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Architecture in Frost and Stevens Essay

In a passage made famous by Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Hölderlin proclaims:

Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnet Der Mensch auf dieser Erde.
Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth.

The lines are from a poem that makes a romantic statement of the traditional analogy between poetry and architecture, and they are cited as the occasion for one of Heidegger’s essays (“Poetically Man Dwells,” in Poetry, Language, Thought) on the nature of dwelling, another of which was discussed in the ‹rst chapter of this book. Hölderlin’s lines allow Heidegger to treat poetic creation as a kind of building but also to re›ect on the nature of dwelling made possible by this construction. Dwelling, or das Wohnen, as we have seen, is Heidegger’s word for “man’s stay on earth,” a sojourn marked out in time by the limits of birth and death, and in space by the expanse between earth and heaven. As the human experience of these dimensions is formed in language, poetry is the art that is capable of taking their measure, and thereby the measure of human being in the world. For the poet, language is far from being a prison house. On the contrary, the poet constructs an authentic relation to language, and thereby to being itself, by remaining open to its inherent possibilities, its unforeseen disclosures. In this chapter I wish to take Heidegger’s citation of Hölderlin as a point of departure for a study of architectural ‹gures in the philosopher’s American contemporaries Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens. My reading of their poems takes place on two levels. One is the analysis of the architectural construction as a poetic image. A precedent for such an analysis is to be found in the work of Freud and Bachelard, both of whom explore the symbolic content of the image of the house as it occurs in dreams or poems. The architectural images that draw my attention, though, are not limited to houses: they include other constructions, such as the woodpile or the stone wall, because these, too, are part of the built environment with which the poet is concerned.

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The second level of my reading goes beyond the poetic image in order to show that the relation between poetry and architecture is more fundamental than that of mere representation. Both are primordial forms of making, for poetry does with the material of language what architecture does with the materials of the earth. Is the relation between poetry and architecture an especially privileged one when compared to that which exists between other art forms, such as painting and music? Heidegger would have it so, based on the notion of dwelling, which he sees as belonging especially to these arts. Frost and Stevens offer their own, modern versions of the analogy between poetry and architecture; for both poets, the poem is a construction that also serves in some sense as a place of dwelling. As I shall attempt to show, however, the difference between the two poets lies in the respective meanings they assign to this dwelling in relation to the more universal conditions of being. For Frost, the poetic, like the human habitation, serves only as a temporary refuge from the surrounding chaos. For Stevens, the construction of a dwelling place for the imagination is likewise necessary to being; but the risk is that the imposed order of such a construction will stand in the way of the poet’s pursuit of discovery.

The notion of dwelling is already familiar to a certain “Heideggerian” tradition of reading American poetry. I shall cite just two examples, both from in›uential critics. In his book on Frost, Frank Lentricchia reads the poet according to what he refers to as the Heideggerian notion that “the world is our home, our habitat, the materialization of our subjectivity”(4). Similarly, in an essay on Stevens and Heidegger, Frank Kermode writes, “The place where the poet dwells, especially if it is his place of origin, will be his mundo, a clari‹ed analogy of the earth he has lived in” (262).

In both cases, the notion of dwelling is given a reassuring plenitude, as if a perfect synthesis were possible between the poet and his world. To my way of thinking, however, such approaches fail to take account of a tension already present within Heidegger’s thought between dwelling and its impossibility, a tension also characteristic of Frost and Stevens. This is apparent, for example, in the difference between Heidegger’s claim that dwelling is the “basic character of Being” and his assertion that the “real plight of dwelling” is that human beings “ever search anew for the nature of dwelling, that they must ever learn to dwell ” (“Building Dwelling Thinking” 160–61, emphasis in original). To this ambiguity within the concept of dwelling itself must be added the problematic nature of this ideal under the speci‹c conditions of modernity. According to Adorno, these conditions have effectively put an end to the myth of dwelling: “Dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible” (Minima Moralia 38). “The world is no longer habitable . . . the heavy shadow of instability bears upon built form” (“Functionalism Today” 12).

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Given what I take to be an inherent instability in the concept of dwelling, my approach to the architectural imagery of Frost and Stevens is closer to that of contemporary theorists such as Mark Wigley and Jacques Soullilou, for both of whom architectural meaning is inevitably involved with loss and spectrality.

Wigley writes, “A house is only a house inasmuch as it is haunted” (162), whereas for Soullilou, “Le spectral est ce qui traverse l’habiter et le non-habiter architectural, rend leur destin solitaire, et défait cette opposition aussitôt qu’elle essaie de se reconstituer” (The spectral is that which is common to architectural dwelling and nondwelling, which gives them a common destiny and which undoes the opposition between them even as this opposition attempts to reconstitute itself) (75). An illustration of this principle is to be found in Frost’s early poem “Ghost House” (1913), which begins:

I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago.

The poem goes on to describe a place where all that remains of the house are the cellar walls, now overgrown with wild raspberries, and the gravestones bearing names rendered unreadable by layers of moss. The mute and nameless persons buried there are the poet’s only human companions, “tireless folk, but slow and sad.” “Ghost House” is a poem in which the notion of dwelling as a poetic and spiritual condition depends, paradoxically, on the loss of the dwelling as a physical structure—a “vanished abode”— as well as on the spectral presence of its vanished inhabitants. If the notion of spectrality is a part of the problematics of dwelling, it also serves as a way into the reading of other images of architectural building, such as Frost’s wells, chimneys, stone walls, and woodpiles. Let us consider one of Frost’s best-known poems, “Mending Wall” (1914). Everyone is familiar with the argument of this poem: even a stone wall is subject to constant deterioration, and therefore the poem’s speaker meets yearly with his neighbor for the purpose of mending the wall that lies between their lands. The labor of mending the wall is at ‹rst described in almost technical detail, but then, in another tone, is dismissed as “just another kind of outdoor game.” In a mischievous mood, the speaker attempts to convince his old-fashioned neighbor that their labor is useless, only to receive the repeated answer, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The poem is often read as a bemused af‹rmation of a quaint piece of folk wisdom. But this is to miss the dimension of the poem that is devoted to the art of building. The thematics of building allow us to see the mending of the wall both as a metaphor for poetic composition and as a ritual devoted to the spectral presences for which the wall serves as a monument. Although these two aspects of the poem are closely related, for the sake of clarity I shall take each of them in turn. The poetic analogy begins to be apparent when we notice that, running between the two neighbors, the wall forms a “line” in which the gaps must be ‹lled by putting stone on stone, in a work that demands strength, skill, and even sortilege: “We have to use a spell to make them balance.” Words like spell and balance, with their connotations of poetic art, call attention to the allegorical function of this work. Rebuilding the wall is analogous to writing the poem: the stone is to the length of the wall what the word is to the poetic line: its basic unit of construction. The precarious fitting and balancing of stones serves as an allegory for the art of combining words in poetic syntax. The orderly rhythm of the mending work, as

. . . on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again

matches perfectly the regular iambic pentameter of Frost’s poetic line.

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The second half of the poem, in which the speaker tries unsuccessfully to make his neighbor admit the uselessness of the wall,

There where it is we do not need the wall.

He is all pine and I am apple orchard

serves only to reaffirm the wall’s aesthetic value, its status, like that of the poem itself, as a work of art: if it is lacking in any immediate practical use, it is nonetheless the object of constant labor and care on the part of its adepts.

To say the wall is useless, however, is not to say that it is meaningless. On the contrary, Frost insists on the inscription of the wall within a world of ritual and spectral presences, beginning with the mysterious “something” that doesn’t love a wall, a destructive force that inheres within the logic of its ceaseless reconstruction. This something makes “gaps” in the wall that are doubly negative: ‹gures of lack in themselves, they lack witnesses to their origins, as “No one has seen them or heard them made,” and yet there they are at spring mending time: gaping absences within the promised fullness of the new season. The wall also has a sepulchral function, as a kind of memorial to the generations from which it is inherited, just as the “saying” of the neighbor is inherited from his father, and the ritual repetition of this saying accompanies the annual rite of wall mending. In the enactment of this ritual, the neighbor himself assumes a spectral aspect. Like “an old-stone savage armed,”

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

Trapped in an endless repetition of speech and gesture, the neighbor is himself a haunted and haunting ‹gure, already joined with the dead who built the wall. His spectrality combines with the poem’s mysterious forces of destruction to cast a shadow equally over the acts of building and unbuilding, mending and coming undone. The wall stands at the threshold between the living and the dead, marking the boundary between them, yet bringing them into confused intercourse.

Frost’s famous de‹nition of poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion” (“Figure” 18) makes explicit the connection between the poem and the wall—this wall, in constant need of mending because of all the forces set against it: the frozen groundswell, the work of hunters, the sheer pull of gravity. Frost suggests that an equally imposing set of forces threatens to destroy the art of poetry, with its roots in incantation and communion with the dead. The work of the poet, then, is one of building an extremely fragile shelter against the constant threat of destruction.

From the same volume as “Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile” also contemplates a built object, which, in its location, serves no apparent purpose. A good deal of this poem’s effect depends on the approach to the object, in winter, across a frozen and unknown terrain. At the poem’s beginning, the speaker has already reached a limit from which he wants to turn back, but then he changes his mind: “No, I will go on farther, and we shall see.” He loses himself in a place he can only locate as “far from home.” Frost’s poems often mark this boundary between known and unknown spaces, but, as in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he usually turns back before crossing the threshold. In this case, however, the passage into the unknown is rewarded by the strange sight of a woodpile too far from any replace to be of use. Here is something familiar yet, in this place, completely unforeseen. One of the strengths of Frost’s poetry is its concrete sense of the human body at work in the place and with the things that belong to that work. His poems evoke the feel of the ax, the saw, and the scythe: the world of things ready-to-hand that Heidegger calls Zuhandenheit. The woodpile lost in the midst of the forest constitutes a radical displacement of that world, one that makes the object itself into an enigma.

As if attempting to dispel this enigma, Frost dwells on the materiality and architectural construction of his object with the same intensity of observation given, in the earlier poem, to the stone wall.

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Architecture in Frost and Stevens Essay
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In a passage made famous by Martin Heidegger, Friedrich Hölderlin proclaims: Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch wohnet Der Mensch auf dieser Erde. Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on this earth. The lines are from a poem that makes a romantic statement of the traditional analogy between poetry and architecture, and they are cited as the occasion for one
2017-09-06 11:13:13
Architecture in Frost and Stevens Essay
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