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Robert Frost’s “‘Out, Out–‘”

By K. Silem Mohammad

4-29-13_Mohammad

Re-reading Robert Frost’s “‘Out, Out—'” for the first time in a long while, I expected it to exhibit at least some kind of craft-smartness and metrical subtlety. But what an off-putting, stilted poem!

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them “Supper.” At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap–
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all–
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart–
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off–
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little–less—nothing!–and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Some of the language here is effective on a prose level: the almost-onomatopoeic description of the buzz saw’s snarl and rattle, notably. Two lines stand out to me as metrically and imagistically well-wrought: “Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset far into Vermont.” There’s a nice cantoring lilt to that. For the most part, however, the verses clunk along stiffly, lurching in uncomfortable harness. “And from there those that lifted eyes could count…”—does pentameter get any more wooden than that? Surely Frost didn’t intend those stuttering strings of alliterative blurts jammed together so awkwardly. Or this mess:

Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.

Doesn’t this sound like a bad translation from Greek drama or something? Someone might protest that Frost is being deliberately flat and unmusical, to capture the plain-speech rhythms of his subjects, but there’s nothing plain about this, for all the monosyllables. Rather, it sounds deafly textual and stuffy. The blend of farm talk (“big boy / Doing a man’s work”) and elevated tragic diction (“the watcher at his pulse took fright”) is perverse in the most uninteresting way. This is poetry reduced to a pedantic exercise in stylistic fusion.

One bit of lively nastiness stands out: the saw that leaps out at the call for supper “As if to prove saws knew what supper meant.” But even this is phonically sloppy—”to prove saws knew” sounds more Slavic than English. And the ghoulishness of the conceit is either a terrible miscalculation of taste, or an index of Frost’s callous sadism (which might amount to the same thing). What comes through in this poem most jarringly of all for me is Frost’s total lack of true human feeling. For all his posturing at empathy, he plays the death of the boy for pure cynical shock value. Consider the way even the boy’s frantic pleading is compromised for the sake of metrical and narrative mechanics: “‘Don’t let him cut my hand off— / The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!'” “The doctor, when he comes”—Frost makes the poor dying boy break off from his terror-filled cries to provide exposition, in hackneyed iambs yet. The pious observation about everyone else’s indifference at the end of the poem just adds insult to injury.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 29th, 2013 by K. Silem Mohammad.