Timbre in Vermont

Last summer, on the way up to Vershire, Vermont to drop off my daughter and her good friend at riding camp, we stopped at the Vermont Welcome Center on our way up 91 and discovered a brochure for the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in South Shaftsbury, outside of Bennington.

Visiting a beloved writer’s home is, I think, like walking through a muse garden. Seeing a marked-up manuscript of a beloved work is better than any workshop or conference. Last March, when I visited Eudora Welty’s house in Jackson I found her place and her papers so inspiring. Back at the beginning of 2010, while researching at the Virginia Historical Society, I held in my hands the typed final chapter of William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner. His Tidewater Morning and Darkness Visible claim top spots in my reading autobiography. Standing in the attic bedroom of Louisa May Alcott – she of Little Women and the wickedly romantic A Long Fatal Love Chase – will anchor any writer adrift in her own sea of doubt or insecurities.

On the way to Vershire, I wished out loud that we had the time to veer west to explore the home of Robert Frost, but we kept on trucking. Tall boots, paddock boots, helmets, breeches, pillows, blankets, flashlights, ponchos, towels – all clean and ready for a week of riding and mucking – and two eager riders urged me: Hurry up through these mountains. No stopping for detours. I told myself, maybe some day.

A week later, on my way back to Vermont to pick up my daughter, I took the westerly route to avoid the summer log-jam of I-95. By then, any lingering thoughts of visiting the Frost museum were pretty nearly swept out by more practical concerns: coffee, bathrooms, and staying awake. But my more rural and scenic route to Vershire took me right through Bennington, so close to South Shaftsbury that my car, I think, would have channeled Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang to drop me at the doorstep of the stone house had I not found it on my own.

My daughter and I share a love of poetry. We have our pet-poems, and we recite them to each other, to our dog, our horse, and to the spiders in our house. My pet is this haiku by Issa: “Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually.” [Translation, Robert Hass.] My daughter’s favorite poem is Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

So, I went to the stone house looking for something, the kind of something you know when you see, hear, feel, smell, touch or read it – some light on words or meaning that I could bring my daughter. A reunion offering! The Stone House Museum devotes an an entire room to Stopping by Woods. Under glass and on the walls are interviews, letters, and lecture notes, in which Frost declines to definitively interpret the poem but insists that job remain with the hearts, minds, and ears of its readers. Most precious in this room are the earliest drafts, typewritten and marked up, revised by hand.

Robert Frost's Stone House

I went to South Shaftsbury seeking some special bit of knowledge that I could only find standing there in the place where the poem was born, and I found this typewritten line:

She gives her harness bells a shake

with Frost’s handwritten revision, striking out the word ‘she’ and writing over top ‘He’; striking out ‘her’ and writing over top ‘his’ to render a new line:

He gives his harness bells a shake

The little horse who thought it queer to stop in the woods was born a mare!

When I asked about the pronoun change of the little horse, the museum staff said Frost liked the sound better. I can hear how ‘He gives his’ is a more hypnotic flow than ‘She gives her’. Still, to me the choice evokes something beyond the sound. I mean, really. Being in the lovely, dark and deep woods on a snowy evening with a mare is entirely different from being in the same place with a gelding [presumably a gelding, but even moreso with a stallion!]. For me, the change in gender changes in the nature of the poem; it becomes a different poem if the horse is a mare. But why?

Well, I’m not a poet and only a self-educated student of poetry. I don’t always have terms and explanations of what the written language is doing to me when a poem or prose or even a starkly written fact changes my feelings or changes who I am. But, I have a thought on this he-she business. Not an entirely original thought, but here it is. In her book One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers, Gail Sher explains the concept of timbre. She says that through a sustained sound a rapture of meaning can emerge. Timbre. She calls it musicality, alchemy, a mental ring. And, though I still am not fully able to express what happened to the poem in me as I saw how Frost changed the mare from she to he – I know that when a mental ring bores into a lovely, dark and deep place it does so with sound and so much more. I think the change from she to he strengthens the unity of the horse and rider of this poem. To me, it almost makes the horse an expression of the rider in a way that keeping the horse a mare would not have done.

The whole way home to Virginia from Vermont, my daughter and I talked about Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and the mare that almost was. At first, we wished Frost would have kept her a mare, but that didn’t last too long. For reasons related to sound and also because we’ve each trusted so many geldings our lives, we knew the poet changed the line because he was listening to the poem and hearing things with his ear and his heart that I hope will take our entire lives to discover.

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