Robert Frost is one of our greatest American minds — and the delivery method for sharing his genius was the poem. On November 17, 2005, I wrote — Humility in Adoration — for Urban Semiotic, where I described the moment Mark Van Doren introduced Robert Frost to adoring fans at Columbia University in the City of New York:
The lesson of Coriolanus was echoed decades later by the genius American poet Robert Frost in 1950 when he was accepting an award at Columbia University. Frost whispered to his good friend — and fellow genius — Columbia Faculty member Mark Van Doren, that he didn’t think he deserved the award he was getting, but he felt it would be rude to go against the will of the people who wanted to honor and admire him.
Van Doren smiled, agreed, and introduced the great poet to a Columbia crowd who provided a thunderous standing ovation for Robert Frost. Mark Van Doren used that private discussion with Robert Frost to explain Coriolanus’ downfall in human terms his Shakespeare literary students could understand. The learning we must curry from Coriolanus and Robert Frost and Mark Van Doren is how we must all willingly accept praise and compliments from others without questioning intent or assuming there is a hidden purpose behind the kindness.
Robert Frost was a poet — when being a True Poet meant something vital to a young nation — and one of my favorite poems he published in The American Mercury during May, 1936 is “The Strong are Saying Nothing” because it embodies the the will of what we used to be, and the want of what we still hope to be, in the simple, hardworking, wisdom of plowing the land without a hope and praying on the sun:
The soil now gets a rumpling soft and damp,
And no regard to the future of any weed.
The final flat of the hoe’s approval stamp
Is reserved for the bed of a few selected seed.
There is seldom more than a man to a harrowed piece.
Men work alone, their lots plowed far apart,
One stringing a chain of seed in an open crease,
And one still stumbling after a halting cart.
To the fresh and black of the squares of early mold
The leafless bloom of a plum is fresh and white;
Though there’s more than a doubt if the weather is not too cold
For the bees to come and serve its beauty aright.
Wind goes from man to man in wave on wave,
But carries no message of what is hoped to be.
There may be little or much beyond the grave,
But the strong are saying nothing until they see.
“The Strong are Saying Nothing” is an important American poem because it teaches us, from 1936, how to behave in 2012 and beyond. We work. We sow. We wait. We see.
Aren’t those quaint and curious notions today? We have political leaders who curse their opponents. We have people begging for handouts. We have assumptions passing as facts and stupidity posing as intellectualism.
I seriously wonder how many American high school students could read that Frost poem today and take away any meaningful understanding beyond just reading the words. Would they see the deep subtlety of the American historic work ethic poking them in the eye with a shovel? Would they comprehend the necessary condition of waiting and the purity of patience? Are they able to take away the lesson that bad always comes with good and that we are forever wisps on the wind with no intention other than hoping to, by chance and predilection, land on soil that hasn’t fallen fallow?