As with Hazel Hall before him, Robert Francis was a pretty good ‘classical’ poet who, although better known while still alive, is now mostly forgotten in favor of bad New Formalist writing that afflicts so much of the poetry world. Thus, he is usually known as the ‘other’ New England poet, having spent much of his life in Amherst, MA, and using Robert Frost as both a personal mentor and poetic model. It’s an interesting relationship because, while never quite hitting Robert Frost’s highs (think Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, the great dramatic poems), he didn’t share his lows, either, for even Robert Francis’s longer poems can’t be said to go on too long, with the best ones topping out at 20-30 lines, and many more under a dozen. This is because Robert Francis was a poet of moments as opposed to larger, over-arching ideas, and while this implies a ceiling that greater poets are unafflicted by, it also means that he is quite memorable, as individual lines tend to crop up in the mind long after a poem is read. No, he is not “better than John Berryman,” as the abysmal Donald Hall claims in the back matter to Francis’s Collected Poems, but this is irrelevant to the fact that he deserves a much wider readership, and the opportunity to influence younger writers.
Let us consider a few of his poems, and why they work so well on technical and intellectual grounds:
Cloud In Woodcut
Make a woodcut of a cloud.
Polish the wood. Point the knife.
But let your pointed knife be wise.
Let your wilful cloud retain
Evidence of woody grain.
Teach your knife to compromise.
Let your cloud be cloud — and wood.
Grained in the art let there be life.
This is the prototypical Robert Francis poem: short, cutting, and able to distill 1-2 ideas in a way that neither obfuscates, nor ever becomes prosaic. Just look at the first line: a well-musicked command that ‘hooks’ the reader right away, for it gives just enough to act as a spring-board for some deeper examination later. The next line refines the narrative but without really forcing the reader into a strong philosophical post just yet — an example of good pacing, which is usually seen as a way to give a reader ‘breathing space,’ but can be better defined as a way for the artist to build a little trust before doing whatever it is that he wants to do, merely by first lulling him into a sense of complacency. (Art is deceit, remember?) Line 3 finally brings the first deeper thrust: “But let your pointed knife be wise,” another hook, again, that implies this idea will be expanded upon, and subtly changing the meaning of the commands that came before. The next 2 lines mirror the poem’s first 2, yet deepens their meaning, while the next line mirrors the third — a necessary, compact touch, given the poem’s brevity. It helps, too, that the rhymes (“wise/compromise”) play off of each other’s meanings, even as they’re lodged some ways from each other. At this point, the next couple of lines are more of a comment than command, with the near-biblical cliche “let there be life” inverted by the fact that we’re speaking of it being “grained in the art,” thus snatching the cliche from its expected meaning and context — another ‘Robert Francis’ touch, wherein familiar phrasings are given new and deeper status. That “Cloud In Woodcut” also happens to be the closest articulation of Francis’s own philosophy of art — get ‘at’ the thing without sacrificing it; remember that art is artifice, not ‘truth’ — across his own poetry helps bolster the poem as a minor little classic.
A Boy’s November
I can see farther now,
Now that the leaves are few.
November strips the bough
And lets a boy look through.
The ground seems tall somehow.
The far-off world looks new.
Tell me, can the ground grow?
Or is it I that grew?
This is a poem that critic Dan Schneider would term “masculine poetry,” in that it gets at the core of a typical male experience in a way that’s curious, a little self-effacing, yet undeniably assertive — as this poem’s narration is, at its end, wherein the narrator comes to a realization that will come to define much of ‘adult’ life. Simply consider how it begins with a prosaic observation: that the boy “can see father now/ Now that the leaves are few,” a completely unassuming statement what belies what comes later. In this way, Robert Francis is setting up an expectation he will simply out-do, thus playing with the ways that people view and interpret common patterns, the violation of which is necessary to good art. The next couple of lines merely affirm the sentiments of the first, the same strategy of pacing that Francis uses in the first poem, to better get the reader on his side before delivering the final whammy. Lines 4 and 5 ‘turn’ the poem quite subtly, the “somehow” inviting explanation, with the poetic “The far-off world looks new” a casual statement that, because it is so casual, only gets amplified later. The final 2 lines complete this, as these small observations are finally given a real, deeper purpose.
And there were builders building a wall.
They said: Let it be wide and tall.
They said: Let it be eternal.
And one builder would wave and call
To another builder on the wall
While cranes hauled stones no men could haul.
Small, they looked, those builders, small
As walking flies. They seemed to crawl
Like flies crawling along a wall.
Now only flies are there to crawl
Over the stones. There is no wall.
The highest stones were first to fall.
Stone after stone they fell till all
The builded stones had fallen — all.
Robert Francis was also very good at a difficult kind of rhyme-scheme: that of the repetitive rhyme, wherein the entire poem simply re-uses the same sound, over and over again. Naturally, this can easily get quite dull, as the poet starts to force rhymes out, but here, the content is reiterated in the rhymes’ sense of ‘eternity,’ at first, then the rhymes’ ultimately mocking of this sentiment. It’s an inversion that keeps things from getting boring, since the rhymes are allowed to play across different functions. Consider, for instance, how the first stanza opens with a nigh-biblical statement (“And there were builders building a wall”), followed by haughty proclamations that are only intensified by the difficulty of the feats described. In the end, the workers, themselves, become little more than “flies crawling along a wall” — a near-cliche of idea (if not phrasing) that gets inverted by the following line, wherein the “flies” return, literally, to crawl along the detritus of stanza 2. And, of course, the prosaic simplicity of a line like “There is no wall” works better than describing the wreck in rich, poetic detail, as such detail is deserved for the poem’s majestic open. By contrast, a simple statement rebuffs all that’s been said, with enough poesy in the last 4 lines to keep the reader interested and alert — a technique, in fact, that Shelley uses in his classic sonnet Ozymandias. No, Francis was not able to extrapolate this ability to other poems that require massive repetition, as his later, mediocre attempt at a sestina shows, but here is a slightly longer poem that does more than simply capture a moment, with even less material (and more payoff!) than most contemporary Formalist poetry allows.
Then, there is the poem Sniper, which ought to be read side-by-side with Joseph S. Salemi‘s inferior sonnet of the same title:
He lifts the rifle carefully, while Death
Sits like a patient uncle. Then he squeezes
The gently yielding trigger. Half a breath
Escapes him as the tensile mainspring eases.
A bullet sings, and finds its chosen place:
An intersection where taut spider thread
Marks a right angle on a human face —
His scope reveals a flagrant burst of red
Just for an instant. Motionless he waits
Ten calibrated seconds by his watch.
Unbroken silence. Turmoil dissipates.
Tonight the stock receives a single notch.
He draws the bolt back, and a glint of brass
Hops like a praying mantis on the grass.
The tree becomes him, he becomes the tree —
A visionary whom the world can’t see.
His solitude makes sense.
His leisure is immense.
Least organized of men and most unknown,
His deaths are singular, including his own.
How lean, how lyrical
A life. A fame how small.
Now, Salemi’s poem is a solid, perhaps even a good one, but its central flaw is only too obvious: that it’s merely a series of descriptions, from beginning to end, with the barest hint of a deeper meaning (the nigh-religious appearance of the “praying mantis”) occluded by 13 lines of sheer fluff immediately prior. Sure, it’s well-written fluff, as far as such things go, and Salemi (from the 1-2 dozen poems of his that I’ve read) is a FAR better New Formalist poet than the garbage that tends to accrete within such childish movements, but fluff is fluff. By contrast, Robert Francis’s poem on the same subject accomplishes more — depth, more technical daring — in less space, a sure hallmark of artistic superiority. In short, Francis begins with a philosophic posit masquerading as mere description, a reader ‘hook’ that is a cut above “He lifts the rifle carefully,” while the following line completes the thought in a way that both plays on “visionary” (re: sight), and re-interprets what is normally associated with a killer. By contrast, Salemi has one good image (“Death/ Sits like a patient uncle”) that is never really capitalized upon. Francis’s third and fourth lines go even deeper, with the 4th giving off a casualness that belies its far more sinister implications, a technique Salemi merely aims for throughout, but can’t quite ‘get,’ hovering, as he is, around the deeper thing. Moreover, the narrator in Salemi’s poem takes no position on what’s observed — boring! — while Francis both praises the killer (“How lean, how lyrical/ A life”) and counter-intuitively damns him (“A fame how small”) in a way that’s unexpected and fresh, while Salemi is content to merely leave the reader with a well-wrought image that aims without firing.
Yet for all that, Francis was also skilled in longer poems, as well, despite the fact that his longest poem — the 70+ page Valhalla — also more clearly shows his deeper flaws. Valhalla follows the experiences of several characters: Leif, a boy whose short life takes on nigh-symbolic proportion for the rest of the family, his father, John, his mother, the young outsider, Judd, Leif’s sister and Judd’s lover, Eden, and Leif’s youngest sister, Johanna. They all live somewhere in the Northeast, perhaps, in “Valhalla” — a town that may be the real-life New York hamlet, or, more likely, the Norse great hall, wherein Odin ‘rewards’ the bravest of all dead warriors, all the while keeping them for a future struggle. The latter reading gives these characters a bit of a mythic quality, for even the name exudes something totally foreign and unreal, as they all live (with various complaints) in a cut-off world, surrounded by forests and hills. In fact, the book opens with Leif as a figure coming of age in, and giving purpose to, this mythos:
The October day that Leif was twelve years old
His father gave him an ax to be his own.
When the boy fitted his hand about the helve
And thanked his father for the gift that his smile
Told how much he had wanted, they may have noticed,
Father and mother, that the hickory wood
Matched his hair as well as hard and soft
May match, and that this grayness of the steel
Resembled something gray in his blue eyes.
If the mother thought of danger, she said nothing.
Danger she knew was never dulled with talking,
The danger that must be and is best to be.
Note the construction of the stanza: 2 or 3 short sentences that clarify, polish, and deepen what goes on within a far longer one, sandwiched right in the middle. It’s a good choice of intro, for it immediately posits Leif as a character of substance, and the action all around him as substantive, given the mother’s words. Little touches like “something gray in his blue eyes” give the reader something deeper to think on, while the final line (“danger that must be and is best to be”) sets the narrative thrust for the rest of the poem, no matter how obliquely. Right away, then, Robert Francis gives himself a few directions to go in, while keeping the reader’s attention hooked to 2-3 salient ideas so as not to break things down to mere anomie. This is in sharp contrast to the adult-like Judd, who tries — or rather, is made to try, as a character — to usurp Leif’s place in the family:
I’m going to bed. I’m tired, he said.
She heard him on the stairs. She heard his door,
And heard him moving about his room above.
Then everything was still except the clock
Indoors and out of doors the leaves, the voices,
So much a boy to be so much a man
With his shop, his printer’s sign, his business card,
The roll of dollar bills in his pocketbook
(Mother, do you need any money today?)
And his hands giving the money, his printer’s hands
With fingernails that never could be clean.
There was the little boy who played so hard
He used to fall asleep before his bedtime —
Before he grew to be that other boy
Begging to stay up after bedtime. And now,
Tonight, before it was time to light the lamps,
I’m tired, I’m going to bed.
She heard his voice.
Was he talking to himself awake or dreaming?
His pillow mornings when she made his bed
Was proof of dreams, but the pillow never told her
What the dreams were.
Not even he was sure
Always when he awoke how much was dream,
How much remembered. What he did remember
After these months was the sting, the giddiness,
How he had had to shut his eyes for strength
To see again, and the sudden taste in his mouth.
Naked, nothing hidden or withheld
From him, yet all oblivious of him,
Color of sunlight, blossom, fruit — the girl
Under the apple trees looking up.
And he rigid within the edge of woods,
His hand grasping a tree, a heaviness
Like death upon him.
Slowly he had drawn back
Watching to see that he was still unseen
With every step unheard into the woods,
Then running, stumbling, escaping down the hill.
Now, barring a few poorer phrasings (“a heaviness/ like death upon him”), this is a wonderful passage, and all the more wonderful for being out of Robert Francis’s poetic norms. Usually, Francis is content to zero-in on an idea, mood, or real-life object, and keep things more or less where they belong, but here, one gets not only the hallmark descriptions full of clever contrasts (“So much a boy to be so much a man,” “pillow markings…proof of dreams, but the pillow never told her/ What the dreams were”), but a compression of the narrative into leaps that combine a boy’s musings (from when?) with obscure little things going on in the present tense. “The girl…” is a classic coming-of-age image, enjambed, here, to maximum effect, wherein the phrase lingers in the reader’s mind as much as the image must have lingered in Judd’s, and the woods thus given a ‘magical’ quality that belies the early adulthood Judd is forced into. That this contrasts nicely with what the reader knows of Leif (child-like, curious) is an added bonus, for this is not merely description for the hell of it, but a means to drive the narrative forward, as it defines some of the poem’s central characters and deepens their complexity.
Francis’s sense of drama was quite developed, as well:
I’ve come to see you, Judd.
Judd did not speak.
I’ve come to see what you intend to do.
They stood there separated by a knife
The sun thrust through the window to the floor.
Judd waited for the other to make a move
Or speak again. But the other waited too.
Just look at that wonderful enjambment: “separated by a knife/ The sun thrust through…”, which re-affirms the scene’s tension, and further plays with reader expectations. Interestingly, however, instead of moving away from the more violent reading of the word “knife,” Robert Francis merely returns to it at the end (“Judd waited for the other to make a move”), thus forcing the reader to re-read the previous lines, to see what, if anything, could be taken literally. This is simply excellent writing, and the sort of technique that most New Formalist poets can’t even begin to conceptualize, despite writing almost a century after Francis. The drama continues:
Eden is pregnant. You knew that of course?
I didn’t know it, he said, and swallowed shame.
What is your plan?
I have no plan.
You haven’t any plan, but I have one.
I came to you today. You come to me
Tomorrow. Come with your plan…
More excellent writing, as the repetitions (“plan,” “come”) affirm John’s self-control, and mesh nicely with the blank verse to — far from merely being a personal aesthetic choice — characterize both John and Judd, both here, as well as in the passage, above.
Yet for all that, Valhalla brings out some of Robert Francis’s flaws, as well. The biggest issue with the poem is how quickly (and unnecessarily) it gets subsumed by its own over-arching idea, an idea that’s simply not supported enough in the poem’s poetry, itself. In short, several major characters end up dying, in quick succession, in a way that affirms the book’s key themes. Yet to have several important deaths in the space of 70 pages, amidst lots and lots description, before the characters are fully established intellectually or emotively, in a narrative that is meant to be character-driven, is a problem that, ironically, could have only been solved by making the narrative longer, and meatier. The narrative arcs, then, become predictable, as with Johanna’s comment about being out of breath, and “not knowing why,” or ideas that, instead of being wrapped in the art, try to break out into more static forms, thus defying what art really is, mostly due to the choices, above. Yes, Francis was excellent at smaller poems, but Valhalla showed that he knew how to write longer poems, just as much as it revealed that he didn’t really think to extrapolate the successes in one form into another — or rather, what this extrapolation might really entail in terms of mechanics, pacing, and narrative strategems. That Francis did not write any other long poems is a shame, for it’s a challenge he was clearly up for, at 34, and could have refined into something truly great with practice.
This is Robert Francis, then, in a kind of digest, replete with all the good, and all the disappointments, as well. Yet a few late poems aside — the downfall of most old poets! — one can’t say that he has any mediocre (much less bad) material, either, a consistency that not even Robert Frost could boast. No, I can’t prove this by showing you all of Francis’s truly great poems, for there are none. But I can show you more of much the same, and promise that, dozens of poems later, you’d still not mind the repetition, nor what lingers from its touch:
The sea was blue, the sea was green
Before the sea was ever seen.
Surf muttered its liquid word
Before the surf was ever heard.
And waves made time against the shore
Before mind thought its first Before.
Speak the truth
And say I am slow,
Slow to outgrow
A backward youth.
Slow to see,
Slow to believe,
Slow to achieve,
Slow to be.
Yet being slow
The present tense.
Say that I grow.
It is a little thing to die.
A little thing it is to lie
Down on a common bed and die.
There need be no wide watchful sky
To watch one die, nor human eye.
No inauspicious bird need cry
At death, nor flying need it fly
Otherwise than birds fly
Whether or not some man will die.
No man about to die need try
To die or wonder how or why
Or say a prayer or say good-bye
Or even know that he will die.
Her flowers were exclusive blue.
No other color scheme would do.
Better than God she could reject
Being a gardener more select.
Blue it was against the green
With nothing not blue sown or seen.
Yet secretly she half-confessed
With blue she was not wholly blessed.
All blues, she found, do not agree.
Blues riot in variety.
Purist-perfectionist at heart,
Her vision flew beyond her art —
Beyond her art, her touch, her power,
To teach one blue to each blue flower.
The Mouse Whose Name Is Time
The Mouse whose name is Time
Is out of sound and sight.
He nibbles at the day
And nibbles at the night.
He nibbles at the summer
Till all of it is gone.
He nibbles at the seashore.
He nibbles at the moon.
Yet no man not a seer,
No woman not a sibyl
Can ever ever hear
Or see him nibble, nibble.
And whence or how he comes
And how or where he goes
Nobody dead remembers,
Nobody living knows.