Learning across boundaries with Robert Frost

Week 5 in ModPo was hectic. With the theme of Anti-Modernist Doubts, it covered Communist Poets of the 1930s, Haarlem Rennaissance Poets, Robert Frost and a brief look at post-war neo formalism. Poets discussed during this week were Ruth Lechlitner, Genevieve Taggard, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy and, as mentioned, Robert Frost.  It was all fascinating, but one line of discussion caught my attention, and that was in relation to Robert Frost’s poem,  “Mending Wall’.

 Frost-wallSource of image: ModPo syllabus

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The story of this poem is of two neighbours who meet once a year to mend an eroding wall between their two properties – to build it up again. They each stay on their own side of the wall, walking along the wall and repairing it. The speaker’s neighbour believes that “Good fences make good neighbours” …. for the relationship to be good, they have to keep separate – there is a necessary distance between people and we try and connect through the gaps.

The suggestion in the discussion about this poem was that the two neighbours are both Robert Frost. One side of Robert Frost is conservative and wants to stick with tradition, keeping the wall up, keeping everything as it has always been, keeping the distance between neighbours, mending the wall when it begins to crumble, and preventing the chaos that might ensue if the wall was allowed to come down. This side of him liked formal restrictions, rules and the distinction between “I’ and “Other”.  The other side of Robert Frost, is the frost itself that does the eroding, that consciously tries to bring the wall down, that wants things to change and nature to take its course, that believes that the natural state of boundaries is that they erode.

This discussion reminded me of Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice and working at the boundaries of communities. I remember him saying that learning can be very effective at the boundaries of communities, i.e. if you can straddle communities having feet in more than one community of practice at a time.

Robert Frost’s poem suggests to me that it’s a question of balance – we need a bit of distance away from the boundary (i.e. more towards the core of a community of practice, or your own personal and individual ‘space’ for solitude and contemplation) but also the opportunity to meet across boundaries and to work collaboratively at boundaries, for at least some of the time.

Finally, Al Filreis raised the interesting point that in New England walls were not originally built with the intention of marking boundaries, but to get rid of glacial boulders from the earth, so that the soil could be tilled. Walls were formed when stones and boulders were moved out of the way for agricultural purposes. I suspect there’s a lot that could be read into this. We seem to live in a world where we will naturally and sometimes unintentionally build up boundaries, but they will naturally erode with time, unless we consciously maintain them.

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