‘Steer straight off after something into space’

By Sanda Baucom Hight
Posted 1/24/20

Those among us who love poetry know of its power to sow ideas that help us understand our life, to stretch our imagination, to make our existence broader, to make our sense of curiosity spin and to …

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‘Steer straight off after something into space’

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Those among us who love poetry know of its power to sow ideas that help us understand our life, to stretch our imagination, to make our existence broader, to make our sense of curiosity spin and to lift our lives to a level above the mundane.

Every age has poets, and every age has individuals who embrace their ideas and read their poems with gusto.

One of America’s finest poets is Robert Frost, the farmer, teacher, poet laureate, friend to people in high places and one with whom common people can identify.

Frost’s poems are more than little rhyming ditties; they touch on ideas that we ordinary people can understand and incorporate into our lives. Children study some of his poems in grade school, and college students read and analyze them on a higher level.

Many of Frost’s poems contain images of life in rural New England: country roads, stone walls that separate neighbors’ property, snowy woods, butterflies and flowers, wind and stars, country graveyards, trees and farm animals. He uses these common images to comment on the glory of nature, our joys, hopes, disappointments, griefs, questions and reasons to persist in spite of life’s struggles.

Recently, I read from a Frost collection something that gave me pause, that made me eager to share with readers a big idea from a small poem.

“On a Tree Fallen Across the Road” is a Frost poem with a big idea. This poem is a classic sonnet: 14 lines, precise rhyme scheme, exact iambic pentameter, logical progression of ideas and a concluding couplet that clinches the idea of the poem.

Picture this: A tree has fallen across the road on a snowy day. The narrator says the fallen tree does not bring the journey to an end just because it blocks the road, “but just to ask us who we think we are,” since we are in the habit of thinking we should have our own way and have everything in our lives just so. The tree wants to make us kneel down in the snow and try to figure out “what to do without an ax.”

The image of the fallen tree that blocks our way is, of course, a metaphor for how we handle unexpected situations and stumbling blocks that have the potential to keep us from meeting our goals.

The poem goes on to say that such stumbling blocks are not in vain. We have the power to continue on toward our goals by some other means. The last two lines of the poem bring the idea of the poem home: “And, tired of aimless circling in one place, / Steer straight off after something into space.”

In other words, we can work toward our goal by taking a different direction or approach.

This poem is not as obscure as some of the others in Frost’s collection. It starts with an image of a fallen tree, continues with the idea of questioning what we can do when we face obstacles and ends with the suggestion of taking a new direction.

Here are three suggestions. First, find Frost’s poem and read it several times. Second, apply its ideas to our own life. Finally, thank Frost for leaving us a poem that leads us to think.

We can also take the idea of this sonnet one step further and think about how the ideas can be applied beyond our own life. How about applying the ideas to community life, to education, to politics and to a multitude of social problems?

The idea to “steer straight off after something into space” is fascinating. It has energy and freshness and hope for going somewhere new and fresh and exciting. Compare this idea with giving up after finding a stumbling block. Steering into space is more appealing and more likely to get us moving away from obstacles.

Let us not be afraid of poetry but embrace it, especially that of Robert Frost and others who can fill our lives full of ideas and understanding.

Sanda Baucom Hight is retired from Wilson County Schools after serving as an English teacher and is currently a substitute teacher in Wilson County. Her column focuses on charms and ideas for a fuller life. Email her at srbhight8@gmail.com.