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Published: Mon Aug 6 2018
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Frost and Gilmore: Poets of Humanity

I’ve always liked Robert Frost as a poet of humanity but, until very recently, I didn’t understand how important his poems were to me. When I write poems I want to stand in that little horse’s shoes (“Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”) and feel an easy wind and downy flake and wonder why my owner has stopped in the woods. I want the surprise ending that emanates from “The Road Not Taken.” The one that made all the difference! Surely, if I can create these sensations, my reader will experience them, too?

This came to me as I made an early spring walk around The Point, a piece of land that juts out from my town into Long Island Sound. The pathway is edged by sea water on one side and forest growth on the other. Both absorb my attention. There are migratory birds checking in but, right now, the trees and shrubs on my right are bare. Where do the deer, usually hidden by summer foliage, go in winter? Why can’t I see them?

Robert Frost would be able to skilfully capture my questions and observations, but I must find another way, not a Frost way, but my own way. How could I pen something like these lines below, which bring my senses to a standstill? There is nothing complicated here, yet my heart almost stops in contemplation of their perfection.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost (1874–1963)

The mind wanders when one walks, sometimes creatively. There are many contemporaries of Frost whom I admire but I tried to think of women poets who also captured an identical humanity. Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson certainly delve into a well-spring of emotion in their individual ways but, because I was born in Australia, I recalled an Australian poet of the twentieth century, Mary Gilmore (1865-1962). Her insightful poetry addresses down-under life, landscape and history.

Gilmore was born nine years before Frost and they died within a year of each other yet I doubt they ever met. Without going into their respective experiences, suffice it to say they were both a product of rural life, of travel (he to U.K, she to Paraguay), and of the two world wars that consumed the literary mind of the twentieth century. Each of these familiarities gave them plenty of writing material and became the poetry tangle and mesh of their lives. Both wrote hundreds of poems, some more brilliant than others. Many are truly memorable. I rushed home to see what I could find. Would I hear Frost in Gilmore or vice versa?

It is a lovely thing to hear a bird,
And hear it through the leafy shadow of
The night! To seek a wing that goes unheard,
And trace its flight through some dim place above!
“The Mopoke”

Here’s a similar stanza:

The west was getting out of gold,
The breath of air had died of cold,
When shoeing home across the white,
I thought I saw a bird alight.
“Looking for a Sunset Bird in Winter”

Which poet wrote each stanza? The rhyme schemes for both are standard for poems of that era, and both poems describe the beauty of a particular landscape as a bird takes flight, using the senses to appreciate the act. In fact, there is very little to differentiate each writer. However, the Mopoke is an Australian bird, while Frost’s reference to snow in the third line of the second stanza gives away his northern location. One cannot distil the complete oeuvre of the two poets in these small examples but there is ample evidence in each body of work to show how similar they were in their writing styles and subjects.

In “The Soldier,” Robert Frost writes:

He is that fallen lance that lies as hurled
That lies unlifted now, come dew, come rust
But still lies pointed as it plowed the dust.

The poem goes on to say that, despite the man falling too soon in battle, the forward trajectory of his spirit is a far greater accomplishment.

Gilmore’s patriotism is equally moving:

And we swear by the dead who bore us,
By the heroes who blazed the trail,
No foe shall gather our harvest,
Or sit on our stockyard rail
“No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest”

Significantly, the two poets dovetail in their use of language itself—language that could be described as unsophisticated but which exhibits a superb mastery of technique. Both poets capture the core of human nature, while simultaneously exploring more obscure concerns. In “Devotion,” Robert Frost recognises the infinite relationship between shore and ocean, but also appears to question a life spent upholding a single idea

The heart can think of no devotion
Greater than being shore to ocean—
Holding the curve of one position
Counting and endless repetition

In her poem “Nationality,” Mary Gilmore recognises the value of the unity of mankind but, when it comes to sharing, her kin must come first.

All men at god’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

Both poets were members of literary groups: Frost of the Dymock group, which included Edward Thomas and Ezra Pound, and Gilmore of the Bulletin school, a radical literary group in Sydney. It is clear that the influence of other writers was a factor in their work. Frost’s mark was made early though his volume “North of Boston” published in 1914. He received four Pulitzer Prizes, and the Congressional Medal in 1960.

Gilmore’s rise to fame took longer although she published about the same amount of poetry as Frost. Her patriotic poems ensured her popular place in Australia’s history, and in 1937 she became the first Australian to be awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to literature.

Did they read each other’s work? I tend to think that Gilmore would have been aware of Frost’s poetry, especially through his early volumes published in the U.K., which would have been available in Sydney bookshops. Still, I can’t be certain of this. Did Frost read Gilmore’s work? Perhaps. As she became more famous down under, her work would have reached the eyes and ears of Frost’s literary circle. Even so, she was, and still is, largely unknown in the United States.

While there are a number of parallels in their poems in terms of topics and technique, Frost is undeniably American, Gilmore as equally Australian. Frost speaks of northern seasons: of trees, of birds of the East coast, of farms and stone walls. Gilmore’s work is peppered with indigenous words, with Australian native birds, with outback life and the seasons of the southern hemisphere.

But it’s the merging of their resemblances that stirred me to return to these poets and inspires me to write in a way that is unpretentious yet distinct from them. A paradox of a goal, I must admit. But a writer must write in his or her own way. The language of Frost and Gilmore has moved on, even the many things they were concerned about have changed, but it is not difficult to find examples of their practical language with regard to issues of importance.

In “Mending Wall,” Frost takes us on a journey with his neighbour as they walk each side of their wall, replacing fallen stones as needed. Frost’s speaker speculates as to why they need to do this—

My apple tree will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says “Good fences make good neighbors.”

As the poem progresses, we learn that the neighbor inherited this phrase from his own father and the time spent rebuilding parts of the wall, while not truly necessary to the well-being of the farm, is what binds each man to the other and, consequentially, each following generation to his neighbor.

The desire to be a good friend is also the theme of Gilmore’s much shorter poem, “The Wish,” in which the poet asks not for “wealth, nor length of days, nor pride, nor power, nor worldly praise”—

But just a little quiet place
Where a friend may come
Laying his hand on the door
As though it were home.

Both poems demonstrate very simply how friendship is reinforced, Frost with his refrain of “Good fences make good neighbors” and Gilmore with her quiet welcome to a friend “as though it were home.”

Those deer in winter. I’ve been told they’re hidden in forest depths. They’re conserving their energy, waiting for Spring; waiting for me to reflect on how best to describe not theirs but any quandary. Putting the finger on the keyboard is only one step. Reading Gilmore and Frost can ensure that we don’t lose what we already have—a way of engaging with the world using language that is both unaffected and lasting.

Judy Rowley hears with hearing aids assisted by lip-reading. “Light” is the fifth essay of a memoir series. She lives in Connecticut, USA, but often visits Sydney, where she was born. (updated 5/2014)

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