Tuesday, November 15, 2016

that's how the light gets in.

A day or two after Jesse Ventura was elected governor of the great state of Minnesota, I found myself on the college campus that would become my second home. Along with completing an interview, a violin lesson, and an overnight stay, I sat in on a class that I'd end up taking for real just two years later: Major American Writers with Mark Dintenfass. That day happened to be a discussion of several poems by Robert Frost, and I sat quietly in the back and listened while they picked apart the staccato opening line of "Directive" and the ABAABCBCB structure of "Fire and Ice." But the conversation around "Mending Wall" is what mattered to me most.

Dintenfass lamented that "good fences make good neighbors" is an oft-quoted Frost line but also often taken completely out of context, especially ironic because the poem itself is about the danger of such "truth" telling. "He will not go behind his father's saying," the narrator points out about his blustering neighbor, "And he likes having thought of it so well / He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'" Robert Frost, in 1914 when "Mending Wall" was published, could not have anticipated viral memes of words ripped from their setting, devoid of meaning. Or maybe he could. If even Socrates is on record as saying "the unexamined life is not worth living," humans have been blithely walking through life with their eyes closed for millennia.

Instead of closing either our eyes or those holes in the wall, let's leave the cracks wide open and heed the call for "Light, More Light." Today is the annual giving day at my alma mater, and I'm eager (as I am each year) to contribute what I can to a place that contributed to my growth in such meaningful ways. Lawrence, for me, was a place to practice listening, to practice questioning, to practice living in a community with people different than myself who were also trying to learn how to listen and question and live in community, too. And, like Frost's narrator, there's enough mischief in me that I hope I can put a notion in your head, too, that listening and questioning is at the root of everything that matters (for more of my thoughts on that, click here).

Here's the poem - it's in the public domain, so I'm free to share it here:

Mending Wall (from North of Boston, 1914)
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

And for a little change of pace, here's me reading it.

Mending Wall - Robert Frost from Courtney Hanna-McNamara on Vimeo.

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