Contained within Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” is the notorious line, “good fences make good neighbors.” This iconic quotation is not famous for its serious defense of borders between neighbors, but instead for the point that it attempts to make—that walls always break down, and borders always collapse. “Mending Wall” deals with themes of alienation, preservation, and physical labor. These themes exemplify the type of poet Frost was—direct, uncompromising, and yet intellectual. Frost’s poetry managed to have broad popular appeal; his quotable, colloquial kind of beauty, and his well-defined regionalism, made him uniquely beloved. Yet he also had a certain intellectual appeal and was appreciated by sophisticates who saw him as a writer of understated symbolism and fiercely doubled meanings. It’s not easy, in 2020, to imagine any poet with this kind of broad popularity and critical esteem— it’s almost, now, a puzzle.
This combination was possible because Frost endorsed both a definite political philosophy and a way of life. Unlike many of his contemporaries— Yeats, Pound, and Sandburg to name a few— Frost was seldom openly political in his poems and instead focused on more mundane themes such as nature, work, and family. However, it is within these “mundane” themes that we can begin to understand the more complicated political and social points that Frost attempts to make. And unlike the political stances of his peers, there’s nothing in Frost to be embarrassed about now, no flirtations with fascism, no temptations to take refuge in the myths of power. Throughout Frost’s body of work, three themes define a very different personal philosophy that amounts to politics: (1) the value of work and workers; (2) the necessity of liberty and personal autonomy; (3) the importance of nature as an ethic of preservation. Taken together, Frost’s ideals might serve as guideposts for an ideology long forgotten by the mainstream American left, which instead went down the path of identity-focused neoliberalism. The political and social philosophy that Frost alludes to in his poetry can be a new ideology for the flailing left across America and can bring our nation into a new age in which self-actualization and community aren’t opposed but mutually renewing.
One of the greatest oral history collections ever created, Working by Studs Terkel gave voice to the individual stories of American labor. Interviewing hundreds of people in hundreds of lines of work, the book is the definitive collection of what it means to “labor” in America. Terkel shows us the work of a whole variety of people, while never discriminating against them or ranking them in any manner. He treats every job with the respect and dignity it deserves and presents the whole honest truth when explaining the life and labor of the individuals he profiles. When reading the collection of stories, one begins to see the wider message of the anthology—that work (whatever its form) is dignified. Labor is important for more reasons than simply the accumulation of wealth and is an important psychological component of every life. Those who look down on or perceive themselves to be better than the “common” laborer are, in Terkel’s eyes, foolish, conceited, or insecure. Like Terkel, the poetry of Robert Frost falls into the—not often spoken about—American labor tradition. When Terkel describes his book by saying that it details the “extraordinary dreams of ordinary people,” he is offering a good illustration of how Frost approaches the lives of workers in his poetry.
Though his poems tend to focus on the mundane aspects of work, he manages to turn the benign into the exceptional by drawing the reader’s attention to the beautiful, dramatic, or majestic aspects of “basic” labor. Frost instills dignity in the lives of workers by making them not cogs in a machine or easily replaceable, but instead special and valuable. However, one can never accuse Frost of glamorizing or romanticizing labor. In fact, he does the exact opposite by describing labor as can truly be—boring, tough, and nasty.
We can see both the beauty and the terrible tragedy of work in Frost’s poem “Out, Out—” in which he articulates both the subtle attraction of physical labor and the terrible physical cost it can inflict on an individual. He describes both the “sunset far into Vermont” and a boy’s “rueful laugh” as a buzzsaw slices off his hand. The poem starts with a serene description of a lumber yard that makes “stove-length sticks of wood, sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it” and ends with a young boy’s sudden death from shock: “no one believed…they listened at his heart, little—less—nothing—and that ended it.” In this poem Frost shows us why work and workers should be treated with dignity: (1) because their work is valuable; (2) because their work is beautiful; (3) because they die doing it. An important note to make on this poem—as well as on others—is that the tool (in this case a saw) is both the giver of a great deal of liberty and autonomy for workers and the taker away of those same freedoms. For Frost, the tool is a symbol of both worker power and worker impotence.
In “Out, Out—” we at first see the saw as a benefit for the workers in the factory—making their lives easier and increasing their own profits. We see not the hands of interfering bosses plucking away the laborer’s profits, but instead, those same laborers (the soon to be dead boy included) reaping the benefits of their honest labor. This pretty picture which Frost dreams up for us ends quickly, because as soon as the “benefits” are reaped by the workers, represented in this case by the promise of supper, a young boy’s hand is unceremoniously cut off by the buzz saw. The saw is no longer a symbol of worker autonomy but has now morphed into a sign that—in the present—workers are mostly impotent. Automation, monopolization, and consultants will always come in and saw your proverbial hand off, no matter how good your work is, or how good you are. The symbol of the saw in this particular poem mirrors how tools are so often seen throughout Frost. For example, both the ladder in “After Apple-Picking” and the ax in “The Wood-Pile” are both conduits for worker power and —at the same time—symbols for the flaws in our current economic model, for the alienation of the worker from his tools. While in “The Wood-Pile” Frost deals with themes of the “forgotten workers” through the conduit of the ax, in “After Apple-Picking” Frost describes the ideal of worker autonomy through the symbol of the “two-pointed ladder.” The dichotomy in this symbolism not only proves the literary sophistication of Frost but also shows us something about his political leanings.
Frost’s poetry values labor and laborers for their own sake, not for their “profitability.” Though his arguments are subtle, and his points multi-faceted, Frost clearly attempts to give labor value outside the capitalistic framework of productivity. Almost all of his working characters are their own bosses and are full recipients of all the rewards that could possibly come from their labor. In addition to his poetry, Frost was a working man. As a young man, Frost worked many jobs including—but not limited to—being a factory worker, a cobbler, a farmer, an elementary school teacher, an English professor, a reporter, and an editor. It is because of these roots that Frost shows so much respect and deference to laborers and the labor movement in his poetry.
If we agree with the pro-labor values that Frost extols in his poetry, then we need to embrace a whole new series of labor forward policies that are being debated and passed around the globe. We must begin to extend our own thinking past simply “valuing” labor, and start giving workers the rewards and autonomy they deserve. There is no single policy or platform that gives workers all that they need, but over the last several decades there have been numerous public intellectuals, labor leaders, and politicians who have proposed new approaches to worker autonomy and “workplace democracy”. Workplace democracy is the radical idea that instead of having our workplaces governed like mini authoritarian regimes—with the owners and capitalists as the kings and lords—they should instead be organized like representative democracies. There are hundreds of possible theories of how this would be accomplished and organized, but the central idea behind all of them is the following: a reorganization of the workplace in a “horizontal” manner, where workers share both in the profits and in the management of the organization. With this type of organizing structure, workers have a great deal more autonomy in terms of what they produce, how they produce it, and what they get compensated. This approach gives workers a personal stake in companies they devote so much of their time to, all while promoting the values of equity and democracy in a location where they have all but been forgotten—the workplace. One example of a “successful” worker co-operative is the Mondragon Corporation in Spain, which rakes in about 12 Billion dollars in revenue every year, all while having an incredibly equal pay scale (where the lowest-paid employees make 1/9th of what the highest-paid employees do). A democratic workplace is one where workers are valued highly, paid fairly, and have the autonomy and power to change the work around them. If we believe in Frost’s embrace of workers, and the work they do, we must give our laborers the support and dignity they deserve by encouraging the creation of worker co-operatives, or other business models that give workers control over their own destinies.
In conjunction with supporting these more radical approaches, we must also support “basic” policies that would protect working men and women in the short term. We must expand union membership, —while protecting rank and file workers; —increase worker autonomy; and lessen the power of large corporations. Examples of policies that would achieve these goals include: (1) repealing the “Taft Hartley Act”; (2) passing the “Protecting the Right to Organize Act”;” (3) passing the “Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act”; (4) Advocating for state and city programs that support worker-owned cooperatives, —such as preferential contracting or procurement policies, —as well as supporting the creation of a federal office within the department of labor to study and oversee an increase in worker-owned businesses. All of these bills support the idea that unionization is necessary to a free and fair economy and that only through bold legislation can workers reassert their power and drive the US economy forward once again. Labor builds our society, moves our economy, and is a necessary component of every individual’s life. We must heed the words that Frost wrote and move our nation in a direction that values both the work that workers do and the laborers themselves.