Monday, October 13, 2014

On misreading "mending wall"

Possibly, the most famous line in the poem is "good fences make good neighbors".

How should it be interpreted or more generally is there a wrong interpretation? When trying to interpret a poem is there even a wrong interpretation? According to Andrew Sullivan, yes. In his post, Sullivan quotes a comment from one of his links:
The narrator of the poem is annoyed by his neighbor’s insistence that there has to be a fence between them. If only his neighbor would get beyond his father’s beliefs –originating in an old proverb –and reconsider his thinking.
Reading the poem, I actually don't detect any annoyance - puzzlement, perhaps, and even some mischievous questioning of why "good fences make good neighbors". Yet the speaker in the poem continues to participate in the annual ritual of rebuilding the wall.

An even more over the top critique of the positive interpretation of the phrase that good fences indeed make good neighbors is from Eleanor Barkhorn who appears not to have read the poem at all. She writes:
"Mending Wall" is a polemic against building walls that separate us from our neighbors—the poem opens with the line,"Something there is that doesn't love a wall" and goes on to describe the narrator's attempts to talk his neighbor out of putting one up.
Polemic? Hardly. Clever, yes. And the speaker never really tries to talk his neighbor out of rebuilding it. However barkborn has pointed out another often quoted line: "Something there that doesn't love a wall". Every year, the wall falls down - why? The cold New England winters and the frost buildup between the cracks as well as the expansion and contraction due to temperature changes is the something that doesn't love a wall. Yes, the speaker does seem to indicate that the natural state of the wall is for it to fall. There is a sense that the rebuilding of the wall is an annual ritual that he participates in despite his concerns - perhaps an acknowledgment that the wall is necessary - necessary for what?

Possibly this is the only time he sees his neighbor so the wall allows them to get together to rebuild it every year.  Possibly the wall delineates not only their property lines but also delineates each other's responsibility toward each other and the act of rebuilding the wall is one that reestablishes the unwritten responsibilities and rules.

There is no wrong way to interpret a poem although I don't really see Sullivan and Barkhorn arguing persuasively that good fences do not make good neighbors. Another comment comes from a defender of the humanities who says parenthetically:
In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.
His disdain for the line good fences make good neighbors is clear - yet he does not argue against it since that is not the point of his article. His argues why Dead Poets Society is such a bad movie because the students do not take part in careful reading or analysis of the texts that are in the movie. He writes:
In a hackneyed speech about resisting conformity that he seems to have delivered many times before, Keating invokes that oft-invoked but rarely understood chestnut, “The Road Not Taken”: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’” 
Wha—? Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples? For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it. And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself. He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast. 
Keating hasn’t actually read “The Road Not Taken” in any meaningful sense; rather, he’s adopted it, adapted it, made it his own—made it say what he wants it to say. His use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s completely wrong, and Keating uses them to point a moral entirely different from that of Frost’s poem. (In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.)
As a student of poetry should know - sometimes there can be multiple interpretations of a poem each just as valid as he shows in his analysis of The Road Not Taken. Yes, Keating was wrong in that Frost didn't literally mean what he said. On the point that while the speaker of the poem may not have said something - it doesn't mean that the poet isn't the speaker of the poem - nor is the poem always about what it seems to say it is about.

In the end the all article really ends up showing is that the author decided to interpret it one way:  "He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast." Although there are different interpretations as well:
"So the point of the poem is that everyone wants to look back and think that their choices matter. But in reality, s--t just happens the way that it happens, and it doesn’t matter."
In the end, both the author and Dead Poets Society are about equal in their defense of the humanities.


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