Robert Frost liked to invoke his own name, at least from a distance: he loved to write about winter and spring, with their snow, frost, thaw, and refreezing. “Desert Places” is probably his frostiest poem. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” despite the overtones of suicide, there’s at least a pony. In “Desert Places” we are left “with no expression, nothing to express.”
I’d like to digress for a moment to praise a small verbal detail that “Desert Places” shares with many other poems in the Countdown. At several junctures in “Desert Places,” Frost repeats a word, or most of a word, that he’s just used. “Snow falling and night falling.” “Lonely as it is that loneliness.” “No expression, nothing to express.” “Between stars – on stars.”
Think of others we’ve recently looked at. In “They Feed They Lion,” lines like “pounded stumps, out of stumps.” In “Inniskeen Road,” the sequence “being king . . . a mile of kingdom, I am king.” Or in “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum,” the phrase “Awarding the world its world.”
I am not talking here about the thematic repetition of a key word at several points across a poem, which is inevitable in any kind of focussed writing. Rather, the device I’m pointing to is an immediate repetition of the same word, usually a pretty common word for which there are a lot of synonyms.
In prose writing, this might be a flaw. A teacher might tell a composition student to hit the thesaurus and find some synonyms to use for the purpose of variation. Or maybe it doesn’t even get that fancy: prose writers sometimes avoid repeating the same word just because they don’t want to bore their audiences or sound like their vocabulary is tiny.
As often, poetry breaks the rules. I am struck by how great poems, so often, find that the exact right word is the word that’s just served as the exact right word: and that using it over again makes the language stronger, not weaker.