The following is an excerpt from the much longer essay named in the title, “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher,” which in turn is part of a much longer work entitled Life Birds. This excerpt explains the genesis of the poem that follows and that ends “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher,” though that bird appears neither in the excerpt below nor in the poem.
. . . One knock against general truths, or principles, is that the freedom to pontificate about them is a perquisite of privilege, and that they do not apply to those who have been deprived of such freedom, who are the victims of persons of privilege. I once had a colleague respond to my written description of how I use Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in my Introduction to Literature class by sending a contemporary response to Frost, Thylias Moss’s poem entitled “Interpretation of a Poem by Frost,” saying that this is a poem that “deliberately . . . foregrounds the subject position of the writer [speaker] and the cultural moment being performed by the poem,” and that it therefore counters the “timeless instant outside of history” that Frost’s poem seems to present. In doing so, it also confronts the “questions of power and authority [that] are often so invisibly inscribed” in works such as Frost’s. The suggestion seems to be that Frost and his speaker invalidate and negate Moss and her speaker—their experience and their identity—by not taking them explicitly and particularly into account, by not taking notice of them.
In fact, though, Moss’s poem simply specifies, it seems to me. It does not itself invalidate and negate what Frost has to say about human experience in general; it gives a specific instance of it. Moss’s speaker fulfills the general human need described by Frost to stop the daily round of existence in order to contemplate that existence, to contemplate the world and our place in it. Her conclusions about possession go much further and are much more explicit than the wry, implicit ones of Frost’s speaker, because she is speaking from her “position” as an African, Native, and European American woman. However, that does not cancel out what Frost has to say; it augments and illustrates it.
Suppose we were to write a poem from the point of view of the woods, or even a specific tree in the woods. What would it say? Perhaps it would say, “This arrogant human attitude of ownership and possession, of conquest, particularly among the white-skinned males of your species, is a terribly negative, widely destructive, even suicidal way of asserting yourselves. You cannot merely make of me what you will—not with impunity, at least. I have being, too. You need to reckon the cost—to me, to others, and to yourself—of destroying me in order to use me to serve your own material needs. Right now, you are using me to serve your human need to contemplate the world and your place in it. That is not a material need, but it is a need just as important as any material need. I hope that it leads you to consider and value the needs of others, including trees, and to balance carefully those needs against the fulfillment of your own. Otherwise, you are going to destroy us all.” Of course, one would want somehow to say all of this poetically, and probably someone has, which brings up another example of limits: the limits of individual knowledge and experience. If someone has written this poem, I am not aware of it.
Inadvertently, my young colleague accused me of repeating the crime committed by Frost and his speaker by “curating” my Introduction to Literature class in such a way that the syllabus includes Frost’s poem and not also Moss’s (although he was clear that such “curation” should consist of both/and choices and not either/or ones). That is, my decision to teach Frost’s poem and not also teach Moss’s poem was an act of “cultural criticism” revealing my white male bias.
Of course, this reading of my decision ignores the complex context in which I said that I teach “Stopping by Woods”—the fact that I pair it with “The Road Not Taken” not so much to concentrate on its content or meaning, but rather to show how its meter is the same as that of “The Road Not Taken” except for the addition, in most lines of the latter, of a single unstressed syllable, a difference that makes all the difference and so specifically applies the general theme of that poem to the question of artistic form. These are the first two works that I teach in the course, as I make clear in the description to which my colleague was responding, and I am trying to establish the principle that, in literature (and in all art), form is expressive of content, or should be. “The way it says is what it says,” to quote John Ciardi again, as I always do. That principle does “not preclude introducing other issues intrinsic to literary studies” such as “situating the work of close reading within broader contexts,” something that I do later in the class. The question, really, is how much we can do in a single, one-semester, introductory course, a question that we have not yet settled in our department. My colleague’s point is that we may as well “foreground” such issues as cultural context and bias because they lurk anyway in everything we do or say—or do not do or say.
This business of the “curated” syllabus is finally a critical, pedagogical instance of the existential quandary I described earlier [in the full essay], a quandary described in the common parlance as “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” embodies and dramatizes that quandary—imaginatively enacts it, to use one of Robert Penn Warren’s definitions of literature—and it implies that every assertion is also a negation, that every positive entails a negative. I am not sure that the opposite is always true. Some negations are simply negations. It is not always possible to look on the bright side or see the silver lining of a thing, for some things have no bright side or silver lining. There are “ineluctable noes and losses” in the universe, as William James says in Pragmatism. . . .
However, as James also says, and as my colleague pointed out, we assert ourselves willy-nilly, even by doing nothing, and so it seems that the general imperative, for all of us, is to assert ourselves with the greatest possible degree of self-awareness, with the greatest possible attention to the consequences to others, to the environment, and to ourselves of our various assertions, and with a readiness to assert otherwise—or just stop—when we find ourselves, for whatever reason, acting in the wrong or doing harm. That is a very high order of vigilance to maintain, and we are going to fail. To quote Robert Penn Warren once again, we are, after all, only human. Thus, the humility that keeps us ready to assert ourselves differently—to change—should be accompanied by a readiness to forgive, as well—both others and ourselves. . . .
A tree can be a promise kept.
A life can be a distance schlepped.
A man can vanish quick as rime.
I saw him stop. He thought we slept.
He peeped the dark and deep sublime
As if such peeping were a crime,
Then jangled off to keep his fate
And left us here to leaf in time.
Our owner did not hesitate.
The entryway I decorate
Now leads to “Burnham Wood.”
Uneasy winds predominate.
To freeze us was the poet’s good:
To keep us as the Sacred Wood.
The others used us as they would.
They did not stop. They should, they should.
Mark Miller is Professor of English at MCLA.