Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Appreciation Corner: "Spring Pools," for the season in-between + Stories

SPRING POOLS
I always think that Robert Frost must have been somehow remembering—in some vague, inchoate way—Philip Freneau’s “The Wild Honey-Suckle” when he wrote “Spring Pools.” The form is very close: Freneau ends a six-line tetrameter stanza with a couplet; Frost begins a six-line pentameter stanza with a couplet. Freneau and Frost turn to weak rhymes, expressive of the shivery frailties of flowers, and both poets rhyme flower with power or powers. Freneau closes “The Wild Honey-Suckle" with this: From morning suns and evening dews / At first thy little being came: / If nothing once, you nothing lose, / For when you die you are the same; / The space between, is but an hour, / The frail duration of a flower."

In both poems, the flower is tied to the brevity of life. Powers are opposed to the flower: in one, autumn and the seeing death of nature; in the other, a more surprising move—the onrushing sweep of life. There will be more life, but the flowers and pools will be lost in its great pour:

SPRING POOLS

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods--
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

The pools and flowers belong to that tenuous time when the Snow Queen’s grip on the land has loosened and the first brave flowers bloom. The simplicity—the tendency toward monosyllables, the parallelism (“And like the flowers beside them”/“Will like the flowers beside them”, “To darken”/“To blot”) the almost “total” lack of flowery ornament—save for the very appropriate use of antimetabole to describe a mirrored scene: “These flowery waters and these watery flowers.” The use of the antimetabole, the repetition of words in transposed order, means that all ends “in balance,” though it is a balance that will soon be gone. The last line reinforces that balance by returning to a regular metrical line.

This is no allegory, and yet we sense our parallels to these small shining pools and tiny flowers and are capable are feeling grief for their passage in a reading of the poem. The unthinking trees whose branches lend “defect” to the reflected sky loom above in dark patterns, their pent-up life about to break from the bough. Their powers will make a fantastic Black Forest of the land; they will annihilate and suck away the delicate life of pool and blossom. The force is over-bearing; they do not merely “blot out” but “blot out and drink up and sweep away.” Any one of these would do, but the heaping up stresses the utter blank and dark to come.

Instead of joining with the greater life of streams, the pools will be strained through roots and not transformed into darkness but lost there. The snows that melted yesterday have assisted the rule of winter, and the forest likewise is a great power. Flower and pool are but ephemeral: “frail duration.” Already ruffled by chill breezes, they will yield to the dark forces of death and destruction, their own lives taken that there might be more life.

"Spring Pools" came to mind last week. During a sunny day, the snow melted from the two flower beds next to the warm southern wall of the house. Underneath proved to be many yellow flowers, tightly closed, of aconite. Then it rained and mist rose up from the heaped banks of snow, and melting snow and rain puddled in the flower beds. And then I thought of Robert Frost’s “flowery waters” and “watery flowers.”

Addendum, March 26, 2:00 a.m.: Without thinking, I posted something about Frost yesterday--and here today it is his birthday.

***

UPDATE ON STORIES

Last night I sent off some stories, and this morning I woke up to find them accepted. I always find that sort of thing pleasing. Enthusiam is always dear. New forthcoming stories: "The Red King's Sleep" (continuing the Carroll motif of the last post) and "The Horse Angel" in Postcripts (U.K.) The "Sleep" takes that old chestnut "then I woke up and it was all a dream" and turns it inside-out and sideways. "The Horse Angel" began with an elderly neighbor here in Cooperstown, and I make use of her character, her house and handed-down possessions, and her marriage of 63 contented years. There are a lot of stories in the pipeline labeled forthcoming, and that is good because I have been devoting myself to poetry lately. Another forthcoming story (from the same editor as the two last, so I just found out about this one as well) is "Static," scheduled to come out this year in Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, ed. Nick Gevers (U.K./U.S.: Solaris Books). Never had my innocent little mind turned to the thought of writing a steampunk story, but I had a splendid romp in the writing. Lots of steam as well as peculiar characters, an imprisoned young woman, perilous lightning, and some enlivening combustion.

MEMES

I know. Haven't done them. Will do, honest. At least one or two. Soon.

Photograph credit: The "spring shot of Llantisilio churchyard with snowdrops" is courtesy of www.sxc.hu/ and "Plutarch" or Sandi Baker of "Chester, Cheshire, U. K." It's not in the woods, and it has no spring pools. But it has spring flowers and bare branches and more than a hint of time's passage.

18 comments:

  1. congrats on the stories! you keep pluging away

    I think Frost is a great way to think on early spring. I thumbed through a collection before writing this and was caught by

    "Good-bye, and Keep Cold"

    I keep hoping my early plantings dont get blasted, I like it when he talks about deer and animals eating his stuff. I have a deer family that eats up my hosta and roses.

    did you know deer wont eat brocollie, but they like apples and table scraps.

    ah yes, spring is definitly here. SO glad you brought out Frost.

    I almost didnt sign in since I am at work and just clicked anon, would you have guessed it was me?haha got to get back to work...after I live journal! hahahaah

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  2. Congratulations on the stories! they sound positively intriguing.

    As to Frost's poem, i cannot relate.

    i do revel in his language
    but i do not share his feelings.
    As you say, he talks of trees that "will annihilate and suck away the delicate life of pool and blossom"
    as though there is some great loss in this natural cycle.
    But those flowers
    they have chosen to grow beneath and along side those trees. They serve each other.
    Those flowers time their short-lived blooms in perfect harmony with the emergence of leaves, hence their botanical designation: spring ephemerals.
    The only loss i can feel is if i do not give myself ample time with them
    and the possible (likely?) loss of a climate that created them both
    For without shade
    those sweet flower roots would scorch and possibly disappear forever.

    So, i'm afraid my seeing and embracing all of this, does not allow the analogy to represent the fleeting nature of life as i suppose he is alluding to...for me, those pools, those ephemerals testify to a cycle of long, long, beautiful living.

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  3. Susanna,

    I now have aconite, snowdrops, and snow heaps. Can't wait...

    You're not feeding those deer apples and table scraps, are you? You'd better get some Deer-Off!

    zephyr,

    I'm not a bit surprised. That sounds precisely as a zephyr would feel.

    I would say that he does celebrate cycles elsewhere, and that if he wants to get shivery on me for the sake of a poem, I'll let him!

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  4. Marly,
    Thanks for the reading and for teaching me some new tricks. I can never remember those technical/rhetorical terms. I will use a device and not know its name, just as I often talk to people for years before I ask what their names are.
    I didn't know either of those poems, but the Frost poem says Frost all over. It's so half-empty and dark. And you know that speaks to me.

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  5. Congrats on the stories, Marly! I just tried emailing you but it came bouncing back!

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  6. Robbi,

    I need to buy another copy (got rid of soooo many books in my many moves of George Putteham's The Art of English Poesie. I bet it's on line, though. Get your names-of-ornaments-and-devices there!

    Frost is still underrated. If you want the half-empty and dark, "Acquainted with the Night" is awfully good.

    Clare,

    Bounced back? Did you type me in? Or send to the old "camellia" address (forwarding)? Send it again?

    Just back from "Art & Music Night" at the elementary. Tha halls were a labyrinth choked with people of all sizes and the occasional minotaur.

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  7. Huh. I didn't know Frost wrote a poem aboput vernal pools. Of course he can be forgiven for neglecting to mention their ecological importance as predator-free breeding areas for salamanders, wood frogs, etc. But his reason for why they disappear is bizarre: they aren't sucked up by tree roots, they're lost mainly to evaporation.

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  8. Question for the ever-thinking Dave Bonta and for zephyr and for anybody else who happens to drift by with brain in gear:

    Does the world inside this little poem really owe anything to the ecological significance of vernal pools or to accurate treatment of vernal cycles?

    Meanwhile all my vernal pools and aconite and snowdrops are under at least half a foot of lovely snow that is bending all the saplings and lilacs to the ground... and keeping three happy children at home.

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  9. in my humble, unschooled opinion, the answer to your question is yes, kind of--but he is taking a hefty chunk of poetic license.

    i know of some vernal pools in my neck of the woods (south of you and Frost's homes but still in the northeast) that are dry by early summer...or at least muddy spots soon to be dry...so it is reasonable to assume he observed vernal pools that were gone by summer.

    As Dave pointed out, Frost is wrong about his trees "drinking up" all the water, which is why i could not relate. One could argue that the flowers, animals and grasses take up as much or more. But the shade provided by the leaves is the main reason the flowering season of most plants beneath the trees is so short...so his "sweeping away" imagery (i see the growing, always moving shadows of leaves over the woodland floor in his line) is not too far from the truth, when considered from a poetic stance.

    In general, i love his "flowery waters" line, but trees "blotting out" the pool is just too far from the truth to capture my imagination as well as he does in "Birches" where he mixes the two:

    "But I was going to say when Truth broke in
    With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm,
    I should prefer to have some boy bend them
    As he went out and in to fetch the cows--
    Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
    Whose only play was what he found himself,
    Summer or winter, and could play alone.
    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..."

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  10. Must zephyrs be humble, I wonder? They are such pleasant creatures when they waft by...

    That was a very interesting answer. I'm afraid that I am more accustomed to think about the tension between what is "real world" and what is "my world made out of words"--as well as the need not to violate certain terms of the real and knock the reader out of his/her pleasure and belief--when it comes to fiction. I haven't thought about it so much in poetry.

    I mean, I have a Poetic License, don't I?

    But I will think about it in future, thanks to you--though I may know no better than I knew here!

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  11. Make that "The halls."

    The typo is my enemy. I never get anything good--not like Hart Crane's typesetter accidently changing "wing of eternity" to "wink of eternity."

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  12. I like my photo in this context,and I read the link with interest, thankyou for using it

    Sandi

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  13. i think if i had been in the Lovely Woods hearing someone recite Frost's poem, in the midst of giant trees i could have been swept up into the poem's imagery...i mean, all those roots, spreading and spreading...i'm sure it is easy to imagine them sipping up those pools...particularly the small ones.

    you've all sorts of Poetic Licenses, i'm sure! And i rarely quarrel with what Frost i read. And that tension you speak of...i'm all for license...and i usually go with the poet, when the balance rings right.

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  14. Sandi--

    I'm glad you liked seeing your picture here! I'm sure other people liked it as well.

    Thank you...

    zephyr--

    Wafting again, eh? And what a peaceable zephyr you are to end on such a calm note.

    Now I need you to melt today's big snow with some nice Southern airs.

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  15. I've always had a fond spot for Frost.

    Congrats on the stories.

    I've been taking the week off resting, ruminating, and reflecting. Hope to post some tomorrow.

    Much love,
    Donna

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  16. Donna,

    Ah, wouldn't you know--a teacher takes the time off but is still adhering to three R's...

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  17. I really like antimetabole as a word and an idea, I didn't know that was what it was called. Can it exist in visual art too?

    Wish I'd paid more attention in prosody lectures, but I was such a slacker. Youth and education are wasted on the young.

    Well doen on the stories. My brother, who I believe dabbles in the genre, explained steampunk to me a while back.

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  18. Antimetabole: I suppose so. Perhaps it does and has a different name, though.

    Yes, I would do my education very differently now. I'd have less of it yet be more wide-ranging. And youth... I think that I could handle it now!

    I've had several years with lots of requests. The funny thing is that it's often a request for something I know nothing about--then I try it for the fun of the thing and generally produce something that the editor says is very different from the other stories collected. The bliss of raging ignorance, it must be.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.