I love “Birches”: 10 Reasons Why. This is starting to sound like a Netlfix Original Series, and it’s one typo away from sounding like a rap song. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets, and I usually give “Birches” as my favorite poem. What I want is to outline for you why I love this poem and why it’s special to me. I want this post to be a celebration of the joy of poetry, so I’m going to avoid getting too much into the analytics. I’ll leave the sober essays on the poem’s themes to the good folks at Sparknotes. Today I want to leave the world of academics behind and just write from the heart. So here it is, 10 Reasons Why I Love “Birches” by Robert Frost.
- I first discovered Robert Frost when I was studying as an exchange student at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in 2012. I was taking a class in American Literature and we had a selection of his poems to study for Finals. By that point the campus was covered in snow and ice and I remember walking very carefully to Hibbard- the building where I had my English classes- because it felt that at any moment I might fall. I distinctly remember not even being able to see the big, red-brick building because the snow was so thick. I can still feel the weight of flaky white clumps on my eyelashes and how I had to blink and rub my eyes constantly just to see where I was going. Of all the poems we read of Frost, “Birches” was the one that stuck with me. It’s the link between the present and the time I spent studying American Literature in December of 2012, with the wintry images of the poem bearing a striking resemblance to the campus at the time of my reading it.
- I feel like I can relate to the narrator of the poem. At one time or another we have all looked at birches bent over in the wind and imagined that some boy had been swinging them. I am drawn to the idea that he “likes” to see them that way, and that even though he realizes that it’s all because of the ice storm, he later goes on to say he still “prefers” to think of them as being swung by children. I often find myself in a similar mindset, and I think that’s why this poem struck such a cord with me at the time. My reading of the poem was that the speaker is not so interested in truth in the empirical, literal sense of the word, but in the truths we create for ourselves by attaching significance to things. It pleases the speaker to think of the birches as bent by children at play because it takes him back to his youth, to a time of innocence. The narrator seems weary and weighed down by the adult world and the hard, sad truths of life. He longs for the blissful way a child perceives the world, but he wants to return just long enough to escape the complexity of the real world for a moment. I’m often thinking about how I like to see the world in a lyrical or poetic way, imagining things to have a greater significance than they do.
- The poem for me also exists as a kind of textual painting of the New England rural idyll. It makes me think of the paintings of Winslow Homer, and the winter scenes of Currier & Ives. Like a painting, it has the power to encapsulate a time, a place, and a way of life with a single image- the swinging of birches. This was a popular game for children in rural parts of New England, and something that both Frost and his children were fond of doing.
- Of course, one of the big draws of this poem is the wintry imagery. I’ve never been to New England, so the only picture I have to accompany this post is a photo my roommate took of a birch tree in the Wisconsin northwoods in the summer. As my professor read this poem to us I found myself hanging on his every word. Everyone in the room was silent and I could imagine that each of us had a clear image- not dissimilar to that of a painting- of the birches bent over in the shrill winds of winter. I love the way he describes them as “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”.
- The images were so powerful to me that they influenced my own writing of poetry. A year later, in the fall of 2013, I began writing poems again for a class I was taking in Winchester, England. My style had changed. I was reinventing myself as a nature poet. I was obsessed with images and I wrote a whole bunch of vivid poems about the Wisconsin landscape. In “Birches” the freezing rain causes the branches to become coated in glaze ice, which then cracks in the sunny morning and falls to the snow below. It’s funny, because during the fall of 2013, I called Aaron and asked how things were back in Wisco. He told me about going on dates with Anne-Marie and explained to me the concept of freezing rain- which they were suffering that week. I took the two pieces of information and wrote a poem about a young Wisconsinite couple trying to find each other in freezing rain. I was inspired by how the weather was at once beautiful and terrible.
- “Birches” is written in blank verse; that is so say, poems written in unrhymed metrical lines. I’ve always preferred poems that don’t rhyme, because I love the way the sentences just seem to hang in the air and stay in the thoughts of the reader.
- What’s so great about this poem is the beauty of its language. It makes your ears happy. Frost uses sibilance to create a visceral, onomatopoeic effect in the lines “Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells/Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust”. I remember hearing the admiration in my professor’s voice as he read it. He had clearly read this poem countless times, but it still took his breath away.
- “Birches” was the gateway drug that got me hooked on the skag of poems like “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”. It established Frost as one of my go-to poets, alongside Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell and James Dickey.
- Although I discovered Frost in 2012, I would not return to him until 2014. “Birches” remained in my subconscious but it wouldn’t be forgotten for long. It all came flooding back to me when Anne-Marie told me that Robert Frost was her favorite poet and “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken” were her favorite poems. She had studied them in high school and fallen in love with them. There’s a special joy I take in sharing the passion of words with my friends. One time I even caught her reciting the lines “and miles to go before I sleep…” as she drove us across Wisconsin in the night. When I got back to the U.K in the fall, I then picked up a book of his complete works, which I always keep within reaching distance of my writing desk.
- The last reason why I love “Birches” so much is in many ways a culmination of reasons 1-9; it’s a great poem to be read aloud. Despite my phobia of public speaking I do enjoy reading poems aloud when I can. It’s a fear I dream of overcoming. And I’d love to read Frost’s poems to people with the same passion that my Literature professor had back in Eau Claire. It’s a timeless, enduring body of work that I’d take a great pleasure in sharing with others. Reading “Birches”- or any great poem- is really only half the fun. Share it with those you love and those you want to inspire.
You can read the poem here: Birches