- Motion in Stevens and Frost
“I took a walk on a snowy evening.” “So what? I dissolved into nothingness and snow.”
Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, of course, never had this exchange, but thinking about the ways the two poets approach movement reveals something important about what makes their poetry sing. One typical sensation-scape for Frost is a walk (or an occasional ride); equally, with Stevens, a speaker or poet is often standing or sitting still, when abrupt motion disturbs a carefully set equilibrium. Frost’s poetry is poetry of navigation; Stevens’ is that of disruption.
Take not only “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” or “The Road Less Traveled,” but also “Directive,” “Desert Places,” or “Pea Brush.” What helps to organize these poems is the way movement lends itself to sensory and descriptive narrative. A walk is in this sense a model for a story; if this is a story of memory and sensation, then it is a perfect frame for a poem, whether a greater romantic lyric (Abrams) or a nocturne from John Milton onward (Miller). It is hard to paint descriptive poetry when the poet is sitting still (though not impossible in a lime-tree prison-bower). A walk, however, is more than a model for description. A walk is a model for memory. Indeed, narrative, autobiographical memory, and spatial memory are interconnected; human beings use many of the same brain structures to create and access these forms of memory (Burgess et al.). The brain encodes not just what happened but where we were when it happened, and the sequence of these events, because our ability to survive and thrive in the world around us is largely dependent on our ability to move within it (O’Regan and Noë). The haunting imagery of “Directive” captures this intimate linkage between motion and memory beautifully. The poem opens by invoking spaces and places that have become ruins:
Back out of all this now too much for us, Back in a time made simple by the loss Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather, [End Page 90] There is a house that is no more a house Upon a farm that is no more a farm And in a town that is no more a town.(CPPP 341)
The erosion of the figures in the landscape makes way for an invitation to a guided walk down an eerie road back into childhood. The poet proffers his reader a “serial ordeal” (CPPP 341):
Then make yourself at home. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . First there’s the children’s house of make believe, Some shattered dishes underneath a pine, The playthings in the playhouse of the children. Weep for what little things could make them glad. Then for the house that is no more a house, But only a belilaced cellar hole, Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.(CPPP 342)
Here is not only the constant presence in Frost’s poetry of a desire to return to the past, but the sense that walking will ultimately get you there (if climbing on and swinging down birches just won’t cut it anymore).
By contrast, motion often breaks what had been stillness in Stevens. Even when he takes a walk, standing still produces the potential for something truly explosive: “And the whiteness grows less vivid on the wall. / The man who is walking turns blankly on the sand. / He observes how the north is always enlarging the change,” and then the aurora itself unfurls across the sky, “With its frigid brilliances, its blue-red sweeps / And gusts of great enkindlings, its polar green, / The color of ice and fire and solitude” (CPP 356). The immensity of the movement of light across the darkened sky brings all other motion up short, and brings the poem to its first statement of visual authority, resolving the mystery of the “bodiless” serpent of the poem’s opening lines (CPP 355; Starr). Whether it begins in a chair on a “Sunday Morning,” or in the silent, dizzying stillness of reading in “Things of August,” motion is what happens around the central consciousness that shapes many of...