Reading In Reverse

Jul 13 2013 @ 2:22pm

Brad Leithauser devises a readers’ experiment: how do poems stand up when we read their concluding lines first? In the case of Robert Frost’s “Hyla Brook,” this technique yields epiphany:

Does he fully deserve his last line: “We love the things we love for what they are”? Suddenly, having this time read the poem backward, its full beauty broke over my head. The poem is not necessarily about a brook—lovingly evoked though its brook-ness is. It could just as well be the one-eyed cat we adopt because no one else will take it in. Or the incompetent oil painting we embrace because a great-uncle painted it. (See Elizabeth Bishop’s “Large Bad Picture.”) Or your dead grandfather’s sweater, which you hold onto even though it is: 1) ugly, 2) unfashionable, 3) pilled and worn, 4) ill-fitting.

Frost might not have appreciated the backwards approach, however:

There’s an irony in reading Frost backward, given how strongly he recoiled at working backward. He once noted, “I never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.” He viewed the issue in characteristically ethical terms. To write a poem whose ending you were already aware of seemed to him a form of cheating. I’ve never been able to share Frost’s views on this. If a poet determines that a poem should begin at point A and conclude at point D, say, the mystery of how to get there—how to pass felicitously through points B and C—strikes me as an artistic task both genuine and enlivening. There are fertile mysteries of transition, no less than of termination.