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Several years ago, our former Board member, capital campaign committee member, and long-time supporter, Kate Hanna, shared her “humanities story” with the Board. We came across the article recently and asked her permission to share it publicly. Perhaps her story will inspire you to share your humanities story with us!
When I was given the daunting task of describing in 15 minutes how the humanities have affected my life, one topic immediately came to mind. I would speak about the poetry of Robert Frost. But how I would I distill that subject into a bite-size piece? "It's all in how you say a thing," says Frost.
I decided to start by describing how the humanities managed to seep into a life like mine and stay the course. A non-academic life, I mean, perhaps similar to the lives of at least half the people who populate this board. A life that is often noisy and over-scheduled and not reflective enough–and therefore seemingly unreceptive to the quiet consideration of ideas which have no immediate relevance to the issues at hand... getting a kid to the next lacrosse game on time, making that deadline for submission of a court pleading, scrounging up those last few votes for a candidate, working on yet another set of bylaws for a not for profit.
Then I thought about New Hampshire Humanities’ tagline, “Connecting people with ideas.” And I realized that it nicely encapsulates my experience with the humanities.
I am decidedly not an ascetic. Nor monastic. Have never been accused of being an ivory tower intellectual.
Yet I am intellectually curious. I thrive on the interconnections of life. While I have drawn my greatest inspiration from the people I have encountered in my life–not from the books I have discovered on my own–I realize that it is the sharing of ideas with those people that has brought me the most fulfillment and excitement in life. Whether it is a mentor introducing me to a favorite poem, my son or daughter bubbling over about a new-found author, or a friend exposing me for the first time to a classical music piece, I respond. That's what makes me tick. And I take equal thrill in the prospect that I might be able to turn the soil back under and cross fertilize. That is, that at least occasionally, I may be able to introduce a new idea, a favorite book, an inspiring essay–to people I love or admire.
So it was that my odyssey with Robert Frost's poetry began.
As a youth, I was introduced to the poet by my neighbor from across the street in Keene, a gentle businessman and farmer, whom I very much admired. He gave me a volume of Frost's complete poetry, which bore this inscription: "Katie, I hope you will enjoy Robert Frost as much as I have, and do." It was the first book I'd ever received with a personal inscription. It meant a lot to me. It inspired me to read the book inside and out, and to learn as much as I possibly could about this poet.
By this seemingly simple gesture, my neighbor connected another person in this world with ideas. And, as Frost would say, "That has made all the difference."
The voice of Robert Frost has stayed with me throughout my life–informing me, guiding me, and delighting me.
For the last 20 years, I have enjoyed serving as a trustee of the Robert Frost Farm in Derry. When I helped organize Jeanne Shaheen's Inaugural Ceremony, I called upon Robert Frost's granddaughter, Leslie Lee Francis, to say a poem of her grandfather's (she recited "The Tuft of Flowers"). When I served as a law clerk in the federal court for Shane Devine, I couldn't resist slipping a few lines of Frost's poetry into otherwise dry court decisions (see the Laconia State School Decision, 522 F. Supp. 171). Each April I plague my law partners with a reading of "Two Tramps in Mud Time." And every fall after our annual apple picking trip, I bore my children with a dramatic reading of After Apple-Picking."
Today, you are my poor victims.
The theme that dominates the poetry of Robert Frost is, I believe, best described in the last line of his poem, "Acceptance:" "Let what will be be." It is the statement of neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist. It is a statement borne of constant questioning about one's reason for being, a questioning which is heard throughout Frost's poetry in various degrees of intensity–from casual curiosity to anguished insistence. Frost never begrudges the inquiry, which he refers to as "the limitless trait in the hearts of men." And in his poem, "Reluctance," he captures it beautifully:
Ah, when to the heart of man Was it ever less than a treason To go with the drift of things, To yield with a grace to reason. And bow and accept the end Of a love or a season?
Strangely enough, the comfort I derive from Frost's poetry comes from the poet's perpetual struggle, through the voices of his characters, for answers which cannot be found. Therein lies the humanity in his poetry. It is not that Frost wouldn't have enjoyed the luxury of resting on certainties. He admired and envied a man like Emerson who was so confident of his beliefs. About Emerson Frost wrote: "Belief is better than anything else, and it is best when rapt, above paying respects to anybody's doubt whatsoever."
But Frost, unlike Emerson, did not have the kind of abiding belief that allowed him to be free from questions and doubts about himself and about life, and he was true enough to himself that he did not take refuge in false beliefs. Rather, in his life and in his poetry, he seemed to accept the notion that most of us will have only glimpses along the way of the truths in life. "A momentary stay against confusion," as he called it.
Frost's poem, "For Once Then Something," is a favorite of mine. In it, he gently mocks the tendency in all of us to read too much into a situation. In the end, we may have to be content with a nugget here and there.
For Once Then Something
Others taunt me with having knelt at well curbs Always wrong to the light, so never seeing Deeper down in the well than where the water Gives me back in a shining surface picture Me myself in the summer heaven, godlike, Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs. Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb, I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture, Through the picture, a something white, uncertain, Something more of the depths-and then I lost it. Water came to rebuke the too clear water. One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom, Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness? Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once then, something.
Through his juxtaposition of the abstract and the concrete–truth and a pebble of quartz, Frost reminds us of the difficulty of finding definitive answers to life.
Frost sounds the same theme in his poem, "In the Home Stretch," in which we eavesdrop on a conversation between a husband and wife who are conscious of growing old together. The husband is pressing his wife for proclamations about her state of happiness in life, to which she responds,
"You're searching, Joe, for things that don't exist; I mean beginnings.
Ends and beginnings–there are no such things. There are only middles."
The living is what is important, Frost reminds us-the middles-and while we on this earth may not be able to find perfect answers, we must give all our effort to living the best we can-as Frost says-"And not our worst or second best, our best. Our very best."
And as Frost reminds us in his poem, “Birches,” earth is not a bad place to enjoy these middles–even though we may occasionally dream of heavenly alternatives:
I'd like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth's the right place for love; I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I would like to end with a Frost poem which I have always found to be both shocking and strangely comforting at the same time, "Out-Out!" It is a breathtaking drama which emphasizes the relentless cycle of life.
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it. And from there those that lifted eyes could count Five mountain ranges one behind the other Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled, As it ran light, or had to bear a load. And nothing happened: day was all but done. Call it a day. I wish they might have said To please the boy by giving him the half hour That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood behind him in her apron To tell them "Supper." At the word, the saw, As if to prove saws knew what supper meant, Leaped out at the boy's hand. However it was, Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh, As he swung toward them holding up the hand, Half in appeal, but half as if to keep The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all- Since he was old enough to know, big boy Doing a man's work, though a child at heart- He saw all spoiled. "Don't let him cut my hand off- The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!"
So. But the hand was gone already. The doctor put him in the dark of ether. He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath. And then-the watcher at his pulse took fright. No one believed. They listened at his heart. Little-less-nothing! – and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
In this poem, Frost subjects us to a gruesome drama. The reader experiences grief-for the boy, for the family left behind. But Frost does not allow us to wallow in our sorrow. The daily activity at the beginning of the poem resumes, as though the tragedy had never occurred.
"And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."
Frost provides no overarching answers for us, no divine inspiration to explain the event. Rather, life goes on. Let what will be. Once again, Frost has focused our attention not on the beginnings or ends, but on the middles.
When I first read "Out--Out!" in high school, I thought of Frost as heartless and unfeeling. Over the years, though, I have come to appreciate the poem's understatement, its irony, and its theme of acceptance. That Frost in his poetry does not attempt to reduce life to a "coherent vision" is to me the most refreshing thing about the poet. For he is too honest to pretend that life is anything but complex and inexplicable. To quote his poem, "Mowing," "Anything but the truth would have seemed too weak to him." What Frost is willing to do in his poetry is to join us in a quest for some answers. That he is as unsure as we are about the outcome makes us feel less alone in our quest, and provides us with "a momentary stay against confusion."
When I read the poem, "Out--Out!" I usually think of my neighbor from across the street in Keene, now in his 80s and still farming, and still philosophical about life. Shortly after he gave me my volume of poetry, his wife died of cancer. Then his son died a tragic death, and more recently his daughter–my good friend–died of cancer. Upon the occasion of his daughter's funeral, I was glad to be able to draw from Robert Frost to remind him that she had been fortunate to "unite her avocation and her vocation, as two eyes make one in sight." I thanked him once again for introducing me to this poet who has meant so much to me over the years. He smiled, and I think he was pleased to remember that he had connected me with these ideas.
New Hampshire Humanities programs are made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this these programs do not necessarily represent those of the NEH or New Hampshire Humanities.