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A Dust of Syllables

By Annie Finch

I took a walk in the woods last week. The snow was thick and rather wet that day, and as, near the end of my walk, I stopped my crunching footsteps to listen, I heard crows cawing to each other, a repeating music, punctuated occasionally by the plop of wet snow off a branch, and then by a cascade of flakes following. There in the stillness, a tiny poem of Frost’s came into my head:
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Manuscript copy of “Dust of Snow” signed by Frost


In the quiet whiteness of the snow, with no distractions or hurry, it came to me syllable by slow syllable, so precisely balanced between them that I noticed again how few syllables there are. And in particular, I noticed how few EXTRA syllables there are—none at all, until the fourth line, halfway through the poem:
The way a crow
shook down on me
the dust of snow
from a hemlock tree
That extra syllable (“from”), hit me, among the trees, as a dust of snow itself, falling from the line above it, down through the poem.
And, just as real snow is likely to hit at least another branch on its way down, so the dust of this syllabic snow impacts the line below it:
Has given my heart
before the poem remembers and rights itself:
a change of mood
and saved one part
and here the self-consciousnessness of memory comes back in, and the branch shakes a final time:
of a day I had rued.
The exact tone of that last line has been a mystery to me as long as I have known this poem. Last week, I realized that these may be the most melancholy two anapests I have ever read. They dwell too long on the gift of the single anapest, and so they taint it, unnecessarily. The gift, examined too long, turns sour. And yet the poem retains its freedom; the syllable “had” indicates, so quickly it is almost a subliminal suggestion, that the rueing is over, and with the lightness of “rued” as opposed to “mood,” the poem ends in a syllable of possibility, the branch freed of the weight of its snow, and open to be moved again.

Comments (4)

  • On March 2, 2009 at 1:03 pm Alicia (AE) wrote:

    Nice reading of this poem, enjoyed. I like the syllables of snow! That last line does bounce a bit, like a branch lightened of its load. Isn’t it true that poems come into our head while we are walking…

  • On March 2, 2009 at 6:58 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Lovely reading, Annie. Although I usually don’t need an excuse, you’ve sent me back to Frost tonight.

  • On March 4, 2009 at 8:34 am mearl wrote:

    Annie,
    Your post reminded me of three things. How much I miss New England winters. How much I miss walks in the woods (I’ve been too busy lately – lately, meaning the last eight years, ever since I stopped teaching) and, lastly, how delicately Frost leads us into the fraught regions of the psyche. Like Mozart, another classical artist, there is always an almost hidden element of dissonance, and unlike the Romantics who are more likely to explode verbally to express feeling, the classical artist achieves this magic at a structural level, here, as you say, through “the most melancholy two anapests I have ever read.”
    I like how you refer to “had” as a syllable and not a word. And I agree with you that it contains a subliminal suggestion, but metrically is drags a bit, that is it doesn’t behave completely anapestically, since is struggles to dominate the final stressed syllable. The tense of the verb works with the metric dissonance in a curious fashion. The “syllable of possibility” seems challenged in a way. It is, after all, only “one part” of the day that has been given an opening, which the rest of the day, by implication, looms behind, unreleased, bleak, rued.
    Martin

  • On March 5, 2009 at 9:59 am Cathy Halley wrote:

    Annie-
    Thank you for reminding me how poems–old ones we’ve known for years–crack open in new ways when we move around (with) them. I’m looking forward to the drip, drip of spring and the Chicago poetry walking tours we’ll be launching on the site in April. I hope both help me fall in love with my adopted home.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, March 2nd, 2009 by Annie Finch.