The Figure a Poem Makes

20 11 2008

In this post, I tried to explain – ineloquently – my “vision” for this site (I’ll use the word “site” to include both the blog part and the digital history (DH) part, though some might argue that the blog is DH too, and I guess it is, but by “DH part” I mean the Bull Run Resources).  This time, instead of using philosophy as a way to differentiate between DH and what I’ll call TNH (Traditional Narrative History), let me try poetry.  Prose, poetry, neither better than the other, like oysters and clams (as Crassus explained to Antoninus in that scene deleted from Spartacus).  But just as I’m not a philosopher, neither am I a poet.  So I’ll let a poet do the talking.

Robert Frost wrote the following in 1939 as an introduction to a collection of his poems (see here):

robert-frostAbstraction is an old story with the philosophers, but it has been like a new toy in the hands of the artists of our day. Why can’t we have any one quality of poetry we choose by itself? We can have in thought. Then it will go hard if we can’t in practice. Our lives for it.

Granted no one but a humanist much cares how sound a poem is if it is only a sound. The sound is the gold in the ore. Then we will have the sound out alone and dispense with the inessential. We do till we make the discovery that the object in writing poetry is to make all poems sound as different as possible from each other, and the resources for that of vowels, consonants, punctuation, syntax, words, sentences, metre are not enough. We need the help of context – meaning – subject matter. That is the greatest help towards variety. All that can be done with words is soon told. So also with metres – particularly in our language where there are virtually but two, strict iambic and loose iambic. The ancients with many were still poor if they depended on metres for all tune. It is painful to watch our sprung-rhythmists straining at the point of omitting one short from a foot for relief from monotony. The possibilities for tune from the dramatic tones of meaning struck across the rigidity of a limited metre are endless. And we are back in poetry as merely one more art of having something to say, sound or unsound. Probably better if sound, because deeper and from wider experience.

Then there is this wildness whereof it is spoken. Granted again that it has an equal claim with sound to being a poem’s better half. If it is a wild tune, it is a Poem. Our problem then is, as modern abstractionists, to have the wildness pure; to be wild with nothing to be wild about. We bring up as aberrationists, giving way to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper. Theme alone can steady us down. Just as the first mystery was how a poem could have a tune in such a straightness as metre, so the second mystery is how a poem can have wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled.

It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood – and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad – the happy-sad blend of the drinking song.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may Want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere. The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight. We enjoy the straight crookedness of a good walking stick. Modern instruments of precision are being used to make things crooked as if by eye and hand in the old days.

I tell how there may be a better wildness of logic than of inconsequence. But the logic is backward, in retrospect, after the act. It must be more felt than seen ahead like prophecy. It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader. For it to be that there must have been the greatest freedom of the material to move about in it and to establish relations in it regardless of time and space, previous relation, and everything but affinity. We prate of freedom. We call our schools free because we are not free to stay away from them till we are sixteen years of age. I have given up my democratic prejudices and now willingly set the lower classes free to be completely taken care of by the upper classes. Political freedom is nothing to me. I bestow it right and left. All I would keep for myself is the freedom of my material – the condition of body and mind now and then to summons aptly from the vast chaos of all I have lived through.

Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields. No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of wit and art. A schoolboy may be defined as one who can tell you what he knows in the order in which he learned it. The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic. More than once I should have lost my soul to radicalism if it had been the originality it was mistaken for by its young converts. Originality and initiative are what I ask for my country. For myself the originality need be no more than the freshness of a poem run in the way I have described: from delight to wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

Yeah – for me history, like life, is more like poetry than prose.  More like art than science.  I guess that’s why I bridle at anything more than very general boundaries for it.  And why I’m so excited about the possibilities for the presentation of history on the web.

Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout a new way of walkin’.  Do ya wanna lose your mind? Walk right in, sit right down.  Daddy let your mind roll on.

What do you think?

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8 responses

21 11 2008

Despite many years in the halls of the academy, for some reason I keep getting tangled in Frost’s words. So… you had me at “I’m so excited about the possibilities for the presentation of history on the web.”

In the end (and please pardon me if I’m repeating myself), I think in terms of the Web more from the perspective of a hypertext theorist than I do as an historian. I mean, I can’t supress the historian within, but I approach the Web as an historian who is very conscious of the fact that the environment of the Web is more dynamic than the traditional mediums. I think historians have been, and in many cases continue to be, trained to present for the traditional mediums (books and articles… ink on paper). It’s sort of like that Cadillac commercial, but… “when you turn history on, does it turn you on?” Because we are becoming creatures of technology, maybe there needs to be an across the board shift in the way we deliver history (focusing more on user needs and expectations).

21 11 2008
“When you turn history on… does it return the favor?” « Cenantua’s Blog

[…] all this chatter about digital history! What’s it all about? Harry has put up an interesting post focusing on a piece written by Robert Frost. He uses it to help explain his interest in the […]

21 11 2008
Harry Smeltzer


See my comment to your post in the above pingback.

I’m glad you left a note…I was beginning to think of this post as a lead balloon.

21 11 2008
Robert Moore

Nah, it just took me a couple of times to read what Frost was saying, so I slept on it and “found” what I wanted to say in response.

24 11 2008
Eric Wittenberg


I think that what you guys are trying to do is is both worthwhile and admirable.

In my case, I like my blog the way it is and am not inclined the change it in any substantive fashion. At the risk of sounding mercenary about this, I have a ton of money invested in nearly twenty years of research, and I am not inclined to just give it away.

If that means that I run counter to the trend, I can live with that.


24 11 2008

Eric, Harry, et al,

As I mentioned in response to Eric’s comments on my blog, I think that Eric’s concerns are probably more universally felt among historians. In the end, we love what we do, but in doing what we love, we invest a lot of time and money. Therefore, we hope that we, at least, break even by producing a work that generates revenue for our pockets (a return for our time and monetary investments).

Historical practice on the Web can be conducted in a number of ways. I think that there is something great to come from dynamic digital history, but it takes investment with little to no gain before we can hope for great gain. That said, it might not even be that some who invest so much want some great financial gain, but rather, want to be a part of some incredible shift in the way history is delivered to students or the general public. This is certainly a topic that merits lengthy discussion. – Robert

24 11 2008
Harry Smeltzer

Eric and Robert,

I don’t think anyone is suggesting that bloggers “change” anything. In fact, if anything I am arguing the opposite. Blogs should be what their owners want them to be. But it’s also valuable to discuss options, and for the “infomation compilation” bloggers out there, we can start with navigation and user friendliness – indexing, “paging” (nice word, hunh) and the like.

I fall into the “give it away for free” camp, I think. Not because I don’t have a lot of time and money invested (I do), and not because I can afford it (I can’t), but because I really enjoy sharing what I’m learning, and because I’m excited about presenting things in a new way. And, I can’t figure any way to participate in and experiment with these new delivery systems AND make money at it. I have to admit I enjoy the few paying gigs I get from the hobby and wish I had more. I don’t, but I’m not gonna let that stop me. And I accept the fact that I’m gonna be ripped off – in fact, I already have been.

I also recognize that the few money-making opportunities in ACW writing and speaking that have come my way are the result of this site, so maybe it can work out to be a win/win. I can dream, can’t I?

I think too what we do here can impact the traditional history delivery systems, that is, books. There’s no reason non-fiction writing has to suck, though many Civil War authors seem to labor under this assumption. Why can I fly through Cormac McArthy and James Elroy, or non-fiction works like Young Men and Fire or Devil in the White City, but I approach 75% of the CW books I read with dread, and am happy when I can get through more than 50 pages in a day? The very best writer in the ACW field today also happens to be one of the worst when it comes to “history”. Does it have to be that way? Can’t we get both good history AND good, compelling writing?

24 11 2008
Robert Moore


That’s the point… the fun in this is being on the crest of the wave of something really cool and maybe something that might lead to a paradigm shift in the way that history is delivered. I’ve done the books and articles thing, though not at what might be defined as the “academic level.” It’s ok, but after learning what I have about the Web, I just see a lot more potential in this environment, and perhaps a way to create things that tap into a larger audience (including the people who think that history is just remembering dates and names).

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