national poetry month, day 25

It’s a drizzly April day in Chicago, and I’m thinking of muddy spring weather when I was growing up in Vermont. Today’s poems are by Robert Frost. He is, for lack of a better term, my home poet. We have a rocky relationship. My natural inclination is for poetry with less formal meter and rhyme structures. He was also a right mean bastard. It’s complicated between us, but I was steeped in his language and imagery from a very early age. We share a love of our native landscape, and almost all of his poetry is firmly grounded in the physical landscape of Vermont – green and muddy, isolated and silent, full of the shifting light of clouds over mountains. I left my home state a long time ago, but there is a part of me that will always feel homeless unless I’m walking on a mud-rutted dirt road.

Many of Frost’s poems are narrative, which can give them a confessional feeling, but can also give the reader a sense of being kept at a distance. I’ve chosen one that’s strictly in his narrative-to-lesson tradition, and a second that has a more immediate and intimate tone. 

The last stanza of “Two Tramps in Mud Time” begins “But yield who will to their separation/My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight.” I’ve remembered that line since I first read it at the age of 12, and have internalized this idea on an almost molecular level – the notion that the union of work and joy, love and need, is both possible and something to be sought. 

“Acquainted with the Night” is my favorite Frost poem. He sounds less certain of himself here than he often does elsewhere, which makes me like him more. And I love to walk, particularly at night, so I respond to that. Living where I do, I can’t go for long walks at night; I miss them.

Two Tramps in Mud Time

Out of the mud two strangers came
And caught me splitting wood in the yard,
And one of them put me off my aim
By hailing cheerily “Hit them hard!”
I knew pretty well why he dropped behind
And let the other go on a way.
I knew pretty well what he had in mind:
He wanted to take my job for pay.

Good blocks of oak it was I split,
As large around as the chopping block;
And every piece I squarely hit
Fell splinterless as a cloven rock.
The blows that a life of self-control
Spares to strike for the common good,
That day, giving a loose my soul,
I spent on the unimportant wood.

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song so pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.

The water for which we may have to look
In summertime with a witching wand,
In every wheelrut’s now a brook,
In every print of a hoof a pond.
Be glad of water, but don’t forget
The lurking frost in the earth beneath
That will steal forth after the sun is set
And show on the water its crystal teeth.

The time when most I loved my task
The two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

Out of the woods two hulking tramps
(From sleeping God knows where last night,
But not long since in the lumber camps),
They thought all chopping was theirs of right.
Men of the woods and lumberjacks,
They judged me by their appropriate tool.
Except as a fellow handled an ax
They had no way of knowing a fool.

Nothing on either side was said.
They knew they had but to stay their stay
And all their logic would fill my head:
As that I had no right to play
With what was another man’s work for gain.
My right might be love but theirs was need.
And where the two exist in twain
Theirs was the better right – agreed.

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain – and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right
I have been one acquainted with the night.

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