Nov. 8, 2011


by Aaron Kramer

Looking foolish next to the tree in a one o'clock rain:
umbrella aloft, the leash in my other hand—
I wanted my late-coming neighbor to understand
that dogs are worth the expense, inconvenience, and pain;

their tails are truthful, no coiled rebellion beneath
a loving look; they are quick to kiss you, and quick
to fetch for you, and —should you raise a stick
threateningly—they are quick to show their teeth;

and better still (but this I never revealed),
when you bring downfall home, the death of a hope,
their nonchalant manner does more for you than a drink;
and best of all, when triumph's to be unsealed,
such lack of respect they show for the envelope,
—your fingers halt, the brain cools, and you think.

"Dogs" by Aaron Kramer, from Wicked Times. © University of Illinois Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1894 that Robert Frost's first poem was published (books by this author). It was called "My Butterfly," and it was published in The Independent. But when it came out, Frost was not celebrating — he was depressed and lost in the Dismal Swamp, a 20-mile stretch of bog on the border between Virginia and North Carolina.

Frost was 20 years old, a handsome young man. He had unruly blond hair and intense eyes that were very blue. He was slender, but with broad shoulders, strong from working in a textile mill and on a farm. He was aware of his strength — a high school classmate said of Frost: "While Robert was always a perfect gentleman with the soul of a poet, he was also physically rugged. One day a fellow student made a statement concerning Robert which he knew was untrue. With a display of physical force Robert compelled the fellow student to retract his statement."

Two years earlier, Frost had embarked on a seemingly bright future. He graduated from his small high school in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at the top of his class. His graduation speech was praised in a local paper, which said that Frost "combined in a rare degree poetic thought, a fine range of imagination, and devotion to a high ideal." He won a scholarship to Dartmouth. His co-valedictorian was his high school sweetheart, Elinor White, who was going on to St. Lawrence University. The summer after graduation, they were engaged, and Frost had high hopes of his Dartmouth experience and life with Elinor.

But Frost did not like Dartmouth. He was bored by his classes, and distracted by the hazing that was such a constant part of freshman life. He left in November — although he told biographers it was by choice, he often stretched the truth about his own life, and many people think he was kicked out for participating in a prank. Either way, he went back home, where his intelligent and gentle mother, a schoolteacher, was struggling to keep her students under control. Frost took over some of his mother's classes, and with the aid of a paddle, quickly got the classroom back in order. He also worked at the sawmill, at a farm, and as a journalist, but none of these jobs lasted very long. The general consensus in Lawrence was that Frost had failed to live up to his potential.

Frost worried that Elinor was beginning to feel the same way. She was thoroughly enjoying college life, making lots of friends, and as far as Frost was concerned, spending far too much time with other young men. Frost wrote her a despairing poem, which began: "The day will come when you will cease to know, / The heart will cease to tell you; sadder yet, / Tho' you say o'er and o'er what once you knew, / You will forget, you will forget." He also referred to her in this poem as a "lost soul." Elinor was not pleased by the poem, and things became tense between them. He wanted to get married immediately, but she insisted on waiting until she had finished college, and suggested that she would be more enthusiastic about marriage if he would follow through on all his talk of becoming a poet and actually get something published.

Finally, Frost wrote "My Butterfly," and he was proud of it. He sent it off for publication, and in the meantime, in an attempt to impress Elinor, he had "My Butterfly" and four other poems made into a small book printed on handmade paper, bound in leather, with the title, Twilight, stamped in gold. He made two copies. He showed up unexpectedly at St. Lawrence University to deliver one to Elinor, but she did not take the surprise drop-in very well — she was not allowed to have male visitors to the room where she was boarding — and she sent him away. He tore up his own copy of Twilight on the way home.

Then he got a letter from Elinor that he interpreted to mean that she was ending their engagement. He was sure she was in love with someone else. Totally depressed, he sneaked out of his house and took a train to the most depressing place he could think of: the Dismal Swamp. Frost had read about the Dismal Swamp in poems by Thomas Moore and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who made use of its fitting name for their gloomy poems.

Frost took a train to Boston, another to New York, and a steamer to Norfolk, Virginia. From there, he headed straight into the heart of the swamp. It was dark, and Frost was afraid of the dark; and even in the light the swamp was treacherous — thick with vines and briar, it sheltered rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and quicksand. He walked 10 miles into the depths of the swamp, not caring whether he lived or died.

But at some point, he decided to live. He came upon a group of duck hunters, and they gave him a lift back to civilization. By the time he made it back to Lawrence three weeks later, "My Butterfly" had been published. He wrote a thank-you letter to Susan Hayes Ward, the literary editor at the Independent. He wrote: "Four weeks ago and until Friday last I was in Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, very liberally and without address, so that I have not been aware of my own doings as expressed in the phrase I 'published a poem.' That is the point of points: — I thank you tardily because I for my part have been out of time a little while, and thank you because you and not I published a poem, a work that certainly requires qualities I lack. And the poem does look well — don't you think it does?"

Cheered by the publication and by his newfound will to live, Frost continued to write. A year later, in December of 1895, Robert Frost and Elinor White were married.

It's the birthday of novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (books by this author), born in Nagasaki, Japan (1954). He grew up in suburban England, idolizing Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. He spent years trying to make it as a songwriter, but nothing ever panned out. Then he took a creative writing course and immediately got several stories published and a contract for his first novel, so he decided to become a writer instead.

After he published his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), about an old Japanese woman recollecting her youth in Nagasaki, a reporter came to interview him. Ishiguro remembers: "My wife said, 'Wouldn't it be funny if this person came in to ask you these serious, solemn questions about your novel and you pretended that you were my butler?' We thought this was a very amusing idea." And that idea inspired him to write The Remains of the Day (1989), narrated by an English butler, which won the Booker Prize. His other novels include When We Were Orphans (2000), a detective story set in China, and Never Let Me Go (2005), a science-fiction story of clones living in a boarding school in rural England.

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