I first read Robert Frost in Elementary school, in a creative writing class that focused on poetry. We read his “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Then in Middle school, while reading The Outsiders I was introduced to “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Somewhere along the road, I was introduced to the well known “The Road Not Taken.” My boyfriend likes to recite “Fire and Ice” to me whenever Frost comes up in conversation (which is more likely than you would think, but put two English majors together, and what do you expect?). I mention all of this because I’ve practically grown up learning to read Frost. And yet even when I think I know something about a poet, I realize I still have a lot to learn.
I was not prepared for the dark side of Frost, the side my teachers all seemed to keep tucked gently away in a corner where no one would ever discover him. During one of my readings of “The Witch of Coos” I had to physically put down my poetry book and stop reading simply because I was so terrified. This week, I’ll be taking a look at this poem and a poem by North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti: “The City Jail.”
Both of these poems make use of a speaker on the receiving end of some sort of supernatural tale. Frost has a visitor listening to a mother and son recount the tale of an ambulatory skeleton. Bathanti’s speaker is a young boy learning simple moralism through the reference to the shape in the window of the city jail. Both Frost and Bathanti reject simple moral lessons, though. Instead Frost paints a chilling picture of a potentially mad woman haunted by the past. Bathanti likewise rejects the idea of the family myth of the man in the window and instead creates for the speaker a rarity in which morals are not simple, but necessary to avoid the terrifying fate of the specter that haunts him even into adulthood.
Neither poem leaves the reader feeling safe or at ease by the end. Frost leaves the reader wondering if any of the events with the skeleton actually happened, and wondering at the character of the Mother. Bathanti leaves the reader without ever addressing the issue that the speaker actually does see the man in the window, a make believe character of the speaker’s parents invention.
I still love Frost. “Birches” is one of my favorite poems. But now that I know that Frost is much more than my teachers ever let on, I think I love him all the more.