Brand building through storytelling

My 50 years with Robert Frost

Mrs. Wilcox had been teaching in Durham, New Hampshire for as long as anyone could remember when I landed in her eighth-grade English class. She had a cap of tight gray curls, a queenly smile and one of those imposing silhouettes that hint of a close encounter between a full figure and a corset. She didn’t take any lip from smart alecks but she had a soft spot–and a spring lunch of crustless tea sandwiches–for those of us who helped out in the school library. I liked her in the tolerant, offhand way that I liked certain well-meaning relatives who didn’t have a clue how it felt to be 13. What I couldn’t bear was her taste in poetry–or, as she pronounced it, “poytry.”

She favoured the flowery, the sententious and the coy. Longfellow sing-songing the praises of noble savages or pure-hearted Acadian maidens. Henry van Dyke urging dutiful submission to a day’s toil in a dessicated chestnut called “Work,” which made diagramming sentences look like a blast. Emily Dickinson all atwitter about birds, in C-list poems that obscured her genius (and soured me on Dickinson for years to come). Mrs. Wilcox was by no means the first teacher at my school to inflict such dreck on the young, just the one most committed to the task. Book in hand at the head of the class, standing straight as Lady Liberty, she radiated conviction that the verses on the page held the power to improve us. But first we had to crack the shell of metaphor and metre in which those trickster poets had hidden what she called “the deeper meaning.” Of course there could only be one. I don’t recall any mention of poetry’s music, or the layered pleasures of its imagery. As Mrs. Wilcox taught it, a poem was a message in code.

One poet foiled her every time–Robert Frost, New Hampshire’s pride. You couldn’t go through school in New Hampshire without being steeped in Frost. Like other teachers, Mrs. Wilcox cast him as a sage in overalls, a fantasy grandfather opening his pasture to kids like us. Frost could take a message about doing one’s duty, wrap it in a Christmas card scene, nod to mortality and call the result “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Or so we were led to believe. At 13, I already sensed there was a whole lot more to the poem than a literary snow globe you could hold in your hand–something vast and mysterious, more Edvard Munch than Grandma Moses.

It was 1962, a year of certainties blown apart. Eighth grade had barely begun when violence flared at the University of Mississippi as the first black student enrolled. No sooner had order been restored–an effort requiring hundreds of U.S. marshals, the National Guard and U.S. military police–than the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly pitched the world into nuclear war. I remember a classmate weeping for friends in Florida who would surely be killed if the Russians “pushed the button” and my growing, silent awareness that the first ones dead would be lucky. Every morning I arrived at school to find the TV on in Mrs. Wilcox’s classroom, which was also my home room, and the little black and white screen filled with riot police or grim-faced talking heads. I don’t remember a word about any of this from Mrs. Wilcox. Shuffling my papers for the day, I drew the obvious conclusions. I clearly wasn’t living in the land of the free and the home of the brave, as teachers had been telling me for years. And history clearly wasn’t a march of progress–another illusion I’d been fed.

What I craved was not so much an answer to the questions that were burning a hole in my brain–I’d pretty much figured out that there was no such thing–as someone to share my perplexity and reveal the unvoiced song that every other human has heard, somewhere in the deep heart’s core. That’s what poets do. You want answers, go to a self-help book.

It’s been 50 years since I sat in Mrs. Wilcox’s classroom, with its polished hardwood and enormous, multi-paned windows–an old-fashioned room, even then. I’d look out at the trees beyond, dreaming of escape. I felt certain I’d become a different sort of grownup from the ones who had misled me–if not wise, at least on top of things.

It hasn’t worked out that way. I don’t know why I say things I later regret instead of other things I should have said and didn’t. Or why my friend Val, whom I missed so much after her death at age 57 that I called her office voicemail just to hear her recorded message, didn’t live to enjoy her 60s with me. I don’t know why Boston, the city where I saw my first museum, first ballet and first bargain basement, was ravaged yesterday by a terror attack that turned what should have been the most joyous mile of its annual marathon into a scene out of a war zone. The worst days, I’ve found, can be the best days for poetry. And Robert Frost–a depressive, battered by the premature deaths of his wife and several children, one by suicide–is among my go-to poets.

My current favourite of his poems is “Birches,” which I must have read at least 100 times and is definitely not for eighth-graders. I won’t presume to tell you what it means, although I do love this passage:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

On each reading “Birches” unlocks a little more of itself while suggesting a whole other layer held in reserve. If this poem is read at my funeral and there is such a state as the afterlife, you can bet that I’ll be looking down from somewhere,yelling, “Hey, I have another insight!” while mightily irked that no one hears me.

Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.