The Drama of Work
by John Lehman
When I ask people how their work might be like a movie or TV drama, I’m uniformly met with the heated reply: I don’t like your question and I’m not going to answer it. Perhaps they don’t like the comparison between the repetitive routine of their lives and watching attractive actors playing lawyers, doctors and police detectives whose professions seem to have a built in excitement we may not experience as administrative assistants or when teaching middle school students (though shows like “The Office” may be changing that). No, I think it’s something deeper than this. Drama and life both have casts of characters, conflict, complication, setting, dramatic tension and even occasional show-stopping climaxes. Why do people feel strongly about not examining that portion of their lives which consumes most of their time and energy?
As a writer I’ve often wondered that so few books address the significance of work in our lives. The last one I read was Studs Terkel’s Working, and before that Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in which he says, “In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely… It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”
Is it that today we don’t seem to have any choice? Not only has the 35 hour work week disappeared, but now each member of a married couple must work 40 plus hours per week to afford the housing, car, education for their kids, etc. that our parents somehow achieved on one income. A recent survey of Madison area executives reveals men work an average of 60 hours per week, women 57.
Let me answer the question about work and drama, myself, because I think at its heart lies our dissatisfaction with work (and the reason for “lives of quiet desperation” Thoreau accuses us of living). I also believe there’s something we can do to change this right here, right now.
For many of my generation our parents provided the model for business success that we either subscribed to or rebelled against. I know that’s why I dedicated my recent business book, Everything Is Changing—a zentrepreneurial approach to sales and marketing—to my father. Let me ask you to stop for a minute and think about four things from your own life: 1) Who is your model for business success and why is what that person represents important to you. 2) Now identify your model for personal non-business success. 3) Try to reconcile the two. What qualities do they share, how are they different? And finally, 4) What would be some tangible benefits of having a unified model for business/personal success?
Often we look for things in life that mirror how we already feel, and by changing our attitude we start to find reflections that support a new attitude. Change takes place, not by trying to make yourself change, but by becoming conscious of what’s not working. You can then release yourself from an old pattern and assume one that does work to accomplish what you want. This much I know: If you’re critical of yourself, others will be critical of you. If you don’t listen to your feelings, no one will listen to your feelings. If you show yourself compassion and understanding, others will treat you with compassion and understanding too. If you appreciate yourself, others will appreciate you. And, if you enjoy your life, you’ll find there is always plenty in life to enjoy.
With an artistic drama we empathize with one or more of its characters, but there’s also a distance between us and their situation—a safety valve that allows us to express a range of emotions, but also to say, “It’s only a movie,” “It’s only a play,” “It’s only a novel.” Work is based upon problem solving, how to eliminate conflict and get the job done. Episodic is fine for work. We want day-by-day not confrontational trauma—even if it would lead to life-changing revelation. But drama exaggerates conflict, pushes situations to their extreme and leads us to a big turning point.
At work we are active participants, but what bothers us most is that someone else is writing the script. There’s no safety valve. We’re never certain that someone better couldn’t easily be cast in our role. I remember as a child sitting around the dinner table how my father would recount his workday to us. He was a natural storyteller so I was enthralled by his adventures. My mother, on the other hand, who depended upon his salary for our family’s security, was uneasy. In reality she had a better head form business than Dad—though at the time a woman was expected to be home with her children—and her responses took the form of sound business advice. It was lost upon him. My father’s way of coping was to turn the raw material of the day’s experiences into audience pleasing anecdotes. Years later, as a business owner I was to see things from yet another perspective.
The two best pieces of business advice I ever received were from rather unlikely sources. The first came on the roof of an Ann Arbor motel where I was working my way through graduate school as a janitor. An air-conditioning repairman told me he believed we should each maintain both a vocation and an avocation: for example, paying the bills by working in a rundown motel during the day and writing the great American novel late at night and on weekends. At one time we make our living with the vocation, at another we may do it through the avocation (but hang on to the skills from the day job so you never feel desperate or threatened). Be happy with both, but don’t be so fully invested in one that you entirely sacrifice the other. Six years ago BusinessFirstran a profile on me with the headline, “He Only Does What He Loves.” The Carrier Air Conditioner mechanic would have approved.
The second piece of advice was from a New Jersey, Army Lieutenant, George Rabito. He’d been aid to the General of the Hospital Command in Germany. George could be overbearing and had sometimes used the authority of his position for personal advantage. Right before General Ursin was to rotate back to San Antonio, Texas, Lt. Rabito, who’d decided to remain in Europe, maneuvered his way into a new position where the people he had offended couldn’t retaliate against him. I was amazed at his foresight and told him so. He advised me, “Everyone should be fired early in his career. Then they’d always keep their eyes and ears open because they’d realize that, no matter who you work for, you’re always working for yourself.”
We seek drama, but in the workplace resent not being the one who writes the script. But why not write the script? If you’re only going to do what you love, learn to love at least two different things you can do concurrently. If you see yourself as VP of Sales and you lose that position you have nothing. Or if you think you are a classical musician and your are not one, it’s nice to take pride in that Vice President job you do have. Equally important, if it is critical for a business to have a mission statement, shouldn’t you have one of your own for your vocation and avocation too? Set a timeline and list the necessary resources to accomplish these personal (measurable and attainable) objectives. Give yourself an annual evaluation to see how much progress you’re making in accomplishing the kind of success you want to achieve.
Is this unfair to the company you work for? No, not at all.
When someone is cast in a play or a movie it’s because they’re right for the part. As an advertising agency owner I hired people for the same reason. And whatever made them the best they could be was good for me and for our business. Sure, I liked to flatter myself into thinking my leadership was essential, but the biggest mistake we business owners make, besides hiring the wrong people for the wrong reasons, is in de-motivating the right people we’ve hired for the right ones. After ten years my ad business failed, but in my mind and in the eyes of my employees it will always be a success because of our mutual collaboration. And each of us went on from that experience to literally work for ourselves and overcome obstacles in the new dramas we created.
Realize that employers, co-workers, customers, family and friends want to see us succeed because they have aspirations, too, that they want us to recognize and support. We all want life to work! When we seek to understand we’re applying empathy. We are, for a brief time, becoming that other person so we can experience his or her feelings as that individual does. This doesn’t mean we agree with that person, only that we understand their point of view more fully. Once we understand someone we can proceed to the next step, which is having that person understand us. When we seek to understand, other people become less defensive about their positions, and they open up to the question, “How can we both get what we want?” But the key is always to listen with a generous heart.
And how can we change our lives so work has drama and meaning? In Everything Is Changing I identify two ways in which change takes place. The first is by translating the vision we have into tangible benefits we’ll enjoy if the vision is realized. And the second is by employing what the Japanese call kaizen, “a tiny refinement made daily that creates compounding results, or constant improvement at a level beyond what was envisioned.” The easiest way to do this in terms of work is simply answer three questions about your day before going to sleep each night:
- What did I learn of value?
- How did I improve my life in some small way?
- What did I enjoy most about today?
Try this for a week and see if you don’t experience a subtle, positive shift in what you gain from your job.
In life we do experience frustration and disillusionment, and it’s not realistic to think we aren’t going to feel bad when those things happen. But we’re more than our emotions. Feelings are just something we have. We should give them voice, hear them out, then let them move on. They’re like our children. We made them. Sometimes they give us joy, sometimes they cause us frustration. We can’t ignore them, but like parents, we can set boundaries—within which these emotions act—to preserve our own mental health. Ignoring feelings gives them power, as does obsessing over them. Experiencing emotions provides us with a chance, not only to be human, but also to be purged of these intense feelings. It also acknowledges that conflicting emotions are part of our internal make-up and questions the idealized model of an untroubled self that our culture proffers as a goal—a paradigm that leads to the erroneous conclusion, “we aren’t good enough.”
If we’re so complete, why do we feel unsure of ourselves? I believe the simple answer is that too often we accept an idealized image of ourselves that benefits others—whether they’re selling fashions, automobiles, corporate culture or religious values—rather than see ourselves as we really are. This air-brushed image is molded by TV, movies, magazines, employers, schools, government, churches and even parents, family and friends. It may be harmless or, in some cases even beneficial to us as individuals. But when it erodes our sense of self-worth, we need to examine its truthfulness.
In her book, Your Life as Story, Tristine Rainer says, “When I view myself as the hero of my own story, I no longer complain about the conflicts in my life and in myself. I am no longer a victim of circumstances…I am a protagonist in a world of unending dilemmas that contain hidden meaning that is up to me to discover. I am the artist of my life who takes the raw materials given, no matter how bizarre, painful or disappointing and gives them shape and meaning.” She continues, “I am within each scene and each chapter of my life, defining my character through the choices I make. I am on my own side, rooting for myself, aching for myself, celebrating my sensual experiences, marveling in the exquisite subtlety of feeling in my life that novelists have made me aware of in their books. I am as engaged with the ongoing story in my life as is a reader who eagerly turns the page.”
If you were to write a book about yourself, how would it begin? “Someday I’m going to…” or “Today I…”? To live your story means having something to say about yourself right now.
Each of us is the hero of our own story. Let’s act like it.
Zen and the Art of Business Success
by John Lehman
There’s a Zen saying that sums up the zentrepreneur sales and marketing approach: “Everything is changing. Everything is connected. Pay attention.” —Everything Is Changing: New Ways to Gain Loyal Clients and Customers Quickly
The goal is to be successful and make money. The goal is to stay healthy in body and mind so you can enjoy the success you’ve worked for and the money that you’ve made. But most important the goal is to do this in a way that when you ask “Was it worth it?” “Was it meaningful?” “Was this the best way I could have spent my life?” you can look back and proudly say, “yes.”
“Zentrepreneur” is a term given to those entrepreneurs who value both business and having a life. The Zentrepreneur approach provides a very real, very clear, very attainable answer to how we can make this happen, but to understand this we must first examine the nature of values. Buddhists believe that actions and things are neither good nor bad in themselves. It is we who see them as one thing or the other based upon our past experiences. For example, working over a weekend is neither positive nor negative in itself. If we felt neglected as a child because our father was never at home to play with us but spent weekends and evenings at the office instead, then the value we have imprinted on us is that working on weekends is bad. On the other hand the owner of a struggling new business might see his employee’s working on the weekend as a real commitment to the success of the company, an admirable thing. Perhaps that imprint comes from an earlier experience he had where family members pitched-in over a weekend to help a relative renovate part of her house. Imprints are like mental videotapes from the past that replay when triggered by similar situations in the present. They cause us to see things—that are neutral in themselves—as good or bad.
Now here’s an interesting thing about these imprints. They don’t just stagnate in our minds but (even without any outside exacerbation) continually expand. For example, the fear of giving a presentation before a class when we’re in grade school starts to determine what we will or will not feel comfortable doing later in life. That in turn focuses us on situations that tend to confirm and justify that fear. And so we are formed—and so we form our world. However, we can change all of that. All we have to do is to identify the kind of goals we seek, and then generate the kind of imprints that are desirable to achieve them. These are called “correlations.” And how do we create these new, positive imprints? Simply by doing something positive ourselves and experiencing the results.
Here’s an example from the book The Diamond Cutter which recounts the life of a Buddhist monk who became director of a large firm in New York’s diamond district.
Suppose that your company is struggling in the marketplace, and cash flow has become a problem. The natural instinct of almost any person or corporation in this position is to cut back. Corporate giving is an immediate victim, followed by blatant perks like business-class airline seats for shorter management trips. Then go the items that are halfway between a perk and salary, say a car service home for employees who stay late. Next go the holiday bonuses; then raises are shaved; raises stop completely; and the knife goes to the benefits… And so on. It’s important, therefore, to be wary of your natural reaction to a problem. It may simply perpetuate the problem. Each of these reactions plants new imprints in your mind, negative imprints. Every time you deny funds or help to those who depend on you you plant an imprint that will make you see yourself and your own business denied the same funds and help. This phenomenon escalates because of the way in which negative imprints grow the longer they spend in the subconscious… The point is that, as a reaction to financial pressures (either corporate or personal), one must above all avoid a stingy state of mind. It may well be true that there are no funds available to provide the perks that were handed out before, and you may in fact have to stop the perks because there is no money for them right now, but it is vital not to think cheap, not to lose creativity, not to lose a truly generous outlook within the new limitations of your financial situation. If you descend to a cheap state of mind, denying others what you actually could—even in your current finances—well afford, then you create powerful imprints that will actually affect whether or not you are able to bounce back.
In other words, in order to see yourself as doing well in business, be generous to your customers and employees. In order to see yourself in a world that treats you justly, treat others justly. In order to be a leader, help others attain their goals. In order to see yourself free in a world where things don’t always work out the way you want them to, focus on the hidden potential these situations offer instead. And, most important, in order to see yourself get all that you ever wished for, cultivate an attitude of compassion toward others.
It isn’t just agreeing with these words or deciding to clean-up your attitude toward your fellow man: The most powerful imprints are grounded in action. You have to act. You have to accomplish these things through what you do each day, each week, each month, each year. Just as with a physical exercise program you wouldn’t expect to see results after ten days, so you must set your goals, identify the imprints that reflect them and adopt them for the rest of your life. Planting and tending mental imprints take time and patience. People who fail to succeed with these principles do so because either they don’t follow them over a long enough period of time, or they don’t follow them very well.
I’m not saying that a person will not lie to you if you do not lie to them or not take advantage of you if you don’t take advantage of them. What I am saying is that people will lie to you or take advantage of you because you already have an imprint of this happening. The action itself is being produced by your imprints—the world around you, the people around you and even the way you are yourself, all of these things are a creation of your own past actions, words and thoughts…which you have the ability to change right here, right now through how you act toward others. Nothing is random, nothing is accidental. We have no one outside of ourselves to blame for our own world. Things occur to us in exact accord with how we treat those around us. Which brings us full circle.
To transcend the aloneness of being separate from others and our environment, you must see how things have come about and then, when you are ready, return to the world with new awareness on how to make it what you want. By expanding the way you define who you are to include customers and potential customers, you align their needs with your own, their success with yours. This is done for business reasons, but see why it goes much deeper than that? Our empathetic actions toward them not only create positive imprints for us, but also positive imprints for them and together we are each reaching our full potential. Henry David Thoreau in Walden identified the ultimate failure—to discover when you come to die that you have never lived. But instead we can wake up to our lives. He advised: “Men esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star, before Adam and after the last man. In eternity there is indeed something true and sublime. But all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us. The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions; whether we travel fast or slow…”
To be truly successful you must learn to overcome ways of thinking and behaving that have proven themselves to be either counterproductive or random over your life in producing the results you want. The great people of every age in every part of the world have had to learn to reexamine the beliefs they grew up with and decide from the perspective of adults with increased knowledge and experience whether or not these are productive for their fulfillment today.
Step #1 for you is to make that potential client or customer feel you really want to know his or her needs (beyond the products or services that person wants). Step #2 is to see yourself through that customer’s eyes. What does he or she look to you to provide for them to be successful. And Step #3—this is the big one—is to realize that you and your customer are really one and that we are no longer talking about the world of business, but the world. Happiness isn’t a limited resource that only a few people can have at others’ expense. If we want to succeed on any level, on every level, we must seek to stamp out unhappiness in its every form and within any mind—even in those who compete with us for the next promotion or in the marketplace. You know in your heart that this is right, and that if you spent your whole life working for the good of those around you as hard as you work for yourself, that you could look back on your life with pride, for this is the real significance of everything we do.
So the thing to do when working on a motorcycle, as in any other task, is to cultivate the peace of mind which does not separate one’s self from one’s surroundings. When that is done successfully then everything else follows naturally. Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all. —Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Swinging on Birches, the Poetry of Robert Frost
An address presented by Rosebud’s founder, John Lehman, to the William Saroyan Writers Conference in Fresno, California.
I remember about ten years back stepping onto the sloping porch of Robert Frost’s Franconia farmhouse. I peered through the front window at a barren room with a table and two chairs, remnants of a Spartan, no nonsense life. Then I saw reflected in the window’s rippled glass, what he would have observed looking out while sitting at that table to write: a hillside of trees ablaze with October color. I’ve read quite a bit of Frost’s poetry since that day and it’s that picture of dramatic contrasts I always see when I do. But what is it about Frost’s work that makes his poetry special? Before answering that question I’d like to take a minute to think about what makes poetry, poetry.
Donald Hall, who followed Frost then Roethke at the University of Michigan, states that at minimum poetry is different than prose in these two distinguishing characteristics: fixity and energy. Fixity means there is one exact word and a correct placement of that word. He claims, if you change a sentence or paragraph of a novel it will not greatly alter its meaning. If you change one word of a poem, you change that poem. Here’s a little example, a short piece by Gregory Orr:
WASHING MY FACE
Last night’s dreams disappear.
They are like the sink draining:
a transparent rose swallowed by its stem.
“Transparent” fits water going down the drain but why a rose instead of, for example, a chrysanthemum? I get a feeling these were pleasant dreams, but when I look at the words again see he doesn’t say that. That is suggested by the type of flower, rose, often associated with beauty and love. Poets are particularly concerned with the right connotation as well as the sound and even sometimes its history. It’s all these associated things, that lead Frost to say, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.” There are no synonyms. It’s almost as if there is an unspoken contract between the poet and the reader. The poet says, “I will take time to find that right word, if you will take time to appreciate why I have chosen this one in place of another.” An arrangement some contemporary audiences do not want to accept.
Here’s an even shorter poem that illustrates energy by Robert Frost:
THE SPAN OF A LIFE
The old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
Energy simply means the efficiency with which a poet uses language. In two lines we have, not only a picture of an dog, but also of the observer “looking” backward over both their lives. Visually we don’t get much of an image, but read the lines again and notice the long, accented vowels of the first line that cause us to read it slowly, then contrast them with the short, prancing-puppy like ones of the second. Frost uses the title to push this sound picture into metaphor. That’s one of three traits of his poetry, that go beyond fixity and energy.
In a poem entitled Four Great Poets, Robert Francis puts his finger on the heart of Frost’s greatness: “His head carved out of granite O / His hair wayward drifts of snow / He worshipped the great God of Flow / By holding on and letting go.” Here’s an example from part of one of Frost’s lesser known pieces, For Once, Then, Something. In the first half he says friends rebuke him for looking into a well and seeing only himself, reflected in the water godlike in a wreath of ferns and cloud puffs. It’s a criticism that could be aimed at any writer, but what is as interesting as the meaning of Frost’s reply is this sense of movement that carries the reader forward to the climatic end.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths–and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
Most poetry has something prose does not, and that is the margins of white space to the left and right. That means that as a poet I am deciding how to end the line, not just letting the word processor automatically move the cursor to the next because I’ve run out of space. When you combine line breaks with sentences, you have the ability to move the reader forward, slow them down or bring them to a complete halt. For example, at the end of the first line above, we slow down at “well-curb” because it is the end of the line, but don’t come to a stop because it isn’t the end of a sentence (which happens at the end of the fourth). The fifth line, is a complete sentence in one line. It starts and stops us, giving the words special emphasis. Then in the next to last line we have two sentences, and in the last three (though elliptical). Most poets break lines by phrases or concepts (“He disappeared in the dead of winter: / The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted, / The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.”), but Frost carries us with his flow from one line to the next, stops us in our tracks or gives us a little of both of this “holding on and letting go” within a line. There’s a musical cadence in his work that builds even if we wouldn’t know what the words meant.
He takes this even further. Frost acknowledged that vowels in words do have accents (that’s what we find in the dictionary, and by the careful arrangement of those accented words create a line of metered poetry) He also claimed we give a particular word more emphasis than another in a sentence depending upon the sense of what we’re trying to convey. He believed that we further enhance the dynamics of the poem’s flow by stretching the spoken sentence (with its stresses based on meaning over a line in iambic pentameter with its stresses determined by the length of the words vowels.
An ear and an appetite for those sounds of sense are the first qualification of a writer, be it of prose or verse. But if one is to be a poet he must learn to get cadences by skillfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the meter.
Those who praise Frost for capturing the way people talk and putting it into poetry are missing the point. His poetry is powerful, a) because of the flow which he controls through line breaks and where he starts and stops sentences and b) because of the dynamics between everyday speech and the uniform accents that many accept as the norm for a line of poetry. That everyday sentence is an integral part of the dynamics of both. He wrote:
The living part of a poem is the intonation entangled somehow in the syntax idiom and meaning of a sentence… Vowels have length there is no use denying. But the accent of sense supersedes all other accent overrides and sweeps it away… (A word) is as long as the sense makes it… Words exist in the mouth…and not in books. A sentence is a sound in itself on which other sounds called words may be strung. You may string words together without a sentence-sound to string them on just as you may tie clothes together by the sleeves and stretch them without a clothes line between the trees–but it is bad for the clothes… The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.
Frost talked and wrote a great deal about poetry, but one of the truest things he ever stated is, “A piece of writing is as good as its drama.” Let me tell you a little story about why I think this is true. A number of years ago three other poets and myself had a book published called Quick Blue Gathering. When we did readings together we each took the podium for fifteen minutes and read our poems. It occurred to me this might be more interesting if there was one thing that a couple of us did together. I took Robert Frost’s Death of a Hired Hand and broke it into a reading for two voices. Rita Miller and myself read the parts. I was surprised at how easy this was to do and how effective the result.
Many years later when Shrine of the Tooth Fairy came out I asked my wife if she’d help me in a reading, in the same way but this time with a couple of my poems. They also easily split into two voices (though not necessarily male and female, sometimes they were father daughter, or the older poet reminiscing about myself as a younger man). That sent me back to Frost, and sure enough almost all his poems contain some kind of opposites, each easily expressed by a different voice: the road more traveled or the road less traveled, stopping by the woods on a snowy night or (as the little horse prods) moving on, swinging skyward on birches or returning to earth, building a wall or tearing it down, picking apples or giving it up for the winter.
In everyday living we try to avoid or resolve conflict, but conflict is what creates drama. Under the control of the written page we explore ramifications beyond everyday life. It’s not enough to experience reality on the page. We want heightened reality. A practical lesson
I ‘ve learned is that whenever a poem I’m writing seems flat, I search out the opposites and build them up. Opposites are what make a piece exciting–we don’t know what is going to happen. As the advantage switches from one side to the other we in the audience experience an emotional swing. In writing these are called “emotional beats.” They work the same way as turnovers (one team getting the ball from another) in the fourth quarter of an exciting basketball team. And so in Frost’s poems we become engrossed wondering which of the opposing sides is going to win.
Here is an excerpt of a very long poem by Frost called Home Burial. It’s actually better if you don’t know what it’s about, because then you can better appreciate the interaction between the man and the woman. Much of this is conveyed thought their changing physical positions in the scene:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was staring down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: `What is it you see
From up there always–for I want to know.’
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: `What is it you see,’
Mounting until she cowered under him.
`I will find out now–you must tell me, dear.’
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, `Oh,’ and again, `Oh,’
`What is it–what?” she said.
`Just that I see.’
`You don’t,’ she challenged. `Tell me what it is.’
In describing the camera shots of Citizen Kane Orson Wells once said he wanted each character to have his or her own unique angle so that even if a viewer didn’t know the plot the viewer would be able to understand the story. We’re always looking up at Kane (Wells even built a trapdoor on the set to get the camera at a very low angle) and looking down at Susan Alexander, the singer who is his less-than-talented protégé. Remember the camera shot that comes down through the skylight of a nightclub where she’s performing? Well here we have the same thing, but it’s even better because the man and woman change position as the emotional advantage swings from one to the other. The man begins at the foot of the stairs and rises to eventually tower over her, however they are both upstaged by an unknown presence outside, which they glance at through the window.
The couple in the poem have lost their child. What she always sees–and he comes to see– is the child’s grave outside the window (the “home burial” of the title). She’s lost in her grief, he sublimates his by returning to the routine of work. This is intolerable to her and, despite his threats that if she walks out the door she can never return, she leaves. Their marriage is over (also the “home burial” of the title). Frost uses his characters as a director of a stage play might, and the result is that we experience the feelings of both as if they were are own. In Frost’s case they were. He and his wife had tragically lost a baby, but unlike the couple in the poem they were able to weather it together. Why would he change the ending in the poem? The easy answer is that he was trying to make it more dramatic. A more thoughtful one might be that within the safety of art he was playing out his (and our) worst fears in order to see what would happen. Most of us remember Frost’s recitation at John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration, but here is what Kennedy, himself, had to say about Frost, “If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths.”
Mirror to Meaning
When Robert Frost gave readings, he would present a minimum number of his poems and comment very little on them. He preferred to ramble about politics, berate others who he felt were in competition with him or talk about teaching and the process of writing. When asked questions about a specific work, he often gave contradictory answers: “Oh, it’s just a little winter scene don’t read to much into it.” or “That was the evening I was considering killing myself.” He put on a bit of a contrary New England farmer act. I know how that goes. We from Wisconsin like to do the same thing when we find ourselves in sophisticated surroundings, such as New York City or Los Angeles. It’s called being a “country slicker.” You play dumb so others underrate your abilities, often to their detriment later. But my guess is that Frost was up to something else that has to do with why his poems are cited today by everyone from writers of New Age self-help books to political conservatives.
What are the central metaphors of these poems by Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas: After great pain, a formal feeling comes, Because I could not stop for Death, Fog, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Do not go gentle into that good night? A metaphor is talking about one thing in terms of another. It’s a comparison that helps us understand something complex or abstract or unfamiliar by showing its similarities to something concrete that we are familiar with and can more easily grasp. Here are lines that tell you the metaphors of the titles I’ve just given. “As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow– / First–Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go–” “Because I could not stop for Death– / He kindly stopped for me– / The Carriage held but just Ourselves– / And Immortality.” ”The fog comes / on little cat feet.” “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” “Do not go gentle into that good night.“ Grief is compared to freezing, dying to a carriage ride, fog to a kitten, night to an etherized patient and death to sleep. Unless you’re an English major my guess is you only may have known one or two of these.
Now tell me the central metaphor of these poems: The Road Not Taken, The Mending Wall
Home Burial, Birches, After Apple-Picking and Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Night? Easy, the central symbol is right in the title. But what is it being compared to? The answer to that question is, I believe, the third trait of Frost’s greatness and the real reason his poetry soars. Here’s what he said about the importance of metaphors:
Poetry begins in trivial metaphors…and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, “Why don’t you say what you mean?” We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and indirections–whether from diffidence or some other instinct… The only thing that can disappoint me is a lack of enthusiasm and my own failure to make metaphor. My ambition has been to have it said of me: He made a few connections.”
Let me distinguish between two types of metaphor. What I’ll call a “closed metaphor” directly draws the comparison–death is like sleep, for example (this is a simile, or expressed rather than implied comparison, but still a type of metaphor). We understand and have experienced sleep, whereas we want to get some feeling for death which we have not experienced firsthand. To the left on a blackboard we could make a column of the traits of sleep and connect some with traits of death in a column to the right. Some traits they share easily come to mind: a lack of consciousness in both, being weary at the end of the day is like being weary toward the end of your life. We might draw some conclusions that are less sound, i.e., we wake up from sleep therefore there must be resurrection after death; but aptness (as well as originality) determines why one metaphor is better than another. In the poems by Dickinson, Sandburg, Eliot and Thomas these comparisons are drawn out.
On the other hand what if there were a metaphor in which all we had were the column of traits on the left and the heading to which they were to be compared on the right—an “open metaphor”? In a long metaphoric work we would call this a parable, or if it involved animals, a fable. But this “open metaphor” is precisely what Frost does in his poems. He gives us one side of the comparison then forces us to find the correspondences to the other. This is why I believe he did not want to give us his definitive interpretation of his pieces. He’s encouraging us to become poets. How does he get readers to make the leap? He chooses a picture that seems silly if we only take it literally. This is the ending of Frost’s Birches:
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
This is an old man at the end of his life, how can he desire to be swinging on trees. He can’t, so the “learn about not launching out to soon” “keeping his poise,” “and climbing carefully / With the same pains you use to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim” must apply figuratively to something else, like a lifetime. Frost thinks readers can make the connection because, like all poets, he believe they are there in reality and he trusts wecan know them (probably through the senses and intuition—the domain of
poetry–rather than through our intellect). He encourages us to find meaning beyond what is expressed by not doing it for us, by selecting subjects that are suggestive (rich in connotation) and, as in Birches, makes closed metaphors (climbing to the tree’s top is like filling a cup) that are an example of the kind of comparison he wants us to make using the entire poem as metaphor. And in case we miss the point there are the titles that point the way.
But the point isn’t just a particular poem, it’s the embracing of the process of seeing things poetically. At the conclusion of an essay titled The Figure A Poem Makes, which I’ve abridged here, he sums up this belief:
It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. 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 a 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… 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…
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 metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.
It’s with these three accomplishments—shaping movement like a piece of music, giving us the emotional beats of drama and forcing us to look at poetry as a mirror to meaning—that Robert Frost makes poetry soar and shows us how to soar along with it. Despite a life of personal tragedy, poetry never let him down. And it can mean the same to us. Poetry is a way of living, not just a way to communicate the experiences we have had. Frost believed that for our own survival we need to throw ourselves into it with energy, abandon and trust. We will be rewarded accordingly. That, more than any five or six of his poems, as great as they may be, is the richness of his gift to us today.