Friday, March 28, 2008

Desert Places — a Poetry Friday post

This week I'm here in Gold Canyon, near the foot of the Superstition Mountains. Gold Canyon and, indeed, all of the surrounding area, is part of the Sonora Desert. For those of you who don't know, the Sonora Desert is the only one in which the saguaro cactus grows. The desert here is littered with them, as well as with barrel cacti, cholla, jojoba, organ pipe cactus and more, along with scrubby brush and ocotillo. The foothills are, at present, green (a rarity) and, in some cases, yellow from all the blooming wildflowers thereon. The Superstition Mountains themselves (and the Santans and others) are mostly rock. Bare rock. And in between the scrub and the cactus is a lot of bare sand. Lots around here are sometimes hundreds of acres in size, and even with encroaching population growth, enormous stretches of desert are still easy to find (and easy, one supposes, to become hopelessly lost in, were one on foot in the hot desert sun). At night, if I turn my back to the light pollution coming from the valley that holds Phoenix, I can see many, many stars in a sky darker than what I can manage to see at home in suburbia.

I mention all this as an introduction to today's poem by Robert Frost, whose birthday it would have been on Wednesday. Frost wrote it while living in New England, of course, and so he refers to the falling snow. Friends of mine in Vermont and New Hampshire still can't see the ground for the snow that remains from winter. And I am in the desert now, where it's sunny and the cactus hold their arms up in silent salute. And all of these circumstances led me to this poem, which is guaranteed to make you think, even if the snow is gone where you are, and you are far from sand and cactus.

Desert Places
by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less--
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

The above poem was originally published by Frost in 1936 in a collection called A Further Range. It is comprised of only sixteen lines organized into four stanzas, and yet it says more in that space than many a much longer poem ever manages. Each line has ten syllables, but the metre is not, strictly speaking, iambic pentameter (as in other poems he wrote), nor is it stable; it starts out vaguely trochaic and settles into iambic by the end (perhaps in an "order out of chaos" sort of way?) The rhyme scheme is AABA CCDC EEFE GGHG, with a caveat that the "odd" word in the third stanza is "snow", the same as the odd word in the first stanza, so it might also be considered EEBE. The scheme is close to that he used in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, but there he nested his rhyme (AABA BBCB CCDC DDDD), which makes for a lovely linking effect. His decision not to link in "Desert Places" is a conscious one, and is meant to keep all the stanzas in isolation, and lonely, as it were.

Although many folks think of Frost's poems as straightforward stories or nature poems, this one is clearly psychological in nature, with direct references to loneliness (and oblique references, perhaps, to depression). The fall of night is both a fact and a metaphor, as is the chill of the falling snow and idea of it blanketing the world and smothering the living things therein. The speaker then turns his attention to space, and the vast emptiness between the stars, which is what sets him musing on loneliness in the first place (a fiction, I believe, for plainly Frost knew his theme long before the poem was completed and revised and published, even if, in the first draft, the connection was not there in the first line). He is not frightened of the loneliness of outer space, but of the space within, both a well-reasoned and sensible fear, I think. And one we've all experienced (the fear and the loneliness) at some time, if we're being honest with ourselves. For another take on the loneliness aspect, check out this blog post by Mopo which I found whilst poking about. For those seeking even more scholarly discussion, check out this pageat Modern American Poetry.


The Cole Mine said...

After learning a bit about the saguaro cactus, they are even more beautiful to me now, because they are so protected and rare...My husband (an AZ native) first told me about them when we met way back when. Thanks for sharing this!

Kelly Fineman said...

They're the state plant/flower of Arizona, and are an endangered species. Not that you'd know it from looking around here. There are a crapload of them, many of them new growth.