Tag Archives: Robert Frost

Stanley Kunitz: The Testing-Tree

Magic LanternI haven’t dreamed in months. My brain is numb with thinking, burned-out, gutted. I wake each morning to only the hoary, fragmented recollection of the pages I was reading before I fell into sleep, adrift in the glow of the kitchen light. I know that dreams had flickered and doused like lights in an electric storm, but they are impossibly distant (magic) lanterns and the mind’s nights are uneventful. So I have turned again to my dreamer, Stanley Kunitz.


Kunitz makes it into every important anthology and yet I’ve never heard his name murmured by graduates of verse in any 
New York City dive. Kunitz died in 2006 at the age of 100 and he racked up every important literary award and position along Kunitz1the way. His honors include the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the State Poet of New York, the Pulitzer Prize, and the United States Poet Laureate. But no one seems to be writing or talking about this contemporary of Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens etc. whose wide-reaching influence includes Theodore Roethke, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and so forth and so on until the early 21st century.

Kunitz’s ‘The Testing-Tree’ is one of his most visionary poems. In it, he progresses from a reflection on his childhood to, as he states, a recurring dream. In future, I will likely provide some entryways into the poem . But for now, I think it should only be read and read again. All I will say is listen to the voice. This is a voice that has lived. A voice that has loved and hurt, hurt and plunged, plunged and risen. It is an authoritative and chilling voice; a human voice whose heart ‘breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.’ His is a voice that has dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.

Here’s the poem:

The Testing-Tree

1

On my way home from school
   up tribal Providence Hill
      past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
   I scuffed in the drainage ditch
      among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
   rolled out of glacial time
      into my pitcher's hand;
then sprinted lickety-
   split on my magic Keds
      from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
   with my flying skin
      as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
   over that stretch of road,
      with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
   that on the given course
      I was the world's fastest human.


2

Around the bend
   that tried to loop me home
      dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
   riddled with rabbit-life
      where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
   and a stringy old lilac
      more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
   remembered a door in the 
      long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
   brushing the stickseed off,
      wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel's hair,
   spotting the print of the deer
      and the red fox's scats.
Once I owned the key
   to an umbrageous trail
      thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
   gave me right of passage
      as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
   soundlessly heel-and-toe
      practicing my Indian walk.


3

Past the abandoned quarry
   where the pale sun bobbed
      in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
   where the ferns gave foothold,
      I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
   with the stones in my pocket
      changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
   to the slightest leaf-stir.
      I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
   at fifty measured paces,
      of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
   Jehovah of acorns,
      watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip's War
   in its annulated core
      under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
    I have only three throws
       bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
   while the air flowed saffron,
      I played my game for keeps--
for love, for poetry,
   and for eternal life--
      after the trials of summer.

4

In the recurring dream
   my mother stands
      in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
   with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
      Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
   she is wearing an owl's face
      and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
   I pass through the cardboard doorway
      askew in the field
and peer down a well
   where an albino walrus huffs.
      He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
   staining the water yellow,
      why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
   That single Model A
      sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
   where the tanks maneuver,
      revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!
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Robert Frost: Spring Pools

Robert Frost, American poet

Not uncommon to the northeast, our weather has been rather erratic this year. A week or so ago I walked through the park in a long-sleeve and today I’ve become something of a frigophobic. In any event, sustained warmth is approaching; and because of this there is a widespread air of relief among those that are out-of-doors, a latent optimism ready to spring. This type of optimism is not such a positive thing. It is, rather unfortunately, a form of the modern American condition: in winter, we whimper for warmth, come spring and summer, we grumble under the sun. Doubtless, we lack presence; or perhaps we’re a lot of malcontents. The former is more poetic. As I thought about this, Robert Frost’s ironic and incongruent nature struck me, particularly in his poem ‘Spring Pools’ (1928).

‘Spring Pools’ is the first poem in Frost’s 1928 collection titled West-Running Brook. The male speaker in the title poem ‘West-Running Brook,’ comes to take on a rather pragmatic reading of the brook and nature in general. It is difficult to isolate a single excerpt from the poem without desiring to quote the poem’s entirety but here is the ‘gist’ of the poem:

‘Speaking of contraries, see how the brook
In that white wave runs counter to itself
It is from that water we were from
Long, long before we were from any creature.
Here we, in our impatience of the steps,
Get back to the beginning of beginnings,
The stream of everything that runs away.
Some say existence like a Pirouot
And Pirouette, forever in one place,
Stands still and dances, but it runs away;
It seriously, sadly, runs away
To fill the abyss’s void with emptiness.
It flows beside us in the water brook,
But it flows over us. It flows between us
To separate us for a panic moment.
………………………………………………………..
Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current of the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us.’                                  
                                -Lines 38-73

Reflection_2Emerson, a very important philosopher for Frost, writes in his essay ‘Nature’ (1836), ‘Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?’ Both ‘West-Running Brook’ and ‘Spring Pools’ are about the Emersonian flux, but they are dealt with entirely differently. More important than this common motif, is the Emersonian desire for presence. In ‘The Over-Soul’ (1841) (an essay that also discusses the omniscient flow of nature, as in the excerpt above) Emerson writes, ‘Do not require a description of the countries towards which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and to-morrow you arrive there, and know them by inhabiting them.’ He means don’t strive to look into the future because we ‘will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the universe is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life, and be content with all places…’ ‘West-Running Brook’ is about (among other things) accepting Time and Nature. ‘Spring Pools’, again the first poem of the collection, wishes to deny the course with (what I think is a sad) hubris.

The difference between the flow of the brook in ‘West-Running Brook’ and the trees in ‘Spring Pools’ is one of power dynamics. For Frost, the trees are tyrants, siphoning water and beauty from the smaller plants and the reflective pools through their xylem in order to secure their own splendor. The trees’ foliage garnered through this violent extraction would then ‘blot out’ the forest floor from the sun, killing more plants. Frost deems the trees malevolent (‘pent-up buds’ is, I think, a sinister language) and disregards the pragmatism in ‘West-Running Brook’—that Nature and Time ‘seriously, sadly, runs away’— preferring that the moment be sustained. He desires a presence akin to Emerson’s but without the consequence of death. He asserts this desire with phlegmatic hubris: ‘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’ but the final line is stated with such a downhearted tone (note the word ‘only’) that we feel for the hubristic old man striving to stop the currents of time as we might feel for Milton’s Satan: ‘From snow that melted only yesterday.’

Throughout West-Running Brook nature becomes ‘dark,’ a sinister but necessary thing. In ‘Spring Pools,’ I believe Frost is cynically portraying a reversal of the American mind that will become corrected throughout the collection, reaching its culmination in ‘West-Running Brook,’ which asserts an understanding of flux. We must accept the way things are despite our own stubborn desires for something different. We must be the wave we are and learn to ‘run counter’ to ourselves. It will be winter for some time, but spring is soon to come.

Here’s the poem. Listen to the poem (read by Ted Hughes) by clicking the link below.

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.

Ted Hughes reading ‘Spring Pools’