/ 22 August 2019

Week of the Festival: Days of Poetry and Wine, Ptuj, Slovenia

Have Our Favourite Poems Already Been Written?

On Frost's My November Guest

He is in love with being misunderstood



I don't believe in the idea of the ultimate poem, in some kind of an archetype serving as a blueprint of poetic skill. The same applies to all choices of the same tone, the favourite, the prettiest, the strongest… It is not only that I don't believe in the power of my own judgment, which would lead me to decisions of this kind. I don't even think that there ever was a reader of poetry who, throughout his life, could provide one definite answer to this question. Only those who were briefly brushed by poetry in school and have kept one poem as such a fond memory that they stick to it for the rest of their lives can offer such an answer promptly. Or maybe, with their decidedness, they are merely disguising their incompetence in the field, where they act so knowingly, even though it seems that, for a while now, poetry hasn’t been a part of the valued general education or something worth knowing to impress people with.

In my literary life, several favourite poets lined up and, here and there, one could even find a poem which spoke to me particularly during a specific life period. And hereby I already return to the set: The best representative of a kind can be chosen only on the basis of a unified methodology which, with life not being a straight line, but full of turbulence, peaceful passages and quick leaps, is an unattainable ideal. One could assume that something similar drove a prominent Slovene authoress to the conclusion that choosing the best poem is even harder than selecting the winner of a Miss Universe competition. A seemingly foolish judgment that is albeit serious and pertinent, at least in its crucial part: It openly confesses a fundamental helplessness accompanying all of those human choices that we make on the premise of feelings

As it often happens, even in the formation of my literary taste, a tendency towards invention and mild destruction surpassed construction and a tendency towards changing the world surpassed a tendency to understand. If I limit myself to only three points, composing a rather sharp curve, I would put André Breton on the first stop of my path. As an ideologue of surrealism, Breton had the most substantial impact on me during my high school and college years, not so much with his poetry, but mostly with his comprehension of poetical processes. He was followed by Luis Aragon, who was evidently well aware of the limits of the literary movement and distanced himself from it with his love prose, Poems for Elsa. He especially quite effectively played with the weight of truth, as something too powerful for bare expression, attainable to us only as a footnote, an attempt to give meaning to actual events 

Since there is not much sense, only a lot of trouble, an act of writing is no act of creation, merely of humble understanding. So, it is not a coincidence that, after many short stops, I found a time when I monitored poetry more intensely as a critic. I’ve lately paused most often with Robert Frost, the poet who gave an impression that he cares more about truth than poetry. As with every coincidence, this also carries a layer of irony. Frost was, namely, the one who claimed that poetry is that which gets lost in translation. Considering that my knowledge of French is quite limited, I discovered both of his aforementioned predecessors through translations. Maybe that is why I decided to choose from his oeuvre a poem which is not, as far as I know, as yet translated into Slovene. Then maybe, again, it also touched me because, while unravelling it’s meaning, I didn't indulge in the comfort of my mother tongue.

‘My November Guest’is not one of the poet`s ontological poems, so my act of choosing it makes it no less personal and confessional than it was for the poet to write it. ‘However, it is in some other world, I know that this is way in ours’, are the closing verses of Frost's poem ‘In Hardwood Groves’ which, without any hesitation, I could elevate as a motto that I used to approach the poet and to stay with him for a relatively long time. The brushing up against essential existential dilemmas in the most basic situations, such as choosing between splitting paths in the forest, brought the poet's geography closer to his biography, despite the absence of more direct references, because we can feel the quest for credibility behind the verse. A thorough knowledge of the man who the author presents in several of his poems, and a refined sense of his life pulse are, for me as a reader, author and, above all, a human the most persuasive arguments that, for great art, it is not vital to get to know many places, people and things, but much more important to familiarise yourself carefully with the ones we choose to write about, even if it is only five village houses and just as many of their quirky inhabitants. It was precisely this conscious restriction that caused the young Ezra Pound to pass a cynical remark, among all the praise he had given Frost that, after reading his poems, he now knows agriculture better. 

Although Frost appears to be, perhaps, a simple poet, no acrobat in language, no inflated cosmopolitan who likes to reveal exotic sciences and locations, but instead clings stubbornly to the unsentimental images of everyday life in a mostly rural environment, this is merely a fleeting impression, through which his writing was made accessible to a broader audience and, ultimately, it brought him to the court of the US president, John F. Kennedy. It is most difficult for writers to find a good balance between biographical and objective, especially when they`re approaching universal topics. Writing that relies too heavily on biographical experience might appear peripheral and unrelatable, while completely avoiding any personal reference that might be perceived as hermetic and abstract. It is not unusual, therefore, that Frost furnished the selected poem with an annotation, which I have highlighted in the motto that opens the present text: If the poet is, in fact, simple in any way, that is certainly not due to the unambiguous message of his poems. 

That this is indeed true is evidenced by the fact that, despite the seemingly clear message of the poem, the interpretations of ‘My November Guest’ are very different. The poem has a simple structure: Four five-line stanzas, each verse having eight syllables, bound by rhyme according to ABAAB. Already in the first verse, the essential dilemma arises as to who the real protagonist of this poem is. ‘My Sorrow, When She's Here with Me’, namely establishes a close dialogue between the lyrical subject and his guest, which invites some readers to regard it as a love poem. Also, or maybe precisely because of it, because it speaks with a rare gentleness of suffering. The poet is known to have suffered many deaths among his loved ones during his long life: He outlived all of his children, with the exception of one of his daughters, which led many readers to ponder who, from the poet's circle of family and friends, would be able to inhabit Sadness which, in the poem, in its first three stanzas, reveals to the poet the mystical dark beauty of November days. However, this is one of Frost's earlier poems, from his first collection, which was published in the poet's late thirties, when he was still spared most of the tragic events. 

I am much fonder of the interpretation by which Frost personified Sadness, bravely met her eye to eye, like the knight in Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal, playing chess with the uninvited guest: Death. And, if the outcome of the Bergman game is known beforehand, therefore merely a carnival postponement of the victory of a too-powerful opponent, one could say that something much less definitive, but equally fatal, lays in Frost's. So, in the last stanza, the voice that he earlier lends to his guest in the manner of a good host is taken over by the first-person subject of the poem, who speaks about being aware of all the beauties described but, again gallantly, leaves his guest with the privilege of praise of what is, in the conventional sense, gloomy November atmosphere. (‘And they are better for her praise’.) 

If we linger just a bit more with the metaphor of the chess game, we could say that, in the poem, the subject leaves victory to his guest. Not in terms of surrender, but in terms of acceptance. All the described advantages and beauties which, in the eyes of one, are nothing but the ominous prospect of Pain, did not in any way prepare the poet for submission, but made him stronger because he ‘saw through’ the enticing game of his guest and disarmed her when he overlooked her tactics of reverse accents, by which the atmosphere, primarily associated with negative emotions, is celebrated in the poem. The turn at the break of the third to the fourth stanza is very firmly indicated, when we listen to the author's live reading of the poem since, at this point in the transition, Frost switches to a significantly lower voice register and a higher gear. 

The temporal context of the poem is quite unsurprising. November, characterised by desolate landscapes, bare tree canopies, grey skies, is also the time of transition between summer and early autumn, when one is protected by the glare of blue and winter and spring, sparing us with the whiteness of the snow that covers gloomy late-autumn tones, and spring blooms. When nature is most exposed, one becomes the most vulnerable. Compared to the film-presented Sadness, which always knows what its cause is and where it comes from, its exact origins are much less evident. Regardless of the forms in which our guest dresses, whether we are dealing with conditions of melancholy, depression (which is perhaps only a more modern name for the former), or the anxiety that arises between human expectations and the occasional acknowledgment of reality, the answer regarding its origins is rather misplaced. The plethora of external elements strung in the poem by Frost, and the suggestiveness of the proclamation, give the impression that we do not know where it will strike from. Occasionally, we are only lucidly aware that the only real strength lies in the awareness of weakness. And that it is the safest to have this wild, sometimes aggressive, sometimes sneaky animal, domesticated.

By Urban Vovk, born in 1971 in Kranj, Slovenia. He graduated in philosophy from the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Arts. He worked as a freelance writer, editor, translator from former Yugoslavian languages. To date his texts have been translated into eleven languages. For fifteen years he has regularly taught in workshops of creative criticism. He has written numerous forewords to books by domestic and foreign writers. This year his fifth book Kdo drug in kje drugje (Someone and somewhere else) has been published. Currently he is working as an editor at the Beletrina publishing house.

Translated from the Slovene by Petra Godeša

Edited by Mojca Pišek