By Phil Scraton:
I was 17 when I first heard The Dangling Conversation. The song’s simple beauty contrasted with the complex emotion of its lyrics. The mood, the characters, caught my imagination. Written by Paul Simon, recorded with Art Garfunkel, we are introduced to the lives of two lovers caught in the quiet solitude of a seemingly lost relationship. ‘You read your Emily Dickinson’ and ‘I my Robert Frost’; we ‘note our place with bookmarkers’ that ‘measure what we’ve lost’.
Like a poem poorly written
We are verses out of rhythm,
Couplets out of rhyme,
In syncopated time
Lost in the dangling conversation
And the superficial sighs,
Are the borders of our lives.
In a ‘lost’ relationship, ‘out of rhythm’, ‘out of rhyme’ what was the relevance of the Emily Dickinson/ Robert Frost juxtaposition? I soon discovered that both were fine North American poets, two generations apart. Their personalities and lives had little in common; she a virtual recluse and a home-based correspondent, he an affable teacher with a love of the outdoors. Yet comparisons of their poetry have been endless – books, theses, articles, essays.
Beyond their poetry, however, they are connected by place. In a public park in Amherst, Massachusetts, they sit in silhouette engaged in deep conversation. Michael Versi’s controversial sculpture is presented as a ‘poetic dialogue’ of two local writers. It is a dialogue that never happened. Had they met, given her reticence to engage socially other than by letter, such a dangling conversation would have been improbable.
The significance of Versi’s sculpture, commissioned by the local town council, is Amherst. It was where, in 1830, Emily Dickinson was born and remained until her death 56 years later. Her father had been a driving force behind the founding of Amherst College in 1821. A prolific, private writer and correspondent, she wrote over 1800 poems yet few were published in her lifetime. Loneliness and bereavement provided a solitary backdrop to introspective, precise and beautiful turns of phrase. Only on occasion does she hint optimistically at the potential of happiness.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874 moved with his family to New England. Eventually he taught at Amherst College. While stating his lack of interest in awards, Frost received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry on four occasions, recognising the brilliance of his observational, humane and rhythmic verse.
Yesterday we took our first walk from our forest home four miles from Amherst. Within twenty-four hours, last weekend’s heavy snowfall had thawed dramatically and the packed ice was gone until the next cold snap. A quarter of a mile from the door, the Atkins Reservoir glistened, its translucent frozen cover absorbing yet reflecting the sun’s powerful rays. The brightness flickered through the densely packed trees as we took a leaf-strewn path. And there it was – the Robert Frost Trail.
In an instant I was hearing The Dangling Conversation; how I found what, for me, was a defining metaphor in Frost’s much-debated poem – The Road Not Taken. Whatever his self-absorption, whatever his implicit irony (the reflective ‘sigh’), whatever his claims to the lightness of meaning, I took the final lines as a challenge to complacency. Why take a path so defined and travelled that it is safe, routine, predictable? But what of the road not taken? Is there no going back once the taken path has shifted the ground, forever changing the context? What we interpret might not be that which the author intended …
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
We headed home through our taken path, the chill northerly breeze now full in our faces. Beneath the lake’s ice crust bass-pitched sounds reverberated. The now watery sun slipped behind Pioneer Valley’s hills and the drone of a distant wood-cutter was interrupted by the instantly recognisable hooting of a freight train. Homeward bound – it was time for tea and biscuits.
Words & Pictures: Phil Scraton