The Figure a Poem Makes by Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The Figure a Poem Makes by Robert Frost
(Please read the essay before reading my commentary within brace brackets at the bottom.)
The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood-and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad-the happy-sad blend of the drinking song.
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere. The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick. Modern instruments of precision are being used to make things crooked as if by eye and hand in the old days.
I tell how there may be a better wildness of logic than of inconsequence. But the logic is backward, in retrospect, after the act. It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader. For it to be that there must have been the greatest freedom of the material to move about in it and to establish relations in it regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity. We prate of freedom. We call our schools free because we are not free to stay away from them till we are sixteen years of age. I have given up my democratic prejudices and now willingly set the lower classes free to be completely taken care of by the upper classes. Political freedom is nothing to me. I bestow it right and left. All I would keep for myself is the freedom of my material-the condition of body and mind now and then to summons aptly from the vast chaos of all I have lived through.
Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields. No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of wit and art. A schoolboy may be defined as one who can tell you what he knows in the order in which he learned it. The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic. More than once I should have lost my soul to radicalism if it had been the originality it was mistaken for by its young converts. Originality and initiative are what I ask for my country. For myself the originality need be no more than the freshness of a poem run in the way I have described: from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a petal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

{Robert Frost in this brief aphoristic essay develops his idea of what kind of ‘figure’ a poem is. The essay itself is a form of poetry which verbally represents the natural development of “a clarification of life” out of an initial spark of delight- how a poem grows spontaneously (as it were) in the creative mind of the author. The phrase “a clarification of life’, as I see it, refers to the ‘wisdom’ of realizing the nature of the process of creating a poem in the mind of the poet who writes it, and in the mind of the reader who reads it so that “it will keep forever as a petal keeps its fragrance.” When a poet sits down to write a poem, they have no readymade theme or feeling that will be identified as the final product of the poem. The poet has an initial sense of “delight” “in the surprise of remembering something that the poet didn’t know they knew; Step by Step the ‘wonder’ of unexpected supply keeps growing.
The same may be applied to the writing of an essay. At the beginning we have only a vague idea about what we actually want to say. In the course of our clarifying ourselves, the idea, the surprise memory or discovery or thought or opinion that initially gave us the impulse to write gets more and more defined, and transformed, and it might even be a completely new viewpoint that we ultimately give expression to. In other words, we can perhaps say that an essay ‘grows’ in our minds.}

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