Friday, May 19, 2017

Poem Modeling on Frost's "Dust of Snow"

It's hot enough outside this week that we've begun running the downstairs air conditioner. The only one installed upstairs is in the hallway, and we can't use it yet because sparrows built their nest ticked up right next to it and are still busy raising the family. We still need to get a couple of other small ACs into the bedrooms. In the meantime, we've flung open all the windows and have fans roaring and circulating air throughout the warmer upstairs spaces.

I'm talking about hot weather...but writing about a wintry poem. Why? Well, for one thing, because I love poems that deal with seasonal imagery whether they are "in season" or not, especially when they are as good as this one. For another, because the sweet girl (i.e. Jedi Teen, i.e. Sergeant Pepper, her newest name for herself) and I have grabbed a couple of days here near the end of the school year to read some poetry together. I wanted us to spend some time with Robert Frost and Langston Hughes, both poets I love and poets that well represent the modern history era (mostly 20th century) that she's been studying all year.

We started with "Dust of Snow," partly because it's short, and partly because it was the first Frost poem we came across in Classical Academic Press' The Art of Poetry, a good homeschooling resource I picked up on major sale a few months ago.

If you don't know this perfect postage stamp of a poem, I'll give it to you here in its entirety:



The way a crow
shook down on me
the dust of snow
from a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
a change of mood
and saved a part
of a day I had rued.

(~Robert Frost) 

I find something really remarkable in a one sentence poem that can paint such a vivid picture in your mind and do it so musically at the same time. Frost here primarily paints with iambic dimeter, but he slips in a few anapests to keep things interesting. 

What fascinates me too is how he manages to keep that simple rhyme while utilizing such an amazing opposition of colors: "crow" and "snow" give us about the purest "black" and "white" images you can imagine, while maintaining the rhyme. It is really hard to snitch this idea from Frost while trying to model off the poem. If you want to keep to his metrics, you need one syllable words, and it's very hard to come up with two one syllable rhyming words that manage to strongly evoke singular opposing colors. 

Try it. I tried to think of other things that were definitely black and white, but it's difficult to come up with a perfect one syllable rhyming pair like this one. Then I tried to come up with other words that represented other colors, but again it's hard to do because so many simple words, like sky or cloud, for instance, may evoke a definite color (blue or white) but really the sky can shift colors dramatically, and clouds can easily be gray (or gold or pink if they have morning or evening light filtering through). I considered "rose" -- because we do think of red roses first, don't we? And then was trying to come up with something definitively green to go opposite it, but there are so many hundreds of hues for roses really. Daffodil gives your mind yellow, nothing but yellow, but it is composed of three syllables, which makes things extra complicated.

Anyway, here's what I ended up with. 


The way the noon
winked bright at me
with daytime moon
by the apple tree

Has made me smile
at orb-like art
that spanned the mile
between head and the heart.

(~EMP, 5/19/17)

I did model off the Frost poem as much as I could, but I made a couple of twists. I played with "noon" and "moon," because I was going for two single syllable words that evoked, in this case (or so I hoped) gold and silver. I know the color association isn't as direct as Frost's crow and snow, but it did keep the poem in the realm of nature, and I liked the fact that even if the color association wasn't as direct, the two words definitely both evoked light. Then when I got to the line about a tree -- I had decided I wanted to stick with "me" and "tree" but change the tree type -- I decided to go for apple tree, because I was picturing someone who was suddenly struck by the beauty of roundness or circularity in nature....someone who is noticing the sun overhead, a nearly full moon in the daytime sky (and yes, I borrowed "daytime moon" from poet Dorothy Aldis) and then the firm roundness of a ripe apple on a branch. 

That threefold circularity makes the poet smile, because the "orb-like art" looks fascinating, but something strikes the poet on a deeper level than just the connection her mind makes about the shape of the three things. It strikes the poet on a heart level. I wanted to get heart in there somewhere in another nod to the Frost poem, though I did not succeed in showing the marvelous "change of mood" that Frost gets across. I would like to try another modeling poem off this one to see if I could capture more of that epiphany moment, that moving from sadness to comic gladness that Frost captures so well in the moment when the bird takes flight and the snow falls on the poet unexpectedly. I think Frost gets across movement in both spheres: the outside, natural world, and the quiet, interior world -- and I really don't get that across nearly as well. There's not really any movement in the poem in the natural outside part -- it's all just a combination of things that the poet sees that brings her unexpected pleasure.

I also messed up and left out the extra foot that Frost slips in during the turning line in the new stanza. He says "Has given to me" (iambic followed by anapest? I think...unstress, stress, stress, stress, unstress). Five syllables. I miss the opportunity to do anything unusual here and simply have another line of iambic dimeter: "Has made me smile." Unstress, stress, repeat. Four syllables. The only way I think I could change that is if I came up with another verb besides "made." Stealing Frost's "given" won't work, because he uses it with heart as an indirect object. I suppose I could go for two separate syllables (instead of a two syllable word like "given"). I could try "Has turned on my smile" (remember the next line..."at orb-like arft" -- it's the conjunction of three beautifully circular things all at once that makes the poet light up with a smile. Hmm...I like that...the idea that the poet is lighting up, in reflection of the fact that two of the three circular things she has seen are lights? And "turned on" gives you a sense of a light coming on, as though God has thrown the joy switch in the poet's mind which is connected (or wired?) to her heart. Although "spanned the mile" doesn't necessarily give you that sense of an electric connection. Anyway, I think I will make that little revision.


The way the noon
winked bright at me
with daytime moon
by the apple tree

Has turned on my smile
at orb-like art
that spanned the mile
between head and the heart.

(~EMP, 5/19/17)

Thanks for listening to these writing rambles!