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Why Poetry Still Matters

By David Shribman

Not everything of importance that happens in New Hampshire this autumn involves politics. Some of it involves poetry, and that's our story for this morning.

Just the other day a small group of people gathered on a pleasant farmstead in Derry, N.H., to witness a fairly unremarkable event in the history of a state where forestry is celebrated: the cutting down of a tree. But this was not just any tree, and the farmstead was not just any farmstead. The tree was a sugar maple, and its roots were set in the field down the drive and to the right of the white barn with the great green doors. The setting was the farm where Robert Frost once lived and wrote.

And all of those people -- why were they up there on Rockingham Road? Because the newspapers said that this very sugar maple, the one so shorn of limbs, so sick, so blighted with rot, so pockmarked with age, was the centerpiece of a well-loved Frost poem called "Tree at My Window," the poem that opens with the lovely first line: "Tree at my window, window tree."

The truth is that this maple, cut down well past its prime, very likely was not the window tree, the one that prompted Frost to write "let there never be a curtain drawn between you and me." It appears that it was curtains, all right, but curtains for the wrong tree.

"We have no reason to believe this tree itself has any specific importance," says Peter Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council and Frost's executor. "It's nice people hold Robert Frost in such esteem that they would be touched by this account, but I don't believe this is the right tree."

Now I'm going to tell you why none of the details really matter, why it isn't really important that, according to Frost interviewers, the poem likely was inspired by a white birch tree, not a sugar maple, and that it may have stood right outside the poet's bedroom, so close that its leaves (its "light tongues") could brush up against the house or even the window, instead of many yards away, down the drive from the barn.

The people who gathered at Derry for the fall of a tree in the first few days of the fall of the year may have been mistaken, but while they didn't know the small truth about the tree, they surely knew a big truth about trees and Frost, and why we revere them both in a suburban age with few poetic virtues.

First let's look at the poem. Frost says of the tree that "(n)ot all your light tongues talking aloud could be profound" and that he has "seen you taken and tossed," presumably by the wind. In this verse Frost seems to be saying that the sound that a tree makes as its branches are taken and tossed by the breeze sometimes is just wind, not wisdom. In this he seems more like Freud than Frost, suggesting that sometimes a breeze is just a breeze. And it's almost as if Frost is employing a pun, suggesting that what the tree is saying in its Dunsinane at Derry is sound and fury, signifying nothing.

But the death of the tree on the farm Frost so loved in Derry signifies more than nothing, even if it is not exactly the right tree. It tells us something profound, speaking to the power of Robert Frost and the power of nature, which is so important to Frost and ultimately to us all.

Frost himself once spoke of the importance of the Derry farm, purchased in 1900 for $1,700, to his work and to his identity. "I might say the core of all my writing was probably the five free years I had there on the farm down the road a mile or two from Derry Village toward Lawrence," he wrote. "The only thing we had was time and seclusion. I couldn't have figured on it in advance. I hadn't that kind of foresight. But it turned out right as a doctor's prescription."

Frost moved to Derry with 300 chickens. Eleven years later he sold the place and its 30 acres at a loss of $600. The state of New Hampshire bought the farmhouse and 12.6 acres surrounding it in 1965, adding another 35 acres four years later, then setting out to clean the property and, using photographic and architectural records, restore the farmhouse. Just last month the Senate passed an appropriations bill, pushed by GOP Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, that includes $300,000 for the Frost farm.

Though Derry may have been important to Frost, we can wonder whether any one tree there was important to him, or even to his poem. The tree at his window is rooted in the poem far more than it is at Derry.

"Getting involved in debates about a real tree takes our eye off the main thing -- the poem," Mark S. Richardson, a leading Frost scholar, said in an e-mail exchange. He argues that the poem is not really about a tree at all, "but about how one might better manage distress -- being 'all but lost.'"

So in the end, one tree cut down in New Hampshire and 16 lines of poetry that might even have been written more than a decade after Robert Frost moved from Derry raise a lot of small questions and answer a bigger one, about the vitality of Frost -- as concerned, as the poem says, with the inner weather of man as with the outer weather that affects the trees -- in the modern American imagination. The tree is gone, the poem remains, and Frost endures.


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