We can dwell on details and difficulties in class discussion; in these blog posts, I’ve found I should concentrate on (a) showing, telling, and defending what’s so great about the poem at hand; and (b) raising some questions that you might look at in your comments.
So, to #62, Robert Frost’s “Need of Being Versed in Country Things”. Robert Frost will appear several times in our Countdown. Partly this is because his poems fit my requirements so well: many are short, vivid, beautifully written, universally themed, and need no esoteric knowledge to understand.
“The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” does require us to know what a house and barn might look like, and what some common elements of American farmsteads are. But most of us have seen such farmsteads, even if only from the interstate. And it’s a safe bet that most of us can imagine a building that is abandoned, destroyed, or ruined.
The poem is one of great beauty, great simplicity, and great starkness. Its central question is one that Frost asks in a number of poems. One might call it the “meaning of life” question, except that it’s not reducible to such a simplistic paraphrase. Here, it’s a “meaning of country things” question. In the country things vanish and other things replace them.
Doesn’t that happen in the city too? Doesn’t it happen in civilization? Perhaps we try to do too much explaining, in civilization. Nature tears things down, and they vanish utterly. (Nature tears down natural things as well as artificial things.) When something is destroyed, something else grows in its place.
Is there a consciousness behind all this destruction and renewal? Or is consciousness, is tragedy, something imposed on nature by people who aren’t “versed in country things?”
The pre-eminent beauty of this poem, among many, for me, is the utter plainness of the language. That plainness comes out in the poem’s most abstract moment: “the sigh we sigh / From too much dwelling on what has been.” It comes out too in the concrete moments in the poem, where I don’t detect even the ghost of a metaphor: “the fence post carried a strand of wire.” There are huge philosophical ideas in the poem, but it doesn’t stop to philosophize. It just shows things, in the way that Archibald MacLeish demanded of poetry. For all the torment of consciousness, MacLeish might say, a pump handle and a fence post.