289. (Robert Frost)

How stupidly, carelessly I misread and misheard “Directive,” failing first to read it for what it was saying, and second failing to read it for how it situates its voice to the reader, the interplay of pronouns chiefly being what I missed. I was so distracted by the second-person address of “weep for what little things could make them glad” that I didn’t see what it was doing: it’s a poem that narrates its own telling, that narrates the telling of any number of poems, the desire of a poet to bring a person to a place, to get them lost so that they might be found, to bring them back in time and place.

The word “lost” around which the poem turns needs to have three meanings: salvation, disorientation, and erosion/absence. The first “loss” (“time made simple by the loss”) is the last of these (erosion); the second, “getting lost,” is disorientation, and the third, “Both of them are lost” is the third. All three are present in the subsequent line, “if you’re lost enough to find yourself.” The first is present with the “Grail.” But all three haunt the poem, what it is about; and it’s against these, or through all three of these, that the poet-guide brings us.

Poet as Guide is nothing unusual. This gives us both poet as guide and poet as guided, though the reader is also guided along with the poet, as in Dante. And Dante is obviously a presence in the poem, in the sense of loss, of a fallen landscape, and in the obtrusive, harsh line “Weep for what little things could make them glad.” It is very much the sort of thing Virgil would tell Dante to do, and that Dante, and we readers, would bristle against; it is pity, but pity as an obligation, something right but also something that must be done to continue on the way.

Frost writes then, to himself, as he remembers and goes on a journey into his own past, and memory which includes his past poems, with the landscape of “Directive” frequently presenting a deformed recollection or distortion of his earlier landscapes and works; it’s a bit hellish, this quest into memory. He also writes to a reader, of course, and the poem is anchored to the “if”: “if you’ll let a guide direct you.” The journey is, from that point, prospective: what will happen in reading the poem, rather than being the poem itself. But what difference is there? Or, from the perspective of reading the poem as Frost guiding himself, is there a difference between imagining what I will remember if I let myself remember and actually remembering it? That reads like a thought-experiment by Wittgenstein but it’s to the point here, practically speaking. What’s the difference between telling you where a poem will take you and actually writing a poem to take you there? And so, by the end of the poem, we are told, in the imperative present, to “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” It’s no longer prospective, since we are the end.

That line is itself of course baffling, since there is nothing to drink from except the poem’s ending, which leaves us, if we are expecting to be made whole again, somewhat confused; but with the ending, a poem itself becomes whole, and the reader, who is somewhat lost to a poem, inhabiting as we do the voice and thought of the poet, is left to be himself or herself again, “whole again.” “Beyond confusion,” though, is not necessarily a place we have been before. If we are even there now: this last line might be conditional on the “if” we have let the guide direct us. And if we haven’t, what then?

That joke makes the poem feel a bit like a game of the sort that we might find in the Alice books, and Lewis Carroll, along with Dante, along with Wordsworth’s “Ruined Cottage” is alive in the poem (and maybe also, with the brook running from down the mountain where the ruins of the sheep-fold can be found, “Michael”). “If you’re lost enough to find yourself” comes close to something Alice hears or is told; the final line too with its command to “Drink.” The poem courts nonsense, or at least echoes it, which does not mean that it gives up on sense, but that it’s awareness of sense situates it next to something alien.

The game of the poem, for the reader, for the poet, is a game of make-believe, a going-along with the conditional, a game for children, and a game of intimacy; it’s no less serious for being that. It toys and plays with the reader but does not play with the reader as if the reader is a toy. That playing is no more fanciful than in the last lines where the first-person singular pronoun shows itself: “I have kept hidden in the instep arch / Of the old cedar at the waterside/ a broken goblet like the Grail/ Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it.” The lines can’t be heard earnestly, but they can be heard seriously, serious in their desire to have you go along with the make-believe. But the language resists the portentous, not only in the parenthetical, “(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse”)—scurrilous, but also an extension of the children’s games—but also in a double meaning: “watering places” is not just a place to drink water, but a bar. The guide maybe has taken us to get drunk, or at least in-spirited by liquors and spirits.

The poem does not undo its ambitions with the whiff of booze on the breath, any more than other Frost poems undo themselves with the rough, weathered cynicism of the country geyser; he suggests instead here that the poet is close kin to the barfly, for reasons that are easy to appreciate. The experiences that move someone to drink or that move someone to read or write a poem might not be that different; similarly, the arduous task of remembering might demand a bravery that some win by the bottle. The poem’s dislocations of syntax and register do not ask us to choose whether to hear it as inspiration from above or inspiration from below; it can be both at once.

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