Acquainted with the Night

A few posts ago I said I was holding back some material, going instead with other pieces that weren’t quite as dark. One of the pieces I was holding back was this one: Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night.”

This is often thought of as Frost’s most harrowing poem, even though it achieves that effect descriptively, largely without explicit emotional terms. Some of its tropes have become standard “Noir” features since the poem was written making the nighttime despair, loneliness, and alienation especially easy for modern readers to “read.” Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to read along.

Frosts Acquainted wit the Black Parade

Representative of Frost’s emocore period? Or if you’d like to see a video making the poem more Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, try this link.

 

So, we have the poem’s speaker (let’s call him Frost for the rest of this) walking alone at night in a city in that time which is past late but too dark to be early. It’s raining. He meets only one other person, a watchman, and avoids him. He hears but two things: his own steps, and at the poem’s high point, someone else’s voice. The poem ends with him noting a “luminary clock,” and a remark casual or crucial he says it indicates “the time was neither wrong nor right.”

The incident of the cry in the third stanza is the key moment in the poem, the most telling. It’s so quiet in the rain (so not a full-on stormy gale or thunderstorm) and the cry is so far away that Frost stops walking because the sound of his footsteps is the loudest thing in the night city. He wants to make out that cry, which I think is “interrupted” by his own solitary footsteps. And what does he discern in that cry? That it’s not calling him back or bidding him leave either. Whoever he’s walking to get away from, it’s not their voice, but he wants to know if it is.

This incident is highlighted too because the poem opens with the idea of constant walking: Frost says he walked past the city limits and back. I’m hitting a muted low string on the guitar in my accompaniment to try to suggest that footsteps effect, that Frost is in motion even if he doesn’t know where he’s going.*

The last external thing Frost notices in the poem is the incident of the clock. Interestingly he uses an odd adjective for the lighted clock: “luminary” rather than “lighted” or “luminous.” I assume Frost would like us to think of the clock as an auspicious authority, a luminary, not just lit. I should also note that some see the clock as the moon in this poem. I don’t. I think if he’d wanted to depict the moon he’d say so. The lit clock face is  moon-like, so I can understand that alternate reading, and what with its “unearthly height” Frost likely intends that overtone at least.

The poem is often read as a depiction of depression, and there I’ll agree as well. Depression is experienced by different people in different ways, but the situation here is familiar to me. Depression can confuse your judgement and ability to weigh things. Frost can walk all night because he is in some dispute with someone else (that voice he interrupts his steps to hear) but he’ll never figure it out even if he walks the entire dark city. He may step between self-pity and wanting to be seen as right, and self-abnegation and judging himself irrevocably wrong, but that only gets him out and back again. The luminary clock hands down it’s judgement: Frost, you’ll not figure it out tonight, which means you could return again to this night walk some other night—but it means also that one will be able to return, or turn elsewhere. Over time one may come to understand better that old acquaintance, the night. Roughly 30 years after writing this poem, Frost as a then old man said this to an interviewer “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.”

Some see today’s poem’s luminary clock moment as an existential consideration of suicide. The clock (or moon if that’s your reading) somehow prompts or symbolizes the decision that this night is not the time for that decision. There’s another way to read “neither wrong nor right,” that the clock** indicates only a moment as time, and Frost’s realization about life is that it goes on, that it moves like this poem’s night walk, that that is its meaning: it’s movement.

Let me just say a bit about the poem’s beautiful structure. It’s a sonnet, and it’s a format I’ve used a bit myself lately: four tercets and a concluding couplet rather than the Shakespearean three quatrains and a couplet. But Frost has used Dante’s terza rima scheme of interlocking rhyme in the stanzas, and this knotted interlocking reinforces the endless walking and knotted thinking. And as one more music-of-thought feature, the poem ends with the first line—it walks out and back again just as the poem’s Frost does.

The player gadget to hear my performance of “Acquainted with the Night”  is below. I wouldn’t decorate such a lonely poem with anything more than a single electric guitar this time.

 

 

 

 

*This is also the eventual decision in his famous poem “Stopping by Woods  on a Snowy Evening”  where I believe it’s key to that poem to recognize that he’s not considering tarrying there for some pleasant winter sight-seeing, but that he’s likely lost in a entirely dark rural road and he only thinks/hopes he knows whose woods he’s spotted as a waypoint in the darkest night.

**Yet another plausible meaning for “neither wrong nor right” would be that the traditional clock face might say half past four in the most deserted time of the night, just as it will say the same half past four when 5 PM quitting time approaches in the daytime afternoon. The clock’s face is ignorant or unreliable in that regard. It may be saying it’s time to end this night walk as the night is ending and life and people will return soon at dawn, in the same way it would be saying that it’s time to leave the work of trying to figure out the knot of the dispute before the poem starts, to clock out of the work of the night-office where that question was being worked on.

Frost’s poem doesn’t identify the city the walk is taking place in. For those that hold to the clock theory, London’s Big Ben has been suggested as the clock tower. John Timberman Newcomb in How Did Poetry Survive?  suggests the clock tower of the Metropolitan Life Building, which as the tallest structure in New York City when completed in the early 20th century was a lighted timepiece of unearthly height. Many smaller cities of this time would have had prominent courthouses or main transportation terminals with lighted clock towers too.

For the moon theorists, the time is usually assumed to not be the time of day but a more general “time,” though it’s fairly easy to tell the time at night with a full moon (it’s overhead at midnight, like the sun is at daytime noon). However, “high moon” midnight would not likely be as deserted as the night walk time described in the poem.

Amy Lowell’s November

To my knowledge, there’s no situation, no case, in the Modernist revolution of English poetry quite like that of Amy Lowell, who for around a decade from 1915 to 1925 made herself a significant force in the popularization and dissemination of short free verse,*  yet was often derided by others writing in this style, and whose own concise verse was largely forgotten until this century.

That her name and place in Modernism survived at all, it was largely because of her brief connection with the original Imagists in London which led to a running feud with Ezra Pound. Pound said that Lowell’s promotion of the same poetic principles that he had been propounding was a descent into “Amygism.” It wasn’t just Pound, D. H. Lawrence said of her work “In everything she did she was a good amateur.” Witter Bynner, the literary-hoaxster who wanted to mock this form of Modernism tagged the overweight Lowell as the “hippopoetess.”

Young Amy Lowell

The young Amy Lowell. “Does this hat make my…oh, forget it…”

 

What was their beef? Was it that she was a woman and she was generally considered a lesbian? Even though the early-20th century Modernists often fail contemporary standards for wokeness, the Modernist movement included other women** and gay artists. Likewise, Lowell was eccentric, but that too was no mark of uniqueness in their artistic world.

I should make it clear, that even though I often write here of encountering writers from this era as I present their work, I’m not an expert or scholar on the era, and there’s a great deal I don’t know. But my quick read of the situation is that Lowell was seen by Pound and many of his cohort as a wanna-be. She came from a wealthy and prestigious family.*** She seems to have bought her way into some of her influence—but once again, wealthy arts patronage can’t be what makes Lowell unique. That was common then as it is now.

What made her unique is that she wasn’t content with being a patron, she believed herself a poet and a critic, and worked extraordinarily hard in her short career at exercising herself in those roles. Controversy may be good for short-term fame, but some of the most lauded poets of her time didn’t think much of her work as hierarchies and canons were being formed by those that outlived her death in 1925. Did they make their judgements cavalierly because they didn’t like her as a person or by reputation?

Let me cut to the chase: I don’t know. I’ve probably encountered a few Amy Lowell poems over the years, and none of them left an impression on me. But transient mood and expectation and the randomness of anthologized selections could account for that. As this project has come to use a lot of poetry from Amy Lowell’s contemporaries, I’ve figured that someday I should tackle one of hers if I found something I thought I could do something with. And this fall, her poem called “November”  was brought to my attention.****

November

I can’t find any good Internet links to this poem, so here it is.

 

What did I notice about it? “November”  follows the style of the early Imagists, including the one thing that I’ve come to recognize about early Imagist writing that later Modernism came to reject: the modesty and directness of its statements. You could knock Lowell and say that when she wrote this she had Pound, T. E. Hulme, F. S. Flint, H. D., and so on to model this poem on. But if you believe, as I’ve come to, that this mode of poetry was abandoned too soon for longer, more elaborate and esoteric statements, then continuing to use those valid methods is no crime.

The trick of this kind of compressed poem is how to be simple and subtle at the same time in some way that the reader will find a working expression of beautiful. After finding “November”  worthwhile, I quickly looked at a few other shorter Lowell poems and I’m not sure she consistently manages that, but I believe this one does. Even famous and much anthologized poems in the Imagist style can be read quickly as superficial “Is that all there is?” poems. Their simplicity asks for a engaged reader, not one blown-over by some kind of surface filigree.

As with our other autumn poems, this one touches some common tropes: leaves, bare branches, dark, rain. But Lowell keeps this fresh, where many other poems would seem to just be checking off the boxes. The leaves’ color is secondary, we are subtly asked instead to hear the sound of the crisp leaves rattling against the walls of the poet’s house. Yes, there are fallen leaves too, but they gather under the evergreen pines, sheltered there. The lilac bushes sound-move with the rich word “sweep” against the overhead starlight.

And that translates then to an interior scene where the sheltered poet is too under the lights, a lamp, writing, perhaps handwriting with a sweep of the hand. And another unshowy, but well-chosen, phrase says what the subject is: “The emptiness of my heart.”

Let’s pause there for a moment. Is that a simple epithet for longing? Yes it is, but there are others for that too that weren’t chosen, and “The emptiness of my heart” is more ambiguous than most, for it may indicate a feeling of unworthiness and unreciprocity too—but then to think to explore that, to write of it, to experience it in an autumn moment, is a self-reflection that a callused always cold and empty heart will never do.

The poem’s closing image, following up on that, gives us one more sheltered, or barely sheltered thing: the cat who “will not stay with me” and is huddled in a window casement.

In summary, there is considerable complexity of feeling encoded in these images without the emotions being explicitly named and listed, but rather invoked in the Imagist manner. And the poem hides its craft so that one may not notice it reading quickly, particularly the subtle repetitions in the three scenes. I chose in my performance to repeat the writer under the lamp scene once more at the end to emphasize that I heard that key point the other two scenes turn around.

Musically, I worked on this performance yesterday which was Joni Mitchell’s birthday, so I wanted to try something in an unfamiliar alternate tuning. And today is Bonnie Raitt’s birthday, so it was good that the one I settled on (G minor DGDGBbD) worked well when played with a bottleneck slide. You can hear how Amy Lowell worked with that music using the player below.

 

 

 

 

*A year after her death in 1925 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and besides editing and helping to publish several anthologies of Modernist verse, she promoted it by popular lectures and articles in mainstream publications. Louis Untermeyer in his summarizing American Poetry Since 1900  published in 1923 says that “No poet living in America has been more fought for, fought against and generally fought about than Amy Lowell.” But to speak about her poetry (which he does praise) he writes first about her work as promoter and provocateur: “Her verve is almost as remarkable as her verse” indicating that the element of celebrity and controversy was already masking her actual poetry.

**Oddly, the path in the 20th century seems to have been to increasingly under-rate, value, and remember women poets of the Modernist era as the century went on. By the time I came along to encounter Modernism in school 50 years later it was a sausage-fest—but the 21st century is working to re-evaluate that. Canons and reputations are one thing, but every poem and its poet lives or dies each time a reader encounters it. That’s always a present act.

***Some of the Modernists came from what appear to be upper middle-class families, though of those, some had broken family ties and their financial support in some way. How much richer was Amy Lowell? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect noticeably so. Wealthy and gay poet Bynner had to reach for the body-shaming to find something to ridicule Lowell.

****Once more, I first saw this poem at the Interesting Literature blog.