How to Pay Attention to a Poem

with Lawrence Raab
Lawrence Raab

Raab is the college’s Morris Professor of Rhetoric. The author of eight collections of poetry, he is a winner of the National Poetry Series & received a Guggenheim Fellowship in ’07. He talked with Ali Benjamin in Oct.

Like any poem, Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is best read with what Henry James called “the spirit of fine attention.” It’s about “noticing, and then noticing what you notice,” says English professor Lawrence Raab, who teaches and writes his own poetry just 22 miles from the Vermont town where Frost penned what many critics consider to be his most famous work.

“Don‘t worry about the consequences until you‘ve noticed all you can,” Raab says. “With this poem, or any, it’s important to avoid being reductive. A good poem resists paraphrase, refuses to let its meanings become too simple, like an answer found in the back of a textbook or a truism in a fortune cookie. No good poem, especially one as mysterious and reticent as ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,’ ever exhausts itself, even as it turns itself over to you, the reader. So you may secretly carry it around, discovering—perhaps by surprise, as I have— that you know it by heart and then, years later, remembering it as a kind of revelation and finding it has changed, since you yourself have changed.”

Raab could easily spend hours discussing the poem; we selected some of his highlights.

Poem Credit: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” from the book The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, 1969 by Henry Holt and Co., copyright 1951 by Robert Frost. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Co., LLC.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost
*The speaker seems concerned about not being seen. Why would that be so important to him? What is it about the moment that the speaker (as opposed to the poet) may not want to reveal? Or may not yet even understand?
*In the most literal sense, it’s not possible for an entire woods to “fill up.” Frost quietly turns the woods into a kind of container, suggesting the possibility of completion, of finality of some sort.
*Already we have sensed an uneasiness, a strangeness, in stillness. Now the speaker reveals that he’s “between” one place and another. Does this suggest a kind of isolation? Even danger or entrapment? We should not make our minds up too quickly. Let the responses, like the snow, accumulate.
*One may at first assume that Frost is referring to the winter solstice. But he doesn’t say the “longest evening of the year.” And nothing Frost says is ever accidental. Might the darkness reflect an interior state? So fact gives way to feeling.
*This is a nice contrast to some of the words we’ve noticed so far. There’s a density to “darkness,” a lightness to “easy,” and yet the emphasis is on this being the only other sound beyond the shaking of the harness bells. This lightness is lovely, but it’s the beauty of solitude.
*How might the poem change if there were a comma after the word “dark”? After Frost’s death, his publisher released a Collected Poems that included the comma, believing this was more grammatically correct. An outraged essay by poet Donald Hall convinced later editors to return the line to its original form. With the comma, “lovely” carries the same weight as “dark” and “deep,” as if they were part of a list. Without the comma, “lovely” contains dark and deep and is defined by those adjectives. What sort of darkness and what kind of depth might this be? Why does the speaker never name what he feels?
*At this point I often ask my students what words come to mind to suggest the poem’s mood or effects? “Alluring,” “seductive,” and “mysterious”
are frequently mentioned, as well as “unsettling,” “isolation,” “reverie,” and “ambivalence.” “Ambivalence” especially seems to resonate; this feeling of a disquieting uncertainty builds throughout the poem—and soon attaches itself to ”but,” as if a choice needs to be made. “But” is a kind of hinge, conjuring up those ”promises” that point to the stuff of life, the world of ordinary obligations. At the same time, ”but” puts the disturbing loveliness of the woods in a tension with the promises of the everyday.
*The repetition of the final two lines is Frost’s way of completing the poem—which is otherwise an a-a-b-a structure. But beyond the solution to this formal problem, what is the effect? Does the repetition sound soothing, lyrical, like a lullaby? Or does it suggest the speaker’s determination to continue his journey, to move away from sleep even as he seems to drift toward sleep? One might consider whether the two lines, though their words are the same, may each have a slightly different meaning. What is the speaker‘s resolution? What does he give up to move on?