After a dreadful event, Robert Frost’s “Birches” was my link to the real world. Only months later did its deeper meaning become clear.
By David Brittan
The first time I read “Birches” was last spring, in the rawest days of a family tragedy. It seems odd now that I had missed this Frost classic, or failed to register it. Maybe I just wasn’t ready.
The aftermath of a death in the family — particularly a violent death — may be the ideal time to pick up something new, like a poem, and poke it and bite into it to see if it is real. Because nothing else seems real. Suddenly the world is a Dali painting, and familiar objects are melting onto the floor. “A nightmare,” friends would murmur, and that was the only word for it.
The first month after the killing, I couldn’t work or even figure out what I should be working on. I was a writer. Maybe I should be writing about this? Should I start researching the connection between homicide and mental illness? A book on the subject could be useful, especially if it helped explain why some people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — a tiny fraction of them — kill people. What are the warning signs? Are there any? It would have been helpful to know.
“Birches” dropped into my life on April 1, a month after the episode, and a few weeks into the Covid-19 lockdown. It was the beginning of National Poetry Month. To kick off the celebration, a newsletter from The Atlantic carried a link to three Robert Frost poems, including “Birches,” which the magazine first published in 1915. The poems were offered as an antidote to all the worrisome news about the pandemic, a reminder of “the beauty of nature and the outdoors.”
At that point I was low enough to try anything, even read a poem — which I seldom do, because I am rather literal, and slow to take hints. I do love nature, though, so I followed the link to Frost. Because I wanted something solid and treelike to hang on to, my reading of “Birches” was staggeringly one-dimensional. My imagination never left the realm of bark and sap. And “Birches” does present an appealing surface, bright and velvety like the trees themselves.
The birches in the poem do all kinds of birchy things. They “bend left and right / Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” They “click upon themselves” when coated with ice. They arch in the woods, and trail their leaves on the ground. Birches are natural protagonists, beloved by all (at least until one comes down in your yard).
It was all very beautiful, but I might not have read the poem twice had it not been for the boy.
I have raised three boys, and am quite attuned to the ways of boys. Their readiness to make a game out of rocks and a tin can, or a sailboat out of a leaf and a twig. I felt I knew that solitary farm boy, the character Frost daydreams about, in the midst of all this nature, doing what boys always do with nature — turning it to his own purposes as he “swings” the birches, climbing their slender trunks until they bend over and return him to the ground.
I remembered one of my own boys — the one currently awaiting trial for murder — demonstrating the same sport. I assumed he had invented it. And now in this snow globe of a scene, a sturdy, fearless kid, happy and not a bit psychotic, and with a bright future ahead of him, lived and relived a moment that in real life had whooshed by.
Trees. Boys. Solid stuff. Maybe poetry wasn’t so unfathomable after all.
I was inspired to make a video of “Birches” and send it to friends, in much the same cheering-up spirit as The Atlantic. In the course of selecting images and recording the narration, I must have read the poem 200 times. And not once did it occur to me that “Birches” had to do with anything other than birch trees — let alone with me. I told you I can’t take a hint. In this case, it was as if Frost had left a can of antiperspirant on my doorstep and I had responded by scratching my head and saying, “Damned poets! They speak in riddles.”
Other parts of my life became clearer. The more I thought about that book — the one I considered writing to shed light on my son’s violent act, and maybe predict such acts — the more futile it seemed. My son was schizophrenic, untreated. His mother, my former wife, was an experienced psychotherapist. She had worked with violent inmates in the criminal justice system, including juveniles who were in for murder. She seemed to have a way with them. And at home, no mother ever tried harder to make peace with the delusions and strange behavior of a psychotic son, or to show him love and respect, or to protect his dignity, than she did. But still she could not save herself from him.
I hadn’t seen the paranoid outburst coming either, and doubt that anybody would have. I wished I could go back in time and undo things. But no book of mine could bring back the dead, or cure my son. What I needed instead was a life-affirming project.
On April 20, I posted my “Birches” video on YouTube, and a friend did me the favor of handing me a word. A lovely word, plain but potent. The Frost poem, he said, was a reminder of what is “necessary.” Not just “nice to have.” Not just “important.” Necessary. As easily as that, I had found my life-affirming project.
Months later, as I was putting the finishing touches on The Necessary (a multimedia magazine about the necessity of art in its many forms), I sat down to write a breezy piece about “Birches,” which I remembered as being essentially a guide to the recreational uses of deciduous trees. But when I brought it up on screen, I found myself staring at a different poem.
This was a poem about summoning the courage to create. It was about reclaiming a part of oneself that has been buried in an overgrowth of misfortune. Somehow I had missed the point of all this hardship — those times when one is “weary of considerations,”
And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig's having lashed across it open."
I thought Frost was talking about himself (I imagined him piling up the rejection slips, like the one The Atlantic initially sent him for this very poem). But he was talking about me. Me, his reader, the one to whom the poem is addressed. Me, the guy who was stuck in a nightmarish wilderness overhung with cobwebs and cornea-scraping twigs, and for whom there was no visible path forward. Now I recognized myself.
At such moments, Frost in the poem dreams of going back to being a “swinger of birches.” The way he describes the swinging of a birch is exactly how I experience the making of art. First, Frost says,
He learned all there was To learn about not launching out too soon And so not carrying the tree away Clear to the ground.
How far can I safely go? Every artist asks a version of that question. Every act of creation — musical, literary, or other — is an opportunity to stretch, but is also fraught with danger. Each new project carries the risk of public failure (something I fear out of all proportion to the actual tally of my failures) or private disappointment.
This leads to the exercise of extreme care, just like the tree-climbing boy who approaches the top branches “With the same pains you use to fill a cup / Up to the brim, and even above the brim.”
Then you fling outward, “feet first, with a swish.”
That, for me, is creation. The leaving behind of wearisome “considerations,” the entry into this perfect, slightly treacherous domain governed by its own rules, the careful ascent to the highest point you are capable of reaching, and finally the thrilling leap — the press of the “Publish” button, the gallery opening, the rise of the curtain — that returns you to the world, unharmed yet somehow altered.
Frost’s narrator (who I now realize is not Frost, the unfaltering poet, but a man who has lost touch with his art, much as I had) believes the birches of his childhood were his closest approach to heaven.
Childhood may well be the best time for art. It was for me. I didn’t mind practicing my music with the windows open then, or sitting down to write a story or poem just for fun, or drawing copiously and without self-judgment. When I was six, I had my tonsils out. In those days tonsillectomies were done in-patient, so I brought my oil pastels. Curled on my side in the hospital bed, I drew scarlet fire trucks battling orange and goldenrod blazes and gave them to the nurses, who cooed their thanks and rolled me over to change my spectacularly stippled bedsheets. It felt pretty close to heaven.
Since starting work on The Necessary, I have been swinging birches full time — only I didn’t know it until I reread the poem. Sitting dormant in my head all these months, “Birches” seems to have expanded. Or maybe it stayed the same while my mind expanded to accommodate it. Either way, the poem has led me into a more fearless, and I daresay more childlike, relation to art. And that has helped soften the horror of the early spring.
I don’t think art can erase horror. Yet it can create an alternative to horror. The harsh reality doesn’t go away as you climb that tree, but your mind is fully occupied by the painstaking ascent and the thousand decisions that must be made before it dips its top and sets you down again. Yes, one could do worse than be a swinger of birches. ☾
By Robert Frost
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father's trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It's when I'm weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig's having lashed across it open.
I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.