Friday, September 7, 2007

A Considerable Speck by Robert Frost

A Considerable Speck

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt--
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn't want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.
-- Robert Frost

I chose this poem today for two reasons. First, as an example that a poem doesn't need to be about something big or significant to be worthwhile. I don't think you need convincing of that, but later in my post you'll see why I wanted a poem about something "insignificant."

The second reason is in the last two lines. I don't know if he meant to have a double meaning here, but I suspect he did. All too often people write or say things that look like there was no real thought behind them.

The rest of my post today is going to be from an article I found in The New Era archives at It's called, “How Does a Poem Mean?” by John Ciardi.
When I began teaching at the University of Kansas City in 1940, I spent a lot of time on the trains, going back and forth between Kansas City and Chicago. My salary just about kept the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe rolling. I would often find myself in the club car with the world’s traveling salesmen. They meet there. They would begin a ritual—a very tight ritual. It always seemed to have the same opening phrase. They would say, “What are you in?”

One man would say he was in glue, and they would talk about that for a while. Another man would say he was in brass doorknobs, and they would talk about brass doorknobs for a while.

Then they would turn to me and say, “What are you in?”

At first I used to invent things. I had a feeling that it would take too much explanation to tell a club car full of salesmen that I was a poet.

But one day, for the fun of it, when the question came to me, “What are you in?” I said, “I am a poet.”

I found that it took very little explanation. As a matter of fact, there was a long silence, in which people detached and regrouped. After a suitable interval, I went into the main body of the car and sat down. Soon a salesman slid into the seat next to mine and began talking in a low voice. He had something that he wanted to say to me that he could not say to other salesmen. This experience was repeated many times. Often the salesman would have a poem in his wallet. I think I have seen some of the world’s most miserable and most uninspired poems out of the wallets of salesmen.

Always they would make the terrifying mistake that all bad, over-enthusiastic poets make—the assumption that if the subject is large enough, it does not matter whether or not the poem is good. If you can just take the largest possible subject and begin the poem “Truth is … , “Beauty is … ,” “Life is … ,” you have got to end up beautiful. I am afraid such a poem is more likely to be a disaster. The size of the poem is not determined by the size of the subject. It is determined by the size of the mind that is trying to enclose it. The value of a science is not decided by the size of the subject it studies. Otherwise microbiologists would be insignificant people and only geologists would really count. They deal with mountains and whole continents.

I had a lovely exchange at the Saturday Review with, I guess, a sweet lady. I had rejected some of her poems. I have to reject a lot of them. I get about 500 a week, and I can only accept two. But she took my rejection personally, as many people do, and wrote me a hot letter. I had not remembered the poem, but she said, “I suppose you rejected my poem because it was about God.”

I had to reply. “Dear Madam: No, I did not reject your poem because it was about God. I rejected it because I could not conquer a feeling that you were not equal to your subject.”

I think it is likely to go that way often. The impulse of the poem is fine, but there is another life behind it. An oration is not a poem. A poem is some sort of a living performance. It comes out of live sources in us. And everyone has these live sources. But, for example, great human feeling will make nothing out of the cello until your fingering arm and your bowing arm have gone to school. I submit that it takes at least as much discipline to write a poem as it does to play the cello well. The feeling is there, yes, but the communication of the feeling is a skill—a way of doing. It starts with joy but involves difficulty. I think it does, in a way that was best stated by Robert Frost when he spoke of “the pleasure of taking pains.” That is the aesthetic joy.

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