speaker’s attitude that grates. He’s a crusty bird, and a tease; nothing obliges us to like him. But he seems an aware, trustworthy guide to the moment, able to say and see worthwhile things – while patching a wall he knows is going to fall down. He also likes conversation and tries to invent some, to little avail. True, this is the way he wishes to appear. But that doesn’t kill it. Maybe he is justified in that wish. I’d just as soon this speaker as another.

The neighbor doesn’t talk much, responding to the speaker’s two sallies, short jest and longer jesting argument, with the same proverb. Like many readers, I, too, want to know more about his neighbor, and it does seem a trifle (but maybe not too much more than that) unfair to compare him to an “old stone savage armed” who moves in “darkness.”

But harsh? No. It is unattractive and holds us at arm’s-length from the speaker; we can’t cozy up to him. We like our speakers to be nice. It isn’t nice to tell us, over-the-shoulder-like, “I’m smarter than this guy – he doesn’t get it.”

Neither, however, is it totally uncalled for, at least not within the world conjured up in the poem. Again, I acknowledge, very unsurely, but I acknowledge, that perhaps the speaker is being unfair. We will never know whether Frost’s neighbor (if Frost really is the speaker, and the neighbor is really meant to be one of his actual neighbors) was really like this. Perhaps, after a hard day of pine-pruning, the neighbor eased shut his door behind him, donned his smoking jacket, poured himself a tall flute of Veuve Clicquot, set a disk of The Firebird Suite on the phonograph, and opened his volume of Pindar. If you’re smiling, you, like me, doubt it. If you’re smiling, part of you somewhere agrees there’s a damn fine chance the speaker’s assessment of his neighbor isn’t too terribly off the mark.

Back to the speaker. He begins by calling his neighbor and inviting him to meet “on a day” and walk along their shared wall to repair gaps and holes, replacing stones where they have fallen out.

When the speaker gets to the arranged place and time, however, suddenly this spring ritual, repeated immemorially between farmland neighbors, seems strange, an old motion-gone-through, all but needless between neighbors who tend not cows (which could escape through holes in the fence) but trees (which normally could not): “He is all pine and I am all apple orchard.”

When he picked up the earpiece to phone his neighbor “beyond the hill,” he seems to have been all business; otherwise, why call at all? Now, however, a playful alienation strikes – none the less playful for being alienated, and none the less seriously alienated for being playful. As sometimes happens, what we do all the time loses its trappings of necessity, and mending wall seems “just another kind of out-door game, /One on a side. It comes to little more.”

We can locate the moment the speaker leaves seriousness and takes up play, a point of view that fruitfully undermines the two men’s ritual. The first 15 lines or so of the poem are seeming-businesslike, listing things that don’t love a wall: weather, hunters, rabbits. Once the two men start doing the work, though, exactly when you might think greatest practical seriousness is required, it gets into the speaker’s head to toy with the way the two of them set certain stones and more or less hope they’ll stay: some of the stones

are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

The early-20th-century exclamation point functions to mark not only a raised voice, but also a point of irony or humor (a once-common function). Stones cease to be stones: they are loaves, nearly balls, objects to address as though sentient. And they don’t fit. That means my neighbor and I are not doing the best job. When physical labor fails, use spells.

Here on, the speaker can’t see mending the wall as he once did. He’ll perform it and see it gets done; he owes that to his neighbor, who’d be sore if his neighbor, having called the meeting in the first place, suddenly ran off. This moment dislodges the speaker, however, not only from his work but also from his neighbor. Aware, acutely so, of their apartness, he tries a joke, and it brings out the difference:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

His neighbor is not in the same mind. Literally and figuratively. He’s a lousy audience; he won’t play. He doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t nod. He doesn’t honor the joke, which, shouldn’t I note?, would not kill him. He does get its intent, however, answering with his father’s sober, ambiguous proverb.

(It might mean opposite things, at least: both “good fences ensure neighbors keep apart” and “ensuring good fences gives neighbors something to cooperate on, a task that brings them into neighborliness.” And that’s only for starters.)

The speaker locates his momentary dislodgement in the time of year: “Spring is the mischief in me.” But the neighbor, for whom it’s spring, too, stays very much lodged.

The speaker responds to this resistance by trying “to put a notion in his head,” as if no notion there resides at the moment. (Unkind and unattractive, but not exactly grounds for a lawsuit.) His argument extends the previous jest – and adds that walls may embody a hurtful exclusionary impulse:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Serious raillery. Since we can’t really wall out the hunters, rabbits, groundswells, frosts, and change of seasons, what, really, are we walling in or out? And might not offense lurk in this neighborly mural mania?

The speaker does not mean his argument to be sound and does not expect a response in the same terms. He’d like some banter, but he already knows his neighbor won’t engage him on the same level. He thinks his neighbor either is incapable of it (not smart enough to understand the humor, or the worthwhile concepts it broaches) or just won’t (considering it a waste of time, what with the work to be done).

The speaker says, “I’d rather/He said it for himself.” He wants his neighbor to enunciate what it is about the world, about people, that wants to see walls down. Hey, neighbor, speak to me of the anarchic impulse, of the Bakhtinian drive to gay destruction, of American libertarian free-rangeism!

Yes, the speaker would rather his neighbor took up the play, so he wouldn’t have to do it all himself, and also to hear the neighbor playfully, in spring mischief, acknowledge the silliness of the proceedings. And he knows damn well his neighbor won’t.

Alternative title: “The Bait Not Taken.”

We perform rituals to achieve things that transcend the efficacy (if any) of the rituals themselves. Sure, replacing stones in the wall repairs the wall. But meeting a neighbor to mend the wall is also a way to call the spring spring, to reassert demarcations of territory, to remind each other that “you’re here, I’m there, yours stops, mine begins.” Rituals exist, in part, as the speaker well knows, to counter the Elves, to work against the thing in people that would pull all walls down and run amok among the cows, pines, and apple orchards. Ritual is something that loves a wall.

That is one thing, I believe, both men know. They’re here for ritual itself and what ritual means. For signified more than signifier. And if you think the neighbor’s going to stop his work and say so, you’re nuts.

He stops only barely, twice, to say “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The second time, the speaker has his least attractive moment, literally throwing his neighbor into the shade. Yes, he’s punishing him for not playing.

Yet I’m not all against this terrible, Inquisitor-like torture, this figurative waterboarding of the poor, defenseless neighbor. (OK, I’ll stop now. I’m just tired of tropistic posing.) I like the notions in the speaker’s head. These are big questions, aren’t they? How citizens of the United States, guaranteed unprecedented liberties as of the world of 1914, seek, within their domestic economies, to carve land and space, to stipulate where one another may and may not go? And do we not justly feel, as of 2012, that tension? The thing in U.S. folks that loves walls versus the thing that doesn’t? And don’t these questions arise naturally from the situation? If the speaker had not raised them, would we not be pretty disappointed? And have had one lousy, uneventful poem? A “Mending Wall” in which two guys wordlessly put stones in holes?

And if the speaker had not raised these issues, wouldn’t he be a lot less of a speaker? A speaker not only crusty, not only slightly unattractive in his (earned) assumption of imaginative superiority, but also . . . dumb? A mule at the harp? Uninteresting?

If any of these questions dispose, even generally, to an affirmative, then we may well share the speaker’s disappointment in the neighbor. He won’t play. He doesn’t care or won’t share. As a conversational wall, to shut up further talk, he repeats a proverb that may well (whatever it means, and I don’t pretend to understand it fully) exemplify these very tensions in U.S. life. Not to blame him – just to note, as the poem notes, a missed chance.

An important objection to the speaker is that he controls the tale-telling. He’s the traditional narrator, origin and fount of authority, the only place you’ll get the goods.  He tells the story. He tells things to his neighbor. He manipulates and arranges and has it all his way.

But is there really any reason to doubt the speaker’s report? Yes, he’s selective, but there isn’t a lot to select from. Yes, he reports his own inner state more fully than that of his neighbor. How could it be otherwise? The speaker does give us a late glimpse of what he thinks the neighbor is probably thinking. And there’s an element, vague, but an element, of unfairness there. But what degree of awfulness should we rightly assign to these mad-eyed depredations?

If the work of this poem is to be done, somebody’s got to do it, and the neighbor won’t. The speaker knows what he wants the poem to do, and to that extent “Mending Wall” may strike readers of a certain mind as – horrible word – overdetermined. (Pause for a sip of wine to clear the palate.) Not quite; it leads us up to the to-be-determined and leaves us short. We can drink if we can find the stream, but nothing’s going to stick our snout in it.

What I mean is this: Frost is a notoriously elusive philosopher. His poems do indeed take up “topics.” Wallace Stevens, in an act of arrogant hypocrisy, once tweaked Frost about it. Stevens was willfully ignoring just how much alike he and Frost were: Both were fond of the 19th-century pensiero poetico, both drawn to the kind of poem that addresses an issue. And each, in his idiosyncratic, distinctive fashion, worked 20th-century wrinkles on that tradition, thinking aloud, but in elusive and diffuse ways. Exactly what was that idea of order, down there in Key West?

“For Once, Then, Something” – for once, then, what? Think of the early Frost poem “Design.” Consider how that poem, which started its existence as drearily straightforward hand-wringing over evidence in nature of a creator, evolved. Frost’s revisions led “Design” away from too-direct answers.

And what, exactly, is the “all the difference” that not-taken road made? Do I see any hands?

If overdetermined at all, “Mending Wall” is so only in its determination to lead us to play – not to fetch out a definitive answer. We may not be disposed to go where we’re led, and it is fashionable, as of 2012, to make a big deal of our unwillingness. In so doing, we put ourselves in the neighbor’s shoes, though not for the same reasons.

That’s a side of the speaker I like: He’s hellbent on play, dadgum it. He’s a bit of a baby when his opposite number won’t join in. But I’m disposed to credit the aware playful mind over the recalcitrant, inexpressive mind impatient with play. Flense me.

A similar objection is that the poem is somehow too “tidy,” that the situation sits up a little too nicely, ready to be hit out of the park. That, too, tends to render the speaker (to some readers) irritating, as the regularity of his iambic pentameter also does. Acknowledging always that poets streamline, gussy up, and fastidiously vacuum the representations of the actual events that urge forth their poetry, I nevertheless wonder about this objection. Hey, stuff happens, and it tends to shape the things one may write about. I once wrote a poem about the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma forgetting his cello in a taxi in Manhattan. That really happened, and I heard about it. If it hadn’t, and I hadn’t, would I have written the poem? Would we have had the same fun thinking about issues of memory? About cellos? And taxis? And Yo-Yo Ma?

Sometimes events are more or less ideal. They happen, one is happened to, one writes. One will stylize, idealize, and misrepresent; one will. One has no choice. Memory, as Yo-Yo Ma can tell us all, is inexact and untrustworthy. Language, too. So, if this situation didn’t happen exactly as reported, I wouldn’t be surprised, or especially distressed. I’d expect it.

But I can locate no impressive evidence that the speaker is not being at least faithful to what he believes he experienced.

Anyway, how tidy is all this really? Few tasks can be as frustrating or as approximate as mending wall. Think of the round stones that are “nearly balls.” When you’re patching a stone wall, an old one, like the one that used to line my 23 acres up in Keene, New Hampshire, round stones are a nightmare. They don’t stay. Even when you can match a rolled-away stone with its original place in the wall (and much of the time, you can’t), you want a stone with edges, with rough. You don’t have mortar; you’re dry-stoning. Rough, angular stones work better. They can fit even holes they didn’t come from – if they’re about right, you can often jam them in and know they’ll stay all right. Round stones, good luck. They fall out. They offer no purchase. No wonder the speaker imagines the men speaking spells to make the stones stay.

It’s a rough and ready task that wears “our fingers rough.” So, no, the case is the opposite. This is a messy, improvisational task, filling gaps whose origin you can only guess, hoping stones stay, when you know that the world and its hunters and rabbits and winter groundswell will wreak their normal havoc. Nothing stone can stay.

This awareness of the rough-and-readiness of the task makes this poem seem especially truthful to me; it’s an illusion, I grant, but it’s a persuasive one, one that allows me to credit the idea that the speaker is at least trying to be faithful to a memory of a real event. A poorer poet would have the two men pick up ideal stones and set each one securely in its place, remaking the perfect wall between them as they move. Which would be a horrible poem. And the approximateness of the task is what spurs the playful thought that this is not really work meant to last, but “another kind of out-door game.”

All of which reflects well on this speaker, I think. He’s being pretty honest about the limitations of human beings faced with an entropic, unanswerable universe. Our work won’t last; why not approach it, since we’re working, in a playful spirit?

The neighbor won’t play, wants to get on with it, likes his father’s saying and will not “go behind” it. The speaker puts all his play-stuff out there, the “something” that doesn’t “love a wall,” the “spring,” the allusions to ancient sprites and savage rites, way extramural (and he knows it) in a poem about New England wall repair. And it’s the speaker, in the end, who is denied. He punishes the neighbor by casting him as a savage, a man in the dark. That’s about all the satisfaction he gets.

Of the two, the speaker is the better poet. And the inferior farmer! Frost was not a remarkably successful or especially fullhearted farmer. Is it unfair to say this poem shows why? If you can’t take farming totally seriously – with its backbreaking labor; its demand for vigilance, market smarts, and forehandedness; and its solitude – how much of a farmer you? We speak for the neighbor when we say “Mending Wall” shows how, if you think that way, you’ll never make it work as a farmer. Or, maybe, as a neighbor.