My Experience at a Robert Frost Poetry Reading at the Botanical Garden
A while back, I attended a reading of Robert Frost at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Part of the reason for my attending this event was that it was being hosted by a science professor at the University– we’ll call him Dr. Gillie. Being perpetually drawn to unique art/science performances, I was stoked to see what it would be like. I had no idea what I was in store for.
Now, I realize Frost’s style isn’t particularly in vogue in the poetry world, but I like Frost. I like him for his images, his use of form, his skill in narrative poetry. Dr. Gillie, however, the PhD biologist giving the reading at this event, introduces us to the poet as among the most “accurate scientific observers in poetry.”
Something of a prodigy, at age 5 Dr. Gillie could recite “even dark and obscure Robert Frost.” Apparently, Dr. Gillie’s mother was an English teacher and would read poems to her children every night in their cabin in the Maine woods. Dr. Gillie, a budding botanist, gravitated towards Frost because he would mention specific plant species in his poetry. In fact, after an exhaustive search through every published Frost poem, Dr. Gillie found mention of an unbelievable one hundred and forty-six species of plants and animals– “one poem even has seven species alone!” he marvels.
With this introduction to the poetic prowess of Robert Frost now complete, it’s finally time for the poetry. And down come the projector screens.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” Dr. Gillie booms. The audience follows along across the bulleted, color-code delineation. A few women behind me sigh “mmm.”
But wait! there’s no need to read the entire poem. Dr. Gillie just remembered– “there’s actually only a few parts in this one that are particularly interesting from a natural history perspective.” The women behind me sigh “mhmm.”
Dr. Gillie is more excited about the next poem. It has the highest species diversity in alpha richness in a Frost poem! Yet, oddly enough it takes place indoors, and thus falls into the thirty-three percent minority grouping of poems not set outside! Such a marvelous poet, Frost, always writing in unexpected ways. Dr. Gillie reads the poem off a laptop, stopping every few lines to let us in on the deeper meaning of the poetry.
“Now here, Frost clearly knew that beech trees have an incomplete abscission layer…”
“If only Frost had a good moth identification book…”
“Here we see that Frost was trying to hint at the deeper evolutionary origins of roses…”
His enthusiasm is contagious and the audience quickly catches on.
“Could ‘The Road Not Taken’ be a subtle nod to the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis?” one of the astute critics behind me suggests. How might Robert Frost respond to such a questions?
Dr. Gillie is confident. “Excellent observation– I’m sure that’s the sort of thing he was getting at!”
Now on slide number 89 (about halfway through, according to our pamphlet) we are ready for an intermission of sorts. The poetry podium is now a stage for Dr. Gillie’s other artistic calling– acting.
“Thrush music, hark!” he calls, with all the misguided theatrics of a cobra spreading its hood to ward off a cement truck. Bird chirps tweet from the computer speakers. Bird pictures spin onto the projector screen. Bird feathers seem to sprout from Dr. Gillie’s outstretched arms and I imagine him soaring around the room like an albatross. It’s almost as if I’m high in a rain forest canopy, or far out on the Pacific in a migratory flock and I can feel my thoughts give way to the emotion of this poem like never before. I pray thanks to Horus and Thoth a few slides later when I come back down to the grounded world of science in a graph of the distribution of pistils and carpels in various rose species.
Now we hear a revelation that shocks us all. Sometimes, Dr. Gillie doesn’t totally understand what’s going on in a Frost poem. For example, in “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Dr. Gillie tells us he has yet to figure out which species of angiosperm Frost is referring to when he says “Nature’s first green is gold.” It could be the flower of an early dandelion, but they don’t have a set flowering period– particularly not in early spring.
This really seems to bother Dr. Gillie; why couldn’t Frost have given readers more of a clue as to what the petal distribution on this gold flower was? Dr. Gillie sighs that sometimes he just doesn’t understand why Frost liked to obscure his observations in what would otherwise be very poignant botanical observations. The women behind me sigh “mmm” in solemn agreement.
ALTERNATE ENDING: Finally, the corpse of Robert Frost has made it to the North Carolina Botanical Garden after turning over so much in its grave that it rolled all the way from Vermont and now it kneads up a big wad of imagination and slaps Dr. Gillie over the head with it and the audience is stricken with hypotheses about what protein pathway could have caused a deceased human to regain consciousness and both smooth and striated muscle control and then FINALLY it clears its throat and reads a poem straight through and the words just simmer in everyone’s brains and percolate in their own way to settle at the bottom of our jaw.