22 January 2007

A Piece of Poetry

by Thomas Hornsby Ferril
(Trial By Time: Harper & Brothers, 1944)

There was a dark and awful wood
Where increments of death accrued
On every leaf and antlered head
Until it withered and was dead,
And lonely there I wandered
And wandered and wandered.

But once a myth-white moon shone there
And you were kneeling by a flower,
And it was practical and wise
For me to kneel and you to rise,
And me to rise and turn to go,
And you to turn and whisper no,
And seven wondrous stags that I
Could not believe walked slowly by

I'm no poetry/literature expert, but I do appreciate a little verse here and there. I thought I'd give a little web time to an under-appreciated 20th century poet named Thomas Hornsby Ferril. He was a Poet Laureate of the state of Colorado and a friend of Carl Sandburg. In fact, the Colorado Center for the Book's official bio of Ferril tells an amusing anecdote about their close friendship:

The Ferrils were known for their lively dinner parties with theater people, writers and photographers. Friends recall parties where Ferril played his mandolin and Sandburg played the guitar... Anne Ferril Folsom recalls coming home from school one day and being startled to find someone asleep on her bed, wearing her mother's negligee. It was Carl Sandburg, taking a nap.

So anyway, I'm interested in others' interpretation/applications/thoughts on the poem. Me? I think it's lovely. I'll withhold further comment until a few people post.


Christina said...

Fiiiiine. I'm posting.

Well, I am no expert either, but I'll begin with what strikes me first. That would be the mood the poem creates. The lack of punctuation, the repetition, the colors, the cold...all very lonely, but a romantic kind of loneliness. (For a second I kind of imagine one of those sappy, melodramatic phonies wandering, wandering, wandering around the wintery woods, wearing no shoes and no coat, trying to "find" himself through his surrounding elements, but in actuality just coming down with a lethal case of hypothermia. But then that destroys the real beauty of the poem, so I'll take a different tack.)

It is indeed very melancholy. So, this is how I sort of interpret it...and I have absolutely NO idea how close I am to the truth or to even making sense...but here I go. The writer views his life as an empty wood, of sorts. He has allowed life to pile up and decay from lack of active use. I get the feeling that he has been an observer in his life rather than a doer - brought about by some great disappointment earlier in life. He wanders searching for something of meaning, but really only collects meaninglessness. (I may have made up that word.) But he lets us know that once upon a time he found wonder and beauty in his life. (Love the image of the myth-white moon!) But because of rejection or death or some kind of separation, he has idealized that joy and made it a mythical thing...something unbelievable and unattainable... So, hm, overall he's very depressed. Sad. He can still recognize beauty and light, but only in a far off sort of way. He is so unacquainted with it now that he can only revisit it in his memories. And he has distanced himself so much from real life that he can only stand in amazement as something of beauty passes him by. Melancholy. Sad. Beautiful. Romantic. Hm. And I've now written a book. Happy?

Anyway, I'm a talk-thinker, so give me some discussion so I can consider other interpretations. I'm very curious to know what made you want to post it in the first place. So, let's hear it!

Amanda said...

When Ferril wrote this poem he was 49 years old. He had (unbeknownst to him) 44 more years to live. Perhaps this is the somber poem of a man in the meridian of his life, wandering towards death?

Maybe the poem is a reverent obeisance to death. We cannot presume to know when it is right for us to leave this world; we grow old, witnessing death and decay; others are permitted to pass on, but we remain.

I like the reverence of the two persons kneeling in the wood, evoking the image of two figures kneeling in prayer within some holy place. Maybe that other figure is Death. And why not? All of the objects of the second stanza are first presented as objects touched by Death in the first--"each leaf and antlered head." The narrator alone was told not to follow and so finds himself wandering through the "awful wood," alive and alone. Isn't there something inherently lonely about being alive? being separated from something we can only grasp through sprirituality?

There's something interesting about the wandering. At first, I also imagined the romantic, rather eccentric wandering of a man with no destination. Now I imagine someone searching as though for death so that he may have a second chance. It's as if the narrator thought it "practical and wise" at some point in his life to die but was not allowed the release.

I sincerely agree, Jared. It is lovely.

Nick said...

The first several times I read it, I thought it flowed beautifully- especially if I read it out loud, especially the lines that go back and forth between 'me' and 'you'.

I wasn't sure about who 'you' was supposed to be, though I guess death makes sense. The symbolism of the seven stags remind me of creation or renewal- at least the number seven did, and that is emphasized given that when they were mentioned previously they were dead.

Jenny said...

I've gained a new appreciation for poetry since I started bathing a toddler. I like to read by the tub while Lu's playing, but you need something that be brief that can be re-read several times and still give you things to think about (because you're always interrupted by the afore-mentioned toddler).

Anyway, I, too, think the poem is lovely. My first impression at an interpretation goes something like this:

1. The narrator is wandering about the lone and dreary world, so to speak--a world where death is inevitable. Such a world is devoid of either transcendence or communion (note how he's lonely, and the emphasis on wandering, an action that implies a lack of meaning or direction--we could extrapolate that he's wandering about in an empty life and feeling a bit trapped there).

2. The second section breaks with the first, inverting both the thematic material as well as the images of the first section. I see the narrator coming upon a woman kneeling by a flower under moonlight, him kneeling beside her, her rising up, him rising up and turning to go, and she saying no (implying no, don't go, stay with me). Thus, the narrator finds companionship/love and possibly a transcendent experience that gives meaning to his existence and allows him to symbolically escapethe death that surrounds him in the world. (Hence the vision of the seven woundrous stags--images of life that seemed unbelievable in that wood, yet did exist.)

My reason for seeing the second figure as a female lies in the images of the moon and the flower associated with that figure: both are traditionally feminine symbols.

I really liked how Ferril frames the poem with the images of the stags: in the beginning, death accrues on every antlered head, and in the end we have seven woundrous stags, very much alive, moving past the couple. It's as if the experience of love has allowed the narrator to see the woods with new eyes, and in it find new life. I think you could read the use of the stags as a symbol for how life was dark and meaningless and then how it became essentially meaningful, full of the possibility for life (stags, after all, are an image of masculine potency. Am I allowed to say that on your blog? Sorry ...). Maybe a better way to phrase that is that they could represent a life full of possibilities, possibilities that arise through a relationship with the other.

I've gone on far too long--but I'm interested to see what you think! I thought the ideas about Death were very interesting--I'll have to play with that a bit more and see how that works for me.

Jenny said...

Hey, Jared--so when do we get to hear your thoughts ...

Cabeza said...

Masculine potency?! Well I never! I may just need to mediate all of my comments after all! Jenny's on probation.

I apologize for the delay in posting my response. A lot of my blogging gets done in my down time at work, and this last week has been uncharacteristically busy.

I chose this poem because I sang a chamber-choir arrangement of it in high school and of one other Ferril poem. The music was as haunting as the words, so I recently sought out a book of Ferril's poems. They're out of print, but available. So here goes my amateur interpretation:

What first struck me about this poem is the stark contrast between the first and second stanza. The first stanza sets a dark mood and a somber scene, while second creates this mythical forest (love the imagery of the "myth-white moon"). I feel like both of those places are equally real and actually do occupy the same space, separated by time.

I think the author isn't necessarily in old age (though that is a possibility), but he certainly is in a rough place in life. Ferril saw a lot of this in his life, including two World Wars (he wrote about the Second one in another poem that I love) and a major Depression. I think he's describing a current state of affairs.

But the second stanza focuses and ultimately ends on how it used to be. I think this is significant--the poetic voice chooses to remember a more ideal time filled with aesthetic things: a myth-white moon, a flower, a woman (I agree with you Jenny) with whom he had interaction, and seven wondrous stags that defied belief in spite of their real physical presence. He mentions the dead leaves and antlered heads, but he ends on the live flower and the wondrous stags. I don't think that his former life is some sort of lost fantasy, I think it is a source of comfort and hope.

It just ends on such a majestic and solemn note. The woods are still sacred because of his past experiences there. He holds on to those past experiences to help him through the wood's current dark and awful state.

Those are my thoughts, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Well I am almost two years late posting on the poem WOOD - but I just have to say I found it by Googling because I wanted to find the exact words.

This poem was set to music as a choral piece that we sang in a high school choir in Texas in 1969 or 1970. Nearly forty years later I still remember my tenor part and the piano accompaniment. The words and music were amazing.

Rob in Texas

Anonymous said...

The poem was set to music by Cecil Effinger, a Colorado composer, now deceased, as part of the set called "Four Pastorales". They are often performed and well loved by choirs at all levels.

Margaret said...

When I was in High School we sang Wood. It was dissonant and beautiful. Haven't heard a peep about it since.