My dearest and darling Sierras,
You will have to be patient with me, I fear. Oh, of course I do hear the call of your Clark’s nutcrackers calling me from the dry white-bark pined heights to hike up and have a picnic or stay a starry night or two. But for the moment I cannot be witness to your majesty. I am sorry. Let me explain. I do think of you and your high lunar plateaus very often. So, so, often. Do know, that I miss you terribly, I really do. I knew I would, but I still left. I suppose your quite puzzled, may be even hurt by that?
But who am I kidding? I’m the sensitive human swooning after your slopes, and you, you and your granite slabs don’t give even a quartz about how much I love you. You’ll never care, no matter how much I pine after you and how much I wish you did at times.
Of course, you don’t judge me or anyone either, and that is all the more a reason to love you.
So here I find myself scoffing you and affording myself the luxury of getting to know some others. So that I can come back to know you even better. Yes, absolutely, I promise, that’s one of the reasons. Oh, but of course, I’m not just doing it for you, it’s for my own selfish yearnings to be quenched of course. Human is what I am, remember?
But you are afraid I’ll fall in love are you not? My own vanity would wish it so…
I can desiccate from Alp back to Sierra, of that I am sure, but after that I must certainly be quenched.
After all, mountains are lovers of the rarest sort, affording one luxuries that most cannot – chief among them patience and reassurance of a geological timescale. But at the same time they can be quite fickle – the freedom they permit is at the mercy of many caprices- like the ruthlessness of their ripping winds or the indifference of their dry creek beds. What I will never understand is how mountains can have so much character and yet care so little…
I’ve left you know, only to know that I will come back. After all if I never left, how would I know that my happiness, or rather my person within you is complete? That I truly would not rather be anywhere else?
I do not yet know much about these Alps. I do know that they are beautiful and strikingly iconic, but are they warm (in the figurative sense)? How merciless are their glaciers? And how enchanting? Can these Alps do what I fear they might? Can they become the place I want to be? No, no that would not be possible. But it is dangerous for me to tempt, no? What do you think? That sparkling crisp scenery, those abundant snows, those hauntingly well chiseled ice formations, those daintily flowered meadows, and those eccentrically sculpted peaks… and let me not forget their charming creatures- the gliding chocards, the graceful chamois, the affable marmots and the nimble bouquetin… they are captivating indeed…
I’ve already known the pristine greens of Swiss summer heights, which admittedly I thoroughly enjoy and though you perhaps cannot match them in freshness and serenity I can’t say that they will ever be as wild and sun-seared as you.
And it is true the Alps have too many traces of those other arrogant bipeds who also happen to be my beloved kin. Towns, huts, and villages in every vale, unavoidable. But, again, I can’t say I know them well yet, and they certainly intrigue me. I am, after all, determined to find their wilderness, wherever it may be…
Surely I can learn things from them and come back and devote myself wholly to you. With the wisdom I bring back to you we can gallivant all day, I promise. And yes, of course I’ll enjoy myself, but don’t be too jealous, okay? Oh, you couldn’t care less, I know…
The thing is, I don’t know these Alps like I know you. Would you be okay if I got to know them?
With mountains, I suppose, one can permit oneself this ambivalence…
Leaving you and yet knowing I want to stay with you forever is the most beautiful of the selfish melancholies. I do feel your pull, my dears. I suppose that is why I needed to leave, to feel the strength of your magnet. And oh what a magnet you are! My heart still surges with your river cascades! My veins flow livid with your spring melts! With your fields of lupine and shooting stars! With your swallow-tail butterflies in low meadows and your chirping pikas in high talus fields. And your clumsy bumbling bears or you sky pilots still vibrant in the highest of granite’s cracks. Even the imprint of your relentless dust on my achilles is a source of heart-ache. Oh to plunge into your glistening glacial lakes again…
May be I was fragmented when I left you, unsure of my geology. And may be I’ll never be whole, always be a split soul, but that’s okay too isn’t it? In a place where it’s okay to be split and torn and tormented because it’s just part of the landscape, it is in fact the essence of the landscape. That’s what makes you seem so feeling and so beautiful and so sympathetic. You’re a place where one can stand firm in one’s loneliness and tears and in personal gashes, no matter the slant. And in loneliness of the grandest dimensions. Where we are allowed to be maximally ourselves, stretched to bear everything of the vastness inside of us, where fragility and harshness coexist. This is where the light always comes through, where it finds new brilliance every day in firewood and shooting stars and leopard lilies.
When I come back, because I will, I will gaze admiringly into your placid surfaces. I will break into your shimmers and your gleams for a shock so profound, for having waited so long to relish in a reinvigorating depth.
I will shiver warm in your presence and let the ecstasy of your rock encased mirrors submerge me eternal. All hurt will blend and ease in your variable lights. Spring sorrows and ice cracking spectacles of joy will quiver side by side. I will wander idly and roam home without a home because in you I’m always homeward freed. I will forget everything, save the next pine tree. In your desolate meadows I will contain all my sorrows and my love, and I will find the places where I can shout naked emotions without a sound. Lost places to feel utterly found. And for all this, the blisters of life will melt away under your constellated skies. In the intimacy of your silence, you will be the refuge for all the unrequited love in the world.
My human arrogance hopes this letter will mean something to you. Could you not just show me a fleck, a minute speck of granitic love? How long does it take for mountains to love you back? I love you openly and unabashed. And yet, and yet… I cannot say that you do not as you have always shown me the entirety your heart…
You know how smells can be powerful memory triggers? (an interesting article on that if you’re interested: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120312-why-can-smells-unlock-memories/1 )
And what of music? I think it’s safe to say we’ve all linked certain songs to certain memories, places or people. I find that music is usually less powerful for triggering past emotions. However, recently I had the most powerful recall experience (smell or song) I’ve ever had. It was with this song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKNAfTowygA
It is a song I played very repetitively last year, especially in late winter and spring. It wasn’t at all like the many times songs have reminded me of certain times or places. It was utterly overwhelming – I felt everything I had felt during that time when I would play it loudly and on repeat in my West Davis apartment room. All at once.
I felt the tired over-coffeed mornings. I smelled the cheap apartment walls and the musty pond outside. I felt the precious light of my north-facing room, pale and cold, but of a certain softness. I felt the days full of running and climbing and biking and the in-betweens of depression and loneliness. Not knowing what to do because I was still unsatiated but so wanted to pursue something passionately. I pitied myself as I re-lived weeping to my parents on Skype, time and time again, on those days when existence was at its most crushing and confusing.
I could feel the dry Davis winds penetrating everywhere in the flat landscape. And biking or driving to teach French early in the morning and then coming back weak and hungry because often I had not yet eaten breakfast and after having eaten kefir, cheerios, and blueberries running 8 or 10 miles on the lonely farm roads and then being exhausted. Because I had to even when I wasn’t sure I was enjoying it. Because I was completely lost and there was no one, or it seemed that way sometimes. But there were also long almost-summer evenings and beautiful olive tree sunsets and olive stains on my running shoes and contentment of days well spent and effort not wasted. At one point I was running in a diffuse mist beneath a double- rainbow with Ivan. But the rainbows didn’t last long. Because then I found myself returning home that constellated night with my pan empty of the cake I shouldn’t have left him and now I was all empty too and if it couldn’t work then, when could it and what was wrong with me? And it definitely wasn’t summer yet because the night was too cold.
I even saw again the flashbacks I would have when listening to it during that time, flashbacks to a summer of scrambling through Yosemite’s loneliest places. I was introduced to this group of musicians (but not this song, which I discovered later) while riding the ups and downs of dusty dirt roads in the back of the blue Ford Escape that was our vessel to the wilderness. When I think about now, I was a bit lost then too.
Again, I was coming back late from the Rocknasium, having not washed my chalked hands yet and still smelling of grainy plastic holds and sweat and approaching summer and wearing the cut-sleeve shirt I had made with Izzy. Coming home late from the running club too, the days getting longer, too hungry to shower before eagerly eating dinner. Burned brussel sprouts and grilled cheese sandwiches. Lentils with too much cumin. Pita bread sandwiches. My first orange marmalade. Persimmon bread all season long. Too much Yolo Berry sugar. Cheap watery coffee from the office.
There was REI too and leaving the car in the parking lot early on Saturday mornings, nervous to run long long runs in the Folsom hills. And of course there was being sleepless. There were happy lunches at Izzy’s followed by depression, because it was all too short and how long would I have to wait for another one. And the depressed days following the marathon elation when gravity pulled more than ever and I dragged my sorrow weighted self through runs that weren’t runs like the 11 miles in an oppressive heat that was too much and made me sick all afternoon long.
There was also the noisy, but always present geese. And maniacally making cards or duct tape items and a mountain-shaped cake.
Needing to oil my bike. Writing about George Mallory. The rustling of the blinds and the striped light that came through them until I opened them. Reading Anna Karenina on my bed.
Sitting on a bench looking at the drying pond in a new spring light trying to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy. Waiting for someone to call. The first blooming trees and white petal snow.
The Subaru, a safe haven, my warmth and my music, and freedom of sorts.
There were the frogs outside the apartment, waiting for insects by the large illuminated black numbers 4 an 0. The incessant and insistent chirping of the pond. And how it reminded me of a tropical place. And the death of a teacher.
Or taking my steadfast steed Chihiro Shadowbike of the West, a true Davis bike with its rusty but oh-so-trusty baskets to Trader Jo’s and being so happy that Damien would every so often call me on his lunch break.
There was all of west Davis with its charming homes and paths full of pine needles and happy families and migratory birds and flat fields and endless skies and blazing sunset clouds. The golden light of California bliss.
There was the ever present climbing chalk streak on my red spike bag. The satisfaction and oh-so-proud feeling of new routes and moves on the wall. Suppleness and new strength.
I must note that the song stayed mostly in Davis.
It doesn’t remind me of Shasta or the elation that followed (but this song does: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-WP6POdTgY). Or of backpacking with Elizabeth and Cat in Desolation Wilderness. Or cross country skiing with Kevin on New Year’s. Or kayaking with Izzy and Kelly and Sylvia and an OA group at Pt. Reyes. Or climbing in Tahoe with my co-workers. Or skiing with Bobby. Or the March marathon and spending time with Marvin, Nick, and Katie. Or the three days of elation after the marathon. Or visiting Oakland and Santa Cruz in January and seeing Katie, Marvin, Sarah, Mike, Adair, Benny, Nick, Elizabeth, Hanna. Or Sunday night bike rides in Folsom with my co-workers. All wonderful outdoor memories. And plenty of other things that for some reason or other don’t surface with this song.
I think it was mostly about the thing that kept haunting my mind that I couldn’t quite touch. Swinging from lows to highs of emotion and not knowing why. When listening to it again I mostly felt an overwhelming amount of sadness and helplessness and the crushing weight of vulnerability and too much crying. Yet being able to re-feel the exact same feelings was marvelous!!
It is mostly sad, after all the song title does nothing to suggest otherwise. But I really don’t think it’s all sad. There are beautiful bits too, just as the song itself is beautiful. It was still a period of many adventures and discovery, of instability certainly, but I am glad of the emotions. Being lost isn’t all bad after all.
When I replay it I know what is going to play, but the emotions whelm up every time. It doesn’t make me cry every time, but it can. I played it several times as I wrote to see what other bits of that particular year, that “gap year”, could surface. Every time I play it I can dig up more scraps of the mosaic.
To be flooded with these feelings and smells again was more than remembering or reflecting, it was re-living. I didn’t remember the emotions, I felt them. Incredible! They say that sometimes when you die you see your whole life flash before your eyes. For me, re-playing this song was like condensing all those months into one emotional flash.
Have you had a recall experience such as this one? With what song or smell, or something else?
Adjective (Noun: fuppiness)
1. to be simultaneously full (of food) and happy; to feel both content and well-fed. Often occurs at meals when one is surrounded by friends and family. Is frequently followed by the onset of sleepiness.
I tend to be very fuppy during the holidays.
There was so much fuppiness at the dinner table last night that it was almost tangible (not to mention edible!).
2. to be full of happiness.
To be fuppy is to taste the zest of life.
I could not be more fuppy than when I am outside with friends under a shimmering sun exploring the grand landscapes of our beautiful earth.
Change the end y to i when adding -er or -est: (fuppier, fuppiest).
A synthesis of the English words full and happy. From international English. Coined by international students sharing meals and adventures. A response to the term hangry.
Balsam für die Seele- Cross Country Skiing in the Vallée de Joux
I never wanted this day to end. In my mind I am still floating across the glittering snows of that enchanting landscape. Exercise, beautiful scenery, and a friend to share it all with? What could one want more out of life?
I woke up super excited before sunrise and scurried to get my things ready and have breakfast. I was so happy to see that Marcia was up and very excited too. I knew it was going to be a good day when I was already privileged to a glorious greeting from the pink streaked sunrise out my window over the distant, yet so perceptible Alps.
The metro ride only bore more good news as we saw our beloved moutons grazing in a small field outside one of the metro stops. How could a day that starts with a pink sunrise and sheep be a bad one?
There were a few hiccups in the journey, but they were few and could not possibly mar such a divine day. The first was that we were having trouble buying our ticket at the Renens train station. I got scared we would miss our train as we fumbled with card, bills, and coins, but we did not and even had time to spare.
The train ride was already superb — unfolding before us was a panorama view all the way to Mt. Blanc and Grand Combin (two of the most majestic Alpine giants). The adventure then nestled itself into the sleepy Jura mountains and to our final destination in the quaint Vallée de Joux. Switzerland may be small geographically, but it packs an abundance of natural wonder in every nook and cranny of the country, making it a land large in riches.
We were headed for a village called Le Sentier at the southern end of the Lac de Joux. It was like entering an enchanted snow globe complete with a partially frozen lake, snow embraced pines and hills, fairytale Swiss homes, and yet another great Swiss accent.
- where we went, (photo courtesy of http://www.myvalleedejoux.ch/en/)
Second hiccup — when we arrived to Le Sentier the rental store seemed open, but the door was closed and no one was inside. We were perplexed. I was worried that we would have to spend time finding another place to rent skis, but we asked the people in the watchmaking store across the street who told us she had probably gone out for groceries and would be back shortly. Sure enough, and luckily for us, she turned up right after our cross-street inquiry.
The third hiccup came when the lady told us conditions weren’t good and that we needed a car to access the trails, all of which turned out not be true at all in my opinion, but when she said that it really scared me because I had been so looking forward to cross country skiing and sharing it with Marcia and would have felt really bad if we had made the trip all the way there and could not ski.
It was so fun to teach Marcia who was such an eager and fast learner. Over the years, I have a taught a few people to cross country ski and seeing the fresh joy of a first experience never gets old.
We skied the day away meandering between forest and field, between groomed trails and the traces of bygone skiers, between French and English, between a hushed landscape and our yelps of joy, all the while gliding through an ever changing delighting light.
Everything was glittering and the trees donned their finest frost. There were some wisps of fog in the valley below and some clouds above in the broad sky, and all was basking in silence of the purest sort.
One of the only people we met out in the snow that day was a friendly old man who spends much of his retired days cross country skiing (I too dream of such a retirement!). We learned a lot about his life and the area between his French and his German (even that there were wolves in this region!). We were about to start heading back, but he suggested to us a nice loop through the forest which turned out to be quite magical. When we crossed him again later he described cross country skiing to us as “Balsam für die Seele” that Marcia later explained to me is a German expression that translates to “lotion for the soul.”
I think no expression captures the essence of cross country skiing better. It is, as many outdoor activities, soothing for the soul. It is gentle and relaxing, but at the same time tires you slowly, so that by the end of the day you are left elated by your effort and exhaustion. The kind of tired that comes through miles of silent woods and the light rhythmic woosh of skis on snow is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying.
The way back was full of delightful downhills- spurred by Marcia’s new downhill technique of crouching down so as to almost sit on one’s skis and flying along the snow surfaced earth.
We finished the day with a bit of speed-walking and running to catch the train at Le Brassus (another small village of the region) to go back to Le Sentier where we were to return the skis. But we were not so hurried that we did not notice the stream and leafless trees and snowy plain extending into the orange and yellow sparks of the waning winter light.
After returning the skis we had coffee in a cute bakery reveling in our day. Contentment at its finest. Quoi dire? C’était une journée magnifique!
Then it was back to the story book train, whistling and creaking and groaning, as we made our way back across the fuzzy boundary between fairytale and reality. Watching the lake and the glowing windows of tranquil homes in the blue light of almost night was positively magical. Vallée de Joux you have my heart!
I never want this day to end. So may it never! And instead stay ablaze in my mind and make itself cozily at home in my memory alongside all the other twinkling scenes already there. I think good experiences become little fires of memory that you can huddle your thoughts around when your soul seeks warmth.
What kind of day do you want to never end? What kind of experiences are “Balsam für die Seele” for you?
“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
— Robert Frost
Have you ever felt like Gollum when he wails “You ruins it” to Sam upon seeing Sam cook the rabbits he just caught?
Well, I felt like that earlier this year because I had to write a critical essay on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Let me explain… I love the poem, but I’m not proud of the essay at all. It’s not my personal interpretation in the sense that it’s not how I have connected to the poem and interpreted it for myself (which would not be acceptable for this kind of essay). Rather it’s just the argument I found that fit best with the evidence I saw in the poem. But I in no way believe the argument I chose. It’s very much forced. On top of that, after submitting my first draft I had to remove some of the evidence that I thought was relevant to stay within the word limit. So it’s a truncated forced analysis to say the least. The essay is at the end of this post if anyone is curious.
So why the difficulty with this essay? It stems from the structure of the English critical essay. Even though I sometimes find this form to be acceptable for responding to literature (as I did in the post beneath this one), I think it has many shortcomings and often deprives the analysis of a certain personality and richness. So writing a response to this poem in the required form was difficult for me not only because I do not like and have never liked the form that is imposed for this type of essay, but I am also very attached to this poem. It made me feel sick to over think it and to dissect it in such a ruthless manner.
For the English critical essay we are asked to present an argument regarding the piece and support it with evidence from the text. Which in and of itself does not seem so bad, but I have several problems with the required format.
1) We are not allowed to use the first-person in presenting our argument. An argument in this sense is defined as an opinion supported by evidence. Clearly subjectivity is at play… So why are we not allowed to use the first person? The way I was taught to write these essays in high school was a way in which we had to stay away from the “personal” and format our writing to appear objective. But why hide that it is in part subjective? If the argument stems from my opinion, why hide it in an impersonal manner? Why cover up our interpretations to make them seem objective? I’m not saying the essay should be just “I think…”s and “I believe…”s, but partially, why not? I think it’s even hypocritical to disguise it as something objective and universal- own up to your argument-it comes from you, and why is that a bad thing? There is no shame in exposing your unique human subjectivity. Additionally, I think that as art is so often related to emotion, your own reaction to a piece of art can be valid evidence in itself. Just my two cents.
2) It’s often forced. I know this because of a particular term that I heard far too often from my classmates in high school. “Just BS-it”. BS=Bullshit. Translation: Make stuff up. Bullshitting is essentially pretending to be convinced that what you are writing has merit in order to complete the assignment. But, in reality you think something completely different or have no clue. Because more often than not we are forcing analysis where we don’t see anything to analyze. This is when the ruthless dissection of great works begins. We scrape the literary bones clean in hopes of finding any scrap that might satisfy the academic appetite. It seems sad to have to forgo our true responses even if its “I hated this poem or this book.” As long as the student is thinking critically about the language and effectively communicating reasoning for their perspective, than why not?
May be all of this stems from my desire for writing to be a creative process. Why is how it makes me feel or how it ties in with my personal experiences not valid evidence for an argument? After all, it’s the evidence I know best, shouldn’t that count for something?
The objective of the essay should be whatever you want it to be so long as you have an organized paper that presents an argument referencing the text and thinks critically about the language. As long as your thoughts are organized, I don’t see the problem with expressing your personal reaction. Or at least allowing for it to stand alongside other analysis.
Another question we can ask ourselves is: what is the use of literary analysis? I think there are multiple. Firstly to develop writing skills- to be able to effectively communicate an argument- one that is easy to understand, concise, and supported by adequate evidence. Easier said, than written. After this point it gets more subjective. To understand works of literature better? That’s what one of my English teachers said when I asked her. I’m not sure about that reason. To explore the author’s use of stylistic devices, and references, sure. I do think one use of criticizing literature is to discover what elements you like and why you like them and then use them in your own writing. But to understand? To me that implies there is only one interpretation. Like understanding gravity.
And what about creativity? In such a rigid structure, where is the place for speculation- that uniquely human quality? At school in reports we are always asked to cite other sources (which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong)- but sometimes I think it takes away our voice! Cite your brain for once. Suggest, speculate, wonder, get lost in your thoughts a little… explore the branches of your mind alongside those of others. After all only you have the power to share the unique resource that is your own mind…
It also seems we don’t spend time enjoying the pieces of writing, rather we spend time ransacking them for every last analytical crumb we can shove into an essay. Unfortunately for me, “I like this poem because it helped me walk a lot of miles” would not have been an acceptable topic for this assignment. But, fortunately for me, I am free to write whatever I please here 🙂
It is, after all, one of the most dangerous and wonderful properties of art, that once shared it belongs to everyone and can be interpreted in a million ways.
Each person who experiences the art transforms it immediately. Accordingly I wanted to express my interpretation, my reaction to this piece- my way of making it mine- but not to suggest that it is the only interpretation or the author’s or anyone else’s, but merely to express and speculate for my own absorption of this piece. And to share it and perhaps inspire discussion.
To me the poem is, as many others find it, beautiful in its simplicity and rhythm. It’s about traveling and encouragement. About pace. About the simple beauty of stopping and wondering during a journey. For me, it is a still and peaceful reflection whose conclusion is ambiguous, but not problematic, because it still helps you to keep going.
It helped and re-invigorated me many times in my life. First in the summer of 2010 when I was working with the California Department of Fish and Game surveying for pikas in the northern Sierra Nevada. I first starting repeating the last stanza to myself to keep myself going on long field days and try to keep up with Joseph, the guy I was working with who was a very fast walker. The poem was my companion to overcome exhaustion, to keep the rhythm and get away from the mosquitoes and on to the next survey site. But it was also a way for me to feel in touch with my experience and my surroundings, to acknowledge their pull on me. I made up a new version of the last stanza too – inspired by the day we were rushing to finish a survey amidst the first drops of rain and distant, but approaching thunder:
The clouds are growing dark and gray
But I have pikas to survey
And not a moment to delay
And not a moment to delay
Then in the summer of 2012 I found myself in a similar situation. This time surveying for toads in Yosemite National Park. Joseph was replaced by a man named Paul, even more impressive in his speed and endurance amidst the Sierran slopes.
And right after Yosemite, I found its steady rhythm again on the John Muir Trail. Here it was less of a necessity, and more of a harmony for the joy that enveloped and surrounded me. It was as if the poem had followed me there, or I had followed it, and now we flowed together.
It strengthened my belief in the beauty of not being finished, and in the beauty of consistent and continued effort.
I learned through repetition that one must keep one’s promises and earn one’s sleep (two things I really enjoy doing).
I found it yet again with the cadence of my footsteps when I started my quest for the 20 mile run and the again in my marathon training a year after.
It was for me about a state of in-between. I was caught between two worlds- that of travel and that of rest- though sometimes it seemed I was moving while at rest and resting while I moved.
Somehow I always felt I had promises to keep, but I was never able to pinpoint them all. Promise of not staying so I could go elsewhere too. The knowledge that it wasn’t time to rest yet even when I was weary. Promises of work I had to do. Promises of great expanses to cover. Promises that I sometimes wasn’t sure of. To myself? To others? But no matter, it was continuing the miles that mattered. That there will come a day without promises? But maybe I don’t want that day to come, because may be I need that driving force. A state of ambivalence, and yet a conviction that one must still keep going even if the reasons aren’t clear yet. In this sense the miles were a certainty, a firm path for me to follow, literally and figuratively. For me to move with physically and mentally. An internal drive and an external pull.
I still haven’t made full sense of it- but I don’t think I want to. It keeps me searching and stepping.
You Can Check out Anytime You Like, but You Can Never Leave:
Nature and Civilization in Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
The arrival of the 20th century and the second industrial revolution encouraged the movement of human beings away from nature and towards villages and cities. Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” published in 1923, explores human’s modern relationship with the natural world. The speaker’s struggle between his prudence and his longing for the woods, but ultimate decision to move on, reflects humanity’s desire to, but inability to escape the pull of civilization.
Frost’s word choice and use of symbolism exemplify the speaker’s simultaneously curious and prudent attitude towards nature. The speaker distances himself from the human world and approaches the woods, demonstrating his desire for nature. He presents the woods as being away from “the village” (2) and “a farmhouse” (6). This distance can be interpreted as a metaphorical distance between society, as represented by the manufactured structures of the village and the farmhouse, and nature, symbolized by the natural setting of the woods. However, once distanced, the narrator’s desire, though still present, is mixed with caution. The speaker describes the woods as “lovely” (13), suggesting he finds the woods beautiful, but also as “dark” (13) and “deep” (13), words that are more mysterious in their connotation. On one hand they are suggestive of the unknown and of danger, but on the other hand their placement next to “lovely” through the use of the coordinating conjunction “and” suggests that they are more benign in their connotation – and instead perhaps allude to comfort and peace. These contradictory connotations show that the speaker finds the woods inviting, but is also wary of their mystery.
This wariness is also apparent in the speaker’s position. Frost’s choice of prepositions implies that the speaker never actually enters the woods. The speaker is, as noted by the title, “Stopping by Woods” and he is positioned “between the woods and frozen lake” (7). The preposition “by” implies that the speaker is next to the woods, but not within them. This is further substantiated by the use of the preposition “between” which shows that the speaker is neither in the woods nor the lake, but rather in a place separating the two. Trapped between his desire and his vigilance, the speaker acknowledges the beauty of the woods, but remains an external observer.
Although the speaker expresses a desire to be separated from civilization, he instead decides to move on when he remembers his ties to society. Frost’s use of an oppositional conjunction demonstrates that the duties that tie the speaker to civilization take precedence over his contemplation of the woods. The speaker recognizes the wood’s allure, “but [he has] promises to keep” (14). While the speaker acknowledges that the lines preceding this statement are true (his prudence and longing for the woods included), his promises oppose this truth because they follow the conjunction “but.” Accordingly the speaker’s promises act as an obstruction to the speaker’s desire for the natural world and in doing so put an end to his deliberation. Moreover, “promises” are social contracts and the speaker’s decision to recognize them indicates his unwillingness to break away from his civilized identity. He concludes his reflection by disengaging from the woods to adhere to engagements imposed upon him by society.
Though humans can temporarily dissociate themselves from civilization to enjoy nature; they can never truly leave society, because they allow their duties to call them back. In this poem, the enchantment the speaker experiences in the woods is insufficient to keep him there because of his failure to let go of the obligations that connect him to society. This poem is a powerful statement amidst the increasingly urbanized world of the 20th century, where one can travel where one likes, but never elude the imprint of civilization.
Here’s an essay I wrote for one of my classes about the poem “Song” by Adrienne Rich. As always I make no claims as to what the author intended, this is merely one interpretation of what I think is a wonderful poem.
First the poem, then the essay:
“You’re wondering if I’m lonely;
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean
You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely
If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep
If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning” —Adrienne Rich
The Liberation of Loneliness:
An Analysis of Unconventional Connotations in Adrienne Rich’s “Song”
Connotations contribute to our perception and use of a word. They are the overtones that words have acquired over time. “Loneliness,” the subject of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Song,” has a well-established, but limited network of overtones. Its connotations are centered on a set of undesirable feelings: depression, confusion, and isolation. However, the speaker in Rich’s poem defines loneliness in a way that rids it of these conventional connotations. She concedes to being lonely, conventionally only in the aspect that she is alone, but then instead of relating loneliness to its usual connotations the speaker re-appropriates loneliness by associating it to the independence and self-awareness she feels. Through a series of specific and interconnected images, she reveals that her loneliness, and the qualities that accompany it, are a permanent part of her being.
Rich employs similes of travel in the first two stanzas of her poem to illustrate how the speaker finds freedom and purpose in her loneliness. She admits to being lonely, but only under the condition that it is “lonely as a plane” and “as a woman driving across country” (2; 9). Both of these similes compare loneliness to traveling, which is suggestive of movement and freedom, as emphasized by the large distances covered by the plane and the woman. The plane is also described as flying “level/on its radio beam” (3-4). It is stable and guided by its own signal. Secondly, it is “aiming…for… an airfield on the ocean” (4-7). It is purposeful; it has a specific direction and goal. The woman on the other hand is not described as going towards something, but “leaving behind… little towns she might have stopped/and lived and died in” (11-14). As she goes forward, the woman forsakes settled existence, indicating that she has no ties to and no dependence on these towns for her livelihood. She is autonomous. Accordingly, through the use of these two similes, the speaker specifies what her loneliness is like. While the conventional connotation suggests that loneliness can be oppressive, here the speaker establishes loneliness as being free, secure, motivated, and self-sufficient.
The following two stanzas build on the speaker’s personal definition of loneliness. The author’s use of metaphors and personification show how self-aware the speaker feels in her loneliness. She describes the loneliness of being awake “in a house wrapped in sleep” (20). In reality, sleep cannot physically wrap something. Thus, this metaphor transforms sleep into something tangible and implies that everything within the confines of the house is bound by sleep. But the speaker, despite being in the house, opposes herself to this constraint, and is instead awake and perceptive. Her objective is well defined, and even if she is within the house she is not restricted by it. Moreover, a house cannot sleep. Instead of individualizing each inhabitant of the house, she personifies the house. This strengthens her opposition with regards to the other inhabitants because they are not individualized, but she is. She can separate herself from an entity, while the other inhabitants cannot, suggesting that her loneliness is accompanied by the power of choice.
Whereas she opposes herself with the house she also says that she is lonely “with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore” (22). The speaker unites her loneliness to an object that is “ice-fast” and hence un-wavering in its state. She furthers this comparison by personifying the boat, saying that it “knows what it is…it’s neither/ice nor mud nor winter light/but wood” (24-26). Her loneliness makes her aware of her boundaries. She knows what she is not, and what she is composed of. Hence, her relationship to her environment is unambiguous. Additionally, the boat has “a gift for burning” (26). A gift in this sense is a talent or a skill. The boat’s aptitude for burning is what sets it apart and, thus, defines it. The ice, the mud, and the winter light cannot burn, but the wood can. This potential to burn is linked to the images of fire and light which are suggestive of intensity, passion, and life. The speaker’s loneliness, therefore, is a source of all this energy. Furthermore, this talent acquires an almost rebellious attitude when it is compared to the winter setting that surrounds the boat. Winter is a season of cold, death, and harsh conditions, quite the opposite of burning and the images it evokes. The speaker’s careful delineation of the boat’s position and composition shows that her loneliness defies the natural order of things. It is not just well-established, but imposing. As a result, loneliness in this poem is empowering; it does not carry any of its usual connotations of depression and confusion.
To strengthen this unconventional definition of loneliness, Rich not only repeats the word “lonely” throughout the poem, but several other words as well. First of all, the word “lonely” is used at least once in every stanza. Consequently, the images presented in each stanza have one thing in common: they are all related to loneliness, and thus to each other. Other repetitions are also found in each stanza serving to link their own connotations to the speaker’s loneliness. Repetition not only emphasizes the words themselves, but emphasizes their relation to the word “lonely” because the reader is more likely to remember a word that is repeated. To begin, the repetition of “across” in the first and second stanza implies that her loneliness knows no limits (5; 10). In the second stanza, the repetitions “day after day” and “mile after mile” implies her loneliness is not temporary, but a permanent condition (11; 12). The placement of “first” alongside “lonely” in the third stanza emphasizes the singular and superior aspect of her loneliness (17; 18). Someone who is “first” is a pioneer or a champion. Thus, her loneliness is exceptional. In the same stanza, “breath” and “breathing” appear (17; 18). This repetition connects loneliness to one of the conditions of being alive. Finally, the repetition of “that knows” in the last stanza stresses how her loneliness makes her self-aware because when one knows one understands (24). The repetition of all these words alongside the word “lonely” unites them, giving the poem a sense of continuity and helping to create the speaker’s unconventional definition of loneliness.
The speaker’s loneliness is not transitory, but part of her identity. Her loneliness is not sad or secluding, but empowering and enduring. By endowing “loneliness” with unconventional connotations, its connotative power is enriched. Rich makes us realize that words are mutable and not clearly defined. They carry their historical overtones, but no specifications and can, therefore, only be well-defined with respect to a linguistic environment. Much like the row-boat in this poem is defined by its surroundings; loneliness takes its shape from the context of the poem. It is as if we meet loneliness in person, but instead of confirming our expectations, we are awed by its new dimensions.