Reading Robert Frost, Waiting On Christmas

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Here in Washington DC, if you aren't standing in a Starbucks, you don't see much evidence of Christmas. There are three big, beautiful wreaths hanging from Union Station and some tastefully lit lampposts in Georgetown's shopping district, but otherwise it's pretty much the same old, same old.

I guess it's tough getting cheery in a city where you hear more about the Iowa Caucuses than you do the holidays and where the forecasted snow always seems to arrive as a cold rain. The Christmas Spirit? Just this week a scam artist cussed out a friend and me for knocking her baby down with a revolving door (we saw her pull a similar stunt earlier), and a drunk driver sideswiped my parked car. Merry Christmas from the nation's capitol!

You can see why I'm anxious to get out of here. I'll soon be heading to my parents' house for the holidays out in Weems, VA. Weems is an old oyster-fishing town near the Chesapeake Bay that's as small and quiet as it sounds. It's a good hour's drive from anything. I'm sure the houses there are decorated and the people are more cheery this time of year, and I'm not just idealizing. I can't wait to step out of the car and soak in the peace and the clean air. Every time I make the drive, I feel as Robert Frost once wrote, that "The city had withdrawn itself/ and left at last the country to the country."

Until then, all I have is Robert Frost, whom I've been reading again. I thought of him the other day walking home through a small park on the edge of the sea of law firms and gargantuan hotels where I work. The wind was whipping a line of tall trees, pulling down the last leaves, and I thought of one of the few poems I have memorized and what must be one of the best-known American poems of all time:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it's queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound's the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

It wasn't snowing and I didn't have a farmhouse or a woods, only a little sliver of city park. And I guess my banged-up Saturn would have to do for a horse (it does shake). But the poem resonated with that moment, pulling me out of autopilot, and I stood there letting nature soak in for a while, before, like Frost, I had to move on with my day. Stopping by Woods is a gem of a poem. Like so much of Frost's work, it's lulling and meditative, helping to slow down and center a city-dweller like me.

Critics have accused Frost of being a simplistic nature poet, and I can see how someone could read Stopping by Woods (wherein he rhymes "sleep" with, well, "sleep") and think Frost might lack complexity. But writing a poem that seems so easy can take tremendous skill, and there's often more depth to a Frost poem than you'd think. Case in point is his short poem, "For Once, Then Something."

Others taught me with having knelt at well-curbs

Always wrong to the light, so never seeing

Deeper down in the well than where the water

Gives me back in a shining surface picture

Me myself in the summer heaven godlike

Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,

I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,

Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,

Something more of the depths--and then I lost it.

Water came to rebuke the too clear water.

One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple

Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,

Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?

Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

This poem's content can be summed up simply as: "Once I thought I saw something deep, and then I lost it," but under the surface, the poem's form speak volumes. Frost set For Once> in the stress-based equivalent of an Ancient Greek poetic meter. Ancient Greek was a not a stressed or "inflected" language like English--it was characterized by long and short vowel sounds--but the auditory effect of Frost's line is pretty close.

Dah dum Dah dum dum Dah dum Dah dum Dah Dah

For Once sounds like The Iliad and The Odyssey did before the English translated the poems and reset them in iambic pentameter. The form is difficult to use (in English) at all, much less to disguise as expertly as Frost did, but Frost didn't trumpet his accomplishment. Quite the opposite. He called For Once, Then Something "one of the humblest poems I ever wrote." I like to read it as a challenge to his critics. Will they notice that "something" underneath the surface of his poem, or will they only see the surface--like his speaker--and miss the point?

I'll take it too, as a reminder to look harder. Even here, surrounded by concrete and politics, surely underneath the surface there is more Christmas going on.

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