Whose woods these are I think I know

by sophie

Today I am thinking of lovers & love & of all the power we ascribe to a notion we understand so little of. What does it mean even, to understand an emotion? Why do so many people want to “understand” art, mumbling, “I don’t get it,” when encountering contradiction? Isn’t love so much like art? Does not the artist (by which I mean poet, painter, sculptor, dancer, etc) pour love and rage and confusion into their work, isn’t all of it collage? How could we assume to understand the source, and then, again, what is it about understanding that’s so valued in our culture?

One of my favorite poems has always been Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” When I was a child, my father recited the poem from memory so many times to me, at the most unlikely moments, that it has been beautifully burned into my mind. Here it it is:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The uncertainty in this poem is what’s set into me, like a barb on some wild plant. “Whose woods these are I think I know,” says the speaker, not asserting “I know the owner of these woods,” but rather, opening with questioning, sleepy syntax, he says, “I think I know.” And after the thinking, the deeper falling into assumption & observation. But even the observation comes with a kind of veil, no specific tree or pattern of snow or path is named. Only sound is truly specific – “the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake.” Sound here is what seduces (and, arguably, always seduces in a Frost poem) for the reality is hard – the frozen lake, the vague dark woods, the isolation “without a farmhouse near” – this is no place to rest, and yet the speaker rests. Is it not so with art? With love? How do we (and why do we want to) understand such an impulse – to stop in an isolated place, to attempt actions we know are dangerous, to gaze at a car crash, to express love over and over to those that have already or could hurt us, to pour ourselves over a piece of art that is inexplicable, that offers no answers or trap doors to the inside?

What is it, in some of us, that desires risk?

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