It might just be true that there are some words that own us before we even truly know them.
A long time ago, I was a kid still, I watched a spy movie. I don’t even know the title of that movie now nor do I remember the plot. I seem to remember the face of the main actress but do not know her name. I just recall that the story unfolded around a group of so called “sleepers”, people who were leading normal average US citizen lives until they were called – by phone – by a contact person who then “woke” them to perform a certain task by reciting a single line from a poem to them. And this single line from a very famous poem stayed with me for years. Alas, neither did I know it was famous, nor did I initially know that it would haunt me for many years.
To make things more difficult, the movie was American synchronized to German. The time must have been late Seventies, I guess. None of these fragments of information enabled me to identify the movie.
The line as that came to haunt me was: “Des Waldes Dunkel zieht mich an, doch muss zu meinem Wort ich stehn und Meilen gehn’ bevor ich schlafen kann, und Meilen gehn, bevor ich schlafen kann.” I was immediately electrified. It was as if I had been woken up. The line stuck. After a few days I knew that I longed to learn the whole poem.Eventually, and maybe only a lover of poetry gets this, I longed for the poem the line was taken from like I would learn to long for a certain person much later on – but just not quite then.
Alas, there was no mentioning of the title of the poem. Nor of the author. I didn’t know what it was that electrified me. It was well before one could start an internet search. So I had to nurse that longing. And marvelously I did. For years actually. I never forgot those lines. Even though they might be among the most famous last lines of any poem ever written, I didn’t find them for a long time. It might have been easier had they been first lines though.
The translation of these lines, of course, is: The wood are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.
We finally found each other, that poem and I, some twenty years later. And I was as happy as if someone had revealed my fate to me. And the revelation of that fate would have been to know the poem. The woods are lovely. It took about three minutes to learn the rest of the poem when I found it. I knew I had known it before I had known it. I knew it when I found it.
And I have no answer as to how it can be that a poem, a poem not even in my then native language came to claim my allegiance. Came to claim me.
The poem was written by Robert Frost. I am a sober person but this poem was written into my genetic make-up. It seems that I had always known it, that it had been waiting for me, patiently, all these years, even testing me.
This is a kind of respectless approach to the great poet, forgive me, Mr. Robert Frost, respect less in the sense that, of course, this poem is not individual, and that is where its true beauty lies.
Robert Frost, a poet who died before I was even born. But not long after, in a small book store in the Upper, upper east side, around 95th street and Lex, I had discovered a kid’s illustrated version of “Stopping by the woods”, stumbling upon it, virtually, I met an old photographer, a neighbor of mine on 95th Street and Columbus, Jacob Lofman. In his apartment there was a beautiful picture of Robert Frost that Jacob Lofman had taken years before. I know now that the picture was well known by the time I spotted it on the walls of the humble apartment in the Upper West Side when Jacob had invited me for tea.
Well known that foto might have been and still is, but it wasn’t to me back then. It was still not part of my culture. Robert Frost in New England. And so it came that I had the great pleasure to discover this image, the image of Robert Frost, in the apartment of a photographer who knew how to look at a man who by the time he met him was already legend and still to show something deeply personal about him.
I kept looking at the picture for a long time. Jacob made tea and I looked at the picture. I still can hear the water boiling, the tea cups cluttering. It made me happy to just look at the picture hanging on a wall in an apartment in the Upper West Side. In my ignorance I didn’t know that the man in the picture was famous. I knew by then, just for a few days, that he had written the poem I had searched for ever so many years. I don’t know why it was that poem by Robert Frost any more than you could answer why you love a certain person and not another.
I still don’t know why words have that kind of power. I just know by fortunate experience now that they do. I have rarely been as happy in my life as when I discovered those fragile bonds to a poem that had claimed me so many years ago. I know now, of course, that EVERBODY and their neighbors love “Stopping by the woods”. I guess that’s how it ended up in a spy movie. But without any cultural context, even without the context of the poem, just by a few lines in translation, spoken a few times, these lines had been truly powerful.
Life is strange, complex, opaque, but still we can establish part of its truth. We just know it when we see it. Truth claims us. Words have that kind of sober, relentless, inconsequential power. They are an end in themselves, no further salvation promised or needed.