Saturday, November 13, 2010

Choose Something Like a Star

As I keep writing about the poems, I think I'll share them with you. Here is the final song in the set, a setting of Choose Something Like a Star:

7. Choose Something Like a Star

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud --
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.
Some mystery becomes the proud.
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.

Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says "I burn."
But say with what degree of heat.
Talk Fahrenheit, talk Centigrade.
Use language we can comprehend.
Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid,
But does tell something in the end.
And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.

It saddens me that Randall Thompson decided to have this song as the final song in the piece, since it introduces the meaning of a “star” that runs throughout the entire set of songs we’ll be singing. Perhaps he hopes that it will act as a final summation of the thoughts. In several places, this poem gives insight to what the “stars” can symbolize.

There is something about the “loftiness” of the star that always inspires me. I love to go for long walks on clear nights to see the canopy of stars above me, little flecks of light that bring beauty, light, and order to an otherwise dark and dreary sky. Frost’s star seems to serve the same purpose, it represents those things in our lives – our hopes and dreams, perhaps – that make beautiful the otherwise dark and dreary humdrum of our lives. While we would love to have our whole lives filled with “stars,” the “dark is what brings out [their] light.”

More importantly, Frost’s star teaches us about our hopes and dreams, and what they should be for us: “it says ‘I burn’” – do our dreams burn with the passion to motivate us? “not even stooping from its sphere” – do we set our sights high as we choose our dreams and goals, and never compromise them? “But to be wholly taciturn/ In your reserve is not allowed” – do we stand up for those things that matter to us and choose never to be taciturn (silent) when our dreams are challenged! Above all of these, the most meaningful definition of a star is found in Frost’s final statement “We may choose something like a star/ To stay our minds upon and be staid.” Those hopes, dreams, and goals are the things that keep what is most important in front of us so that we are not detracted by the sway of the world or get lost in the humdrum of our daily lives.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Road Not Taken

My students this semester are singing "Frostiana;" Randall Thompson's setting of Robert Frost poems. To get us started in a discussion of the meaning of the poems, I decided to write my own feelings about it. Let me know what you think!

1. The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

The story behind this poem is that Robert Frost and a friend would go for walks together and Frost’s friend would agonize over which path they should take, and Frost wrote this poem in response to him. You can actually see the indecision in the poem’s description of the two roads. “Then took the other, as just as fair,/ And having perhaps the better claim…Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same” In one moment he sees one as better, but then second guesses himself, saying they really do look the same.

Robert Frost claimed that he wrote the poem as a sort of jab at his friend, suggesting that it really didn’t matter which road one takes. I think that, by the end of the poem, Frost discovers some very important truths about making choices. “Yet knowing how way leads on to way,/ I doubted if I should ever come back.”

We go through our lives constantly making decisions. While some do not matter, many do, and every decision yields consequences that either open wider opportunities to us and yield greater benefit to our lives, or they limit our opportunities and subsequently reduce our potential for satisfaction. More importantly, however, is the fact that we can never go back to undo any decision. We can change our decision at any moment, but the consequences of that first decision will always be a part of our history.

It is so tempting to select the easier of two choices simply because it is the most common, or the least work. Inevitably these decisions; decisions to play instead of work, to blow off responsibility, or to be small minded towards your fellow man; lead to unhappy consequences and limited opportunities. It is often the difficult choices; the decision to work hard, to hold to your commitments, and to the best of those around you; that yield the greatest results. Often, these choices are lonely ones, but the benefit of such difficult decisions are much greater than the payoff of popularity. Randall Thompson portrays the benefit of these moments so expertly in the music. Throughout all four verses, the anxiety of choosing a path, and the difficulty of choosing the “road less traveled” is portrayed expertly by the brooding chords in the piano accompaniment, while the loneliness of these roads is found in the choir’s a capella singing. However, as our character presses forward in the decision he (or she) knows to be right, Thompson portrays the benefit of such a decision in a sudden, positive change in the piano accompaniment.

So, take Robert Frost’s poem as a challenge to live the higher life! Give up on choosing small-minded options and make those decisions that are difficult but lead to long-lasting benefits! This can be something as simple as working hard (both in classes and at work) and holding true on every promise you have made, or choosing to do something great instead of something simply mediocre. Recognize that any moment of choice only comes once, and challenge yourself to choose the best of whatever is offered to you.