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Creative Flow in Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Creative Flow in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
At the time Robert Frost wrote”Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” he had just completed a much longer work entitled: “New Hampshire”. Weary from the tedium of this longer piece, he sat down and the poem came through as though it were divinely inspired. Was Frost in a state of Flow? Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, authored several books including “Creativity, Flow and Finding Flow”. I would like to examine the idea that his creativity may have been in this flow, enabling him to write what he deemed was his masterpiece of poetry. It would seem that when we least expect it, and we allow ourselves the ability to let thoughts flow freely to the page, without the editor inside us undermining our writing, there is a chance to connect more freely with the poet within as was Frost’s experience in this piece. Or, was Frost so entrenched in his style that he need not even have to think about how to write this piece after writing poetry for so long?
Mihaly Csikszentmihayli was a Psychology Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago and a well known researcher in the subject of “flow”.He has written over 120 articles and book chapters on a variety of subjects, and came to his idea of "flow" from a variety of different approaches, contributing to studies of creativity and focused on many more than ninety creative figures from all over the world. His success in identifying this creative idea led Csikszentmihalyi to extend his of "flow" into several books including the one discussed in this essay entitled: Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.
Robert Frost was a four time Pulitzer Prize winning poet and author, lecturer and teacher. One of the Pulitzer prize winning works was in his book entitled” New Hampshire” in which Frost included his famous poem “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”.Frost wrote four plays, seven prose pieces were published, and thirty three poetry collections, which include hundred and hundred of poems. A neighbor of mine curiously admitted back in the nineteen seventies that Frost had rented her home and left some rather “lousy poetry” and artwork in the attic of the home, which she promptly burned in her fireplace! Imagine the reaction I had when I realized how foolish this person turned out to be! I can only wonder what gems would have been included in that group of creative pieces.
From the characteristics Mihalyi speaks of in his description of the flow state, Frost was in the state of “flow” when he wrote this piece. Although he was an experienced poet, he was able to be more spontaneous and use blank verse, which allowed more spontaneity, even though his subconscious mind may have already known the correct form of the style. Frost’s swift penning of this work is what appears to be the flow of his creative mind. Frost used “blank verse in this piece which is described as “dramatic speech, closest to human speech” (Strand 101) There is rhyming in this work however, although it flows so easily, one can see it was not forced but more effectively heartfelt. This poem invites its reader to experience the flow described by Mihaly: “.. ‘poem is the act of having the thought', Frost insisted; it is process rather than product, it invites us to share in the experiences of seeing, feeling, and thinking, not simply to look at their results.”(Gray)
Not only does this piece invite the reader into the thoughts of the poet, but the rhyme scheme seems to contribute to a resolution, or sense of closure at the end of the last stanza. "Whose woods these are I think I know." The monosyllabic tetrameter declares itself as it declares. Yet the "sound of sense" is uncertain. As an expression of doubtful guessing, "think" opposes "know," with its air of certitude.”(Cady) Cady further posits that the linked pattern seems resolved in the final stanza and the effects of closure in the rhyme scheme of aaba,bbcb, ccdc,dddd keeps the reader in suspension. (Cady)
Frost in his final appearance in 1962 in Boston speaks to his audience about his pleasure in writing this piece, was“ the effortless sound of that couplet about the horse and what it does when stopped by the woods: "He gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake." (Pritchard) Pritchard ascertains “ Frost's fondness for this couplet suggests that however much he cared about the "larger" issues or questions which "Stopping By Woods . . ." raises and provokes, he wanted to direct his readers away from solemnly debating them; instead he invited them simply to be pleased with how he had put it.” (Pritchard). This assertion aligns with the idea of remaining in flow. In the idea of flow, there is immediate feedback to ones actions, we know how well we are doing and action and awareness are merged. The poet here experiences the moment, and writes effortlessly about it, he is engaged and bot concerned about failure. Distractions are excluded from his experience, there is only intense concentration on the moment. There appears to be no sense of time, and the whole experience becomes “autolectic” or something that is an end in itself.
Frost seems to access his muse in this piece. The novelist Robertson Davie’s describes this experience as an idea that seizes him and will not let him go”. (Csikszentmihalyi 115) The poem: “Stopping By Woods' can be read deeply, and yet we can still enjoy the surface meaning, which is beautifully evocative. Just below the surface there is the sleep/death metaphor, and the undercurrent of gentle longing for death tinges the surface with a melancholy that reinforces and plays off the night and winter images. There is a predominance of soft, sounds, such as the 'sweep of easy wind and downy flake' throughout the piece, invoking an almost meditative invitation to the reader.
Philip L. Gerber, argues that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is most importantly a “lyric” poem, which should be appreciated in terms of its formal, metrical qualities, such as the complex, interlocking rhyme scheme, rather than its content or “meaning.” Gerber notes that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is “widely regarded, metrically, as Frost's most perfect poem.” Frost had been up the entire night writing the long poem "New Hampshire" and had finally finished when he realized morning had come. He went out to view the sunrise and suddenly got the idea for "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." He wrote the new poem in just a few minutes and later stated that "It was as if I'd had a hallucination." The “goal presents itself oftentimes as a vision, a mysterious call he felt impelled to follow” (Csikszentmihalyi 115) This, was Frost’s experience of accessing a state of flow. Frost once said that poetry could make one “remember what you didn't know you knew”.
Frost lectured before the Winter Institute of Literature at the University of Miami in 1935.His talk was entitled "Before the Beginning and After the End of a Poem". Frost said, "In the creative act, a certain impulse or state of mind precedes the writing of the poem. Next comes what Stevenson called 'a visitation of style', a power to find words which will somehow convey the impulse. The subject matter is provided by a combination of 'things' that happen to us and 'things' that occur to us. And gradually, out of this happy process the poem gets made, leaving something more implied than stated. It is what is beyond that makes poetry - what is unsaid .. It's unsaid part is its best part" (Thompson 416) This is the way this poem in conveyed and also analyzed by many scholars.
Looking at the mechanics of this piece, we see a creative piece that consists of four nearly identically constructed stanzas. Each line is iambic, with four stressed syllables. Within the four lines of each stanza, the first, second, and fourth lines rhyme. The third line does not, but it sets up the rhymes for the next stanza. The notable exception to this pattern comes in the final stanza, where the third line rhymes with the previous two and is repeated as the fourth line. Frost also uses symbols in his work, such as: the idea of entire sopping by the woods can represent life's journey. He uses hyperbole in his words:”Stopping by Woods” and we know the woods are filling up with snow, as well as synecdoche in that the little journey in the poem represents one’s life's journey.
Critics will defend the idea that there are many metaphors here for death and the life journey, but again Frost was clear in his own words after writing the piece that he wanted his reader to focus on the pleasure the poet had in allowing it to be created, and how he was able to write the piece effortlessly as though the words flowed through him, without having to concentrate on it at all. There is a simplicity in the rhyme scheme Frost uses in this piece, but it is considered a very difficult form to achieve in English without destroying a poem's content.
Frost’s experience here however came though him, according to his own admission, as an unforced creative inspiration, which aligns with the concept of being at one with the flow experience. In the work: Creativity, another poet, Hilda Domin aptly describes her poetry as more of an alternative reality. “One evening I started writing a poem. I didn’t have the idea I wrote, but I started it. It happened to me. Like, you know falling in love. Or being run over by a car. It happened. I had the language and I needed writing, so I wrote.” (Csikszentmihalyi 244) This appears to describe the state of mind Frost experienced in his writing of this poem. It was as though he were “hallucinating” or aligned with an alternative reality, but it probably was a state of creative flow.
In a letter written by Frost to Sylvester Baxter in 1923, Frost defends his writing of this poem as coming from an intuitive sense and as “one of the great, happy experiences of his poetic life”. (Townsend 242) His use of repetition in his final stanza was defended in this letter as the only way to end the piece and was less about symbol, and more about getting back to business after his reflection in the field. Frost writes Baxter that he made a series of reckless commitments to convention, and felt the form could not have come automatically, even as it came out quickly in the stroke of his pen. Frost tells Baxter to “take my word for it, your wont (sic) often look on as flawless piece of work as “Stopping by Woods”. It seems to me you show little faith to believe that I could have wound up the poem in any way I thought best” (Townsend 243)
Baxter had written to him previously he needed to finish it in a ddxd rhyme. Frost defends his ending by telling him that the only way he felt it could conclude was with a “repeated”. While it is clear Frost did not probably realize he had accessed a state of creative flow, he was aware the only way he felt comfortable ending his piece was by this rhyme scheme, we can see that perhaps his previous work in this medium was deeply embedded in to his subconscious creative mind. Frost enjoyed commenting and writing about his process of writing poetry, which is always a treat for the analyst who is seeking more underlying meaning in a particular work.
Of “Stopping by Wood” he commented: “That one I have been more bothered with than anyone has ever been with any poem in just the pressing it for more than it should be pressed for it means enough without it being pressed.” ( Cook 64). Often it was said Frost spoke out against over-readers and”pressers:” indicating that one does not want his muse to be “outraged” (Cook 64) In the words of the poet himself, his words were created in tranquility, not competition. His ability to access this tranquility were explained as clearly as Mihaly’s flow elements were in his research on creativity in individuals: “ Such a tranquility comes from feeling at the top of one’s form, just as in tennis when the player knows instinctively the exact distance to the back line, the top of the net, and the proper height to toss the ball for the service. “It is always a kind of miracle, you’re in a performing condition and you play.” (Cook 66). Frost called these “moments of majestic instancy and once you’ve had this kind of moment it spoils you for life” and “You keep waiting around for it to happen, they call is inspiration, but I don’t know what that means” (Cook 66-67) This is exactly what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi mentions as a state of “Flow”. Frost had it, as do others, including many sports figures. Frost’s comments about as his experience being akin to a tennis players is spot on in its description of how it feels when it happens as this is also mentioned in the description of the state.
There are many other such comments Frost makes that are analogous to the idea of Mahal’s description of the creative flow experience. Frost knew nothing of this idea, save an intuitive sense that he accessed something larger than he could explain. Csikszentmihalyi writes that “a person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but also must reproduce that system in his or her mind”.(Csikszentmihalyi 47) He further says that when a person learns the rules and contents of their creative domain, in this case poetic form, and know the workings of the field, then both creative flow and the utilization of the mechanics will also remain inherent in the created piece. Frost was able to access his muse, his flow and his creative inspiration in this piece, and still retain the level of form that made this piece the spectacular success it was to him, and is still considered today. “In flow we feel our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action” (Csikszentmihalyi 111) This creative component seems to describe the experience Frost had with this work. And in this assessment, we can feel reasonably certain, Frost and his work were one in the descriptive and contemplative qualities this poem has offered his reader now, for almost one hundred years.
Cook, Reginald. American Literature. “Frost on Frost: The Making of Poems” Duke University Press. Vol. 28, No. 1 (Mar., 1956), pp. 62-72 . Accessed online: JSTOR. Salem State College. 27 April 2009.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mahal. Creativity: Flow and The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Collins. NY. 1996.
Cady, Edwin H. and Louis J. Budd. "Comparing Conceptions: Frost and Eddington, Heisenberg and Bohr." On Frost: The Best from American Literature. Duke UP, N.C. 1991.
Gerber, Philip L. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/220895/Robert-Frost. Online. Accessed: 20 April 2009.
Gray, Richard. American Poetry of the Twentieth Century. Longman Group UK Limited 1990.
Modern American Poetry. Online at: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/frost/woods.htm
Pritchard, William H. Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered. University of Massachusetts Press, MA.1984.
Strand, Mark and Eavan Boland. The Making of a Poem. Norton. NY. 2000.
Thompson, Lawrence. Robert Frost: The Years of Triumph. Henry Holt & Company. NY. 1970.
Townsend, RC and Robert Frost. The New England Quarterly Inc. “In Defense of From: A Letter from Robert Frost to Sylvester Baxter, 1923.” Volume 36, No 2. June 1963.Accessed online: JSTOR. Salem State College. 26 April 2009. pp. 241-249.