18 December 2006

Rediscovering Robert Frost - Stealth Sonnets

Digging around my poetry bookshelf I found a battered copy of "The Complete Poems of Robert Frost". How it was overlooked for so long is a mystery, it's a weighty little tome. Then again, there is a Jedi Knight mystique to poetry. When the poet is ready, the poetry form will present itself. I'm ready to tackle sonnets again.

So why didn't I grab my Shakespeare, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rossetti? Frost fills the need for sonnet exploration with a more modern twist - but not so modern the form becomes obscure. Shakespearean and Italian sonnets have become ubiquitous, appearing on posters, calendars, and Starbucks coffee mugs. It's like the old days of card catalogs in the library, when flipping through a long topic suddenly made the word you were looking up disappear through excessive familiarity. Frost is accessible, and highly readable. On one level his poetry seems simplistic, basic even. Don't let the ease of presentation fool you, lurking beneath the folksy exterior are some fairly astute observations on nature, emptiness, and relationships.

Frost's poems are deceptive in that they operate on different layers of meaning. At first read you can come away with a quick synopsis of the poem "Good fences make good neighbors" (Mending Wall). The poem is easy to get into with its plain language and clear line of thought. A more studied read through and you suddenly realize that while Frost had the line 'Good fences make good neighbors' in the poem, what he meant might well be the exact opposite. Metaphor works on many levels in a Frost poem, and is a big part of my attraction.

As for sonnets, Frost used both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan forms, although he seems to have blended and borrowed freely between them as well as adding in his own divergence to make a new twist on an old form. "The Silken Tent" is one example, where structure is seemingly abandon as Frost writes the whole sonnet in one long sentence - and it works.

The Silken Tent

by Robert Frost

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

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