Thursday, October 25, 2012

Notes on Writing: Dissection of a Poem

State flag of Arizona... nothing to do with post.

Still hanging out in Arizona. While the daily highs here are around the 90 degree mark (32 degrees C), back in Alaska the lows are in the single digits. As October fades into November, the temperatures in Alaska drop off significantly. Most years the frigid temperatures occur on cloudless nights, prior to a snowfall that stays. (Not so this year, the snow that fell on October 16 remains.) Frost that forms on those nights turns tall grasses, the dead stalks of various weeds and the fallen leaves into filigreed works of art.

At this time of year, on the Kenai, we’re losing almost six minutes of daylight every day (farther north they lose more, and farther south a little less). The dark descends earlier and lasts longer every day. The earth goes to sleep. 

In 1984 I tried to capture the darkening days and cold nights. First the poem, then a few comments. (I always wonder what writers are thinking when they put down the words. My comments may, quite frankly, bore you to death.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia on hoar frost
                    Hard Frost

Dark as deep as mourning peals,
Drifting from the mountains.
The muskeg waiting as it steals,
Given by shrinking sun,
To grow the frory down that heals
The bleeding leaves of autumn.

Tussocks stand in moonless chill
No shadows show their height;
Just straight stiff tips to mark the kill
Of frigid nights before.
Then, woven with a silent skill,
Comes their silver shroud of sleep.

Close up of hoar frost. Photo credit: Paxson Woelber

First, about the title of the poem. It has a double meaning. Sure the poem is about a hard frost, one that comes about when the temperatures drop sharply, like in late October. However, at the time I wrote this I was studying the works of Robert Frost, and was trying to emulate his style. (And no, before somebody points out the obvious, I am no Robert Frost.) 

Regarding the first line: Before the snow comes, one cannot truly appreciate how dark it gets without a moon. It’s as if the darkness literally falls with a palpable “thump,” hence the reference to sound - peals. The reference to mourning is self-evident to Alaskans; we all whine about the death of summer.

Lines 2 through 4 are intended to convey how the darkness arrives. If you are on the eastern side of mountains, you can literally watch the shadows walk across the lowlands as the sun sets. 

Lines 5 and 6 make reference to the formation of the frost. The word “frory,” which isn’t in the MS Word dictionary by the way, is archaic. However, it was in common use during Robert Frost’s day. Again, a tip of the hat to Mr. Frost. The words “bleeding leaves” describes the color of the blueberry bushes, and other foliage found on the slopes of mountains. The frost covers the red.

In the second stanza, lines 7 through 10 refer to the lowlands, or muskeg, that is freezing. For those who are not familiar with it, muskeg is a spongy, wet area where clumps of grass (tussocks) stand high. The grass, which goes by various names, sends up tall shoots that form the seeds. Once the seeds blow away in the autumn, and the leaves lay down from earlier, lighter freezing temperatures, all that is left are the tall straws jutting above the mound of leaves. With no moon, there are no shadows. 

Line 11 describes how the intricacy of the frozen water appears; as if it were woven.

The last line, line 12, is another throw back to Mr. Frost, ala “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

To the readers: I apologize for not having my own photos in this post. When I came to Arizona, I thought I would be here for two weeks, at most. The photos that would have been used in this post are on my main computer, back in Alaska.

This is the state flag I want to see.


  1. It's pleasantly cool and I'm strapping cleats on my shoes to walk to the mailbox. I'd take one 90 degree day but no more than one.

  2. So melancholy. But it is that time of year I think. The dark mornings are a bummer, but you are missing some fantastically sunny days.