Warming to Frost: Appreciating humor in a New England Winter

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

~ Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

*****

I have not always appreciated Robert Frost’s poetry. Maybe I find some of it too hard, or too cold, or too sad.  Like New England, my “discovered country,” where I have lived over half of my life after emigrating here from upstate New York, Frost’s poetry can leave me with a distinct sense of alienation. (Unless you have made that move, you cannot appreciate the sense of being an outsider, even from a state away.) 

But like New England, some of Frost’s poetry is delightful in a wise and funny way. Like Dust of Snow, New England surprises with a crow that simply will not allow us to take ourselves, or the rueful circumstances of our days, too seriously. Although this winter lacks any serious effort at snow, there have been many mornings in winters past in which a spit of snow has sneaked past my collar and down my neck.  Who needs caffeine when you have such a wake up? And who can get too worked up over the myriad inconveniences of life when the free gift of slush down the neck will do the trick?

This poem also endears itself to me for its resemblance (through my lens) to haiku. Over the past few years, I have immersed myself in haiku. I’ve written hundreds – maybe thousands, really­ – of micro-poems, and have read whatever I can get my hands on about the Japanese poets.  Except for the rhyme scheme, the first half of Dust of Snow makes me think of a haiku. It shares with many of the great haiku its sense of season and of a single moment in nature. Try looking at it with different line breaks, and see what I mean:

The way a crow shook
down on me the dust of snow
from a hemlock tree

The second half is a bit more like senryu, which is like haiku, but less about nature and seasons, more about the human experience (and usually laced with a good dose of humor).   Indeed, the human experience is full of moments such as these, when we need to be saved by a thoughtless crow from our own sense of rue. We need the cold dusting to remind of where we fit in the whole order of things.

Perhaps I am beginning to warm to Frost’s wit. Maybe I just miss the snow.

Reference

Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost’s Poems, Introduction and Commentary by Louis Untermeyer,(Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1985

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