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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.

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( 29 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)
Thank you
Kelly, Kelly, Kelly you are wonderous!!! You single-handedly and most completely saved Poetry Friday by your early posting of a comment on my blog. I've been stressed and crazed and completely forgot I ws hosting. Robert Frost is one of my favorites and this poem and your post is beautiful. Thank you!
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Thank you
Gina - I'm so glad you didn't forget the day, but terribly sorry to hear you've been stressed and crazed!!
Mar. 28th, 2008 10:47 am (UTC)
You and I were definitely thinking alike this Poetry Friday. I posted a snippet of "Reluctance" and blogged about my unwillingness to let go of those stretches of snow you mention here. I love that way that poem, and this one, connect landscape, season, and psychology.
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:52 pm (UTC)
Great minds thinking alike . . .
Mar. 28th, 2008 12:53 pm (UTC)
Miss Rumphius Says
Will you please come to Virginia and teach a poetry class? I'd be there with bells on!

This is just my way of saying I learn SO MUCH from your posts. Thanks for sharing!
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Miss Rumphius Says
I'm so glad you enjoyed it!!
Mar. 28th, 2008 02:09 pm (UTC)
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
Mar. 28th, 2008 02:49 pm (UTC)
Yes -- the desert space within is far more daunting. Wonderful poem. Thanks for sharing and ruminating on it!
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome. Now I'm off to see what others have posted about today.
Mar. 28th, 2008 02:52 pm (UTC)
Beautiful. Thanks, Kelly. (I miss the desert.)
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:57 pm (UTC)
It is an interesting sort of wilderness, and has its own sort of beauty about it. It is not, however, a quiet place, or at least not when you're at the house. The birds are tremendously loud for much of the day right now. I suppose it's a favorite season, and they're all arguing over who gets to live inside which saguaro (once the Gila woodpeckers have moved on).
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:59 pm (UTC)
I visited the Sonora Desert Museum a few years ago, and loved it. I hear it's changed a bit since then (they get different animals and plants and whatnot from time to time).

And yes, the universe must be telling you to pick up your Frost and read something. Or you can click the "frost" tab on my blog and get a handful of his poems, if that's easier. I know I've posted The Oven Bird, The Pasture, and Nothing Gold Can Stay (for sure).
Mar. 28th, 2008 04:43 pm (UTC)
thanks to posts like these....
...I like Robert Frost.
Mar. 28th, 2008 05:08 pm (UTC)
Re: thanks to posts like these....
I'm so glad. There's a lot to love in a lot of his poetry. He's been one of my favorites since high school.
Mar. 28th, 2008 06:56 pm (UTC)
I lived in NM for three years. Did not want to move there, but I fell in love with the desert after just a short while. Who knew it could be so gorgeous?

Frost can take the most expansive thought and nail it right down into the world, can't he? It's like he opens a window and simply says: look.
Mar. 29th, 2008 03:56 am (UTC)
I've always wanted to visit New Mexico. Some day.
Mar. 28th, 2008 10:12 pm (UTC)
poetry friday
We lived in Irvine, CA for 6 years, and I loved it. So hot and dry and weirdly lit. I could see where Dr Seuss got his inspiration from.

You know, I checked your blog last night right after I wrote mine, guessing that you would probably know who was hosting (since I never do), and I laughed out loud at the Frost! What a coincidence. I LOVE him. Just love him.

cheers / sheila
Mar. 29th, 2008 03:56 am (UTC)
Re: poetry friday
As to knowing who's hosting, the best place to check is Kelly Herrold's blog over at Big A little a - she has a full list of upcoming dates, which is where I get the host info from.
Mar. 28th, 2008 10:47 pm (UTC)
Wow, Kelly. That's a good one. After you finish the class down Tricia's way, will you take I-95 up to New England and teacher another?

There is indeed still plenty of snow in VT and NH; I saw it last weekend when we visited relatives.

Susan T.
Chicken Spaghetti
Mar. 29th, 2008 03:58 am (UTC)
I would so love to do seminars. Actually, I AM doing one in New England in two weeks. I'll be at the New England SCBWI conference in Nashua, NH on April 12th, doing a double session on writing form poetry.
Mar. 28th, 2008 11:12 pm (UTC)
I came here from Sara's found poem and picture of empty spaces between stars to your picture of the desert! OOH! Goosebumps! And you know that Frost shares a birthday with A.E. Houseman - my pick this week? MORE goosebumps!

This has always been one of my favorites by Frost...

Mary Lee

Mar. 29th, 2008 03:58 am (UTC)
I saw the double birthday listed on your blog, and (as you know) enjoyed your Housman pick.
Mar. 29th, 2008 02:20 am (UTC)
Okay, so I only saw the desert from the plane as I was leaving Las Vegas, but I couldn't take my eyes away from it. I stared out the window for twenty solid minutes. So different from the landscape that I'm used to that it could have been another planet.
Mar. 29th, 2008 03:59 am (UTC)
There is something very different about it, that's for sure. And it's soothing in a way, even though it's so wild and inhospitable.
Mar. 29th, 2008 10:33 am (UTC)
I love that last stanza. It's great how you've connected the desert with the snowy, empty landscape. Gives me a chill!
Mar. 29th, 2008 02:25 pm (UTC)
Re: cloudscome
Really, it was Frost who made a connection. Although I think he used "desert" more as a verb than as a noun, come to think of it.
Mar. 29th, 2008 08:18 pm (UTC)
I have never been a big Frost fan. I hope that doesn't disqualify me from ever becoming a citizen. However, this poem really spoke to me. The loneliness between the stars is indeed nothing compared to our own internal empty spaces, and they are all the more scary because we created them ourselves. I read an article today in the New York Times that scientists have created a chamber that smashes protons together. The fear is that they will create a black hole that could swallow the earth. This made me laugh. The last thing I worry about is a crazy scientist bringing my world to an end. I am more than capable of collapsing my own universe.
Mme T
Destined to Become a Classic
( 29 comments — Leave a comment )

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