Paired Texts: Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War”

Robert Frost and Ilya Kaminsky
Robert Frost (New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress) and Ilya Kaminsky (Slowking)

I have to admit to a love/hate relationship with Robert Frost’s poetry stemming from the fact that I wrote a research paper on symbolism in his poetry as a senior in high school. That kind of thing will put anyone off, and it didn’t help that I had what I’d consider now to be an inarguable thesis (essentially it was, yes, he uses symbolism—not much of an argument there). Still, not many people write poems about people getting their arms chopped off with a chainsaw. There was a reason I chose to write about Frost at that time, and it was that I loved his poetry. After I finished that paper and set his poetry aside for a while, I came to enjoy it again. I like the simplicity with which Frost grapples with big ideas and large problems, bringing them to the scale of the mundane. He’s the type of poet who has been a staple of the classroom for so long and become such an institution that it might be difficult to approach him in a fresh way but remember, our students are often just meeting him for the first time. He’s new to them, and he can become new to us all over again when we teach his work.

After the war in Ukraine started, I knew I wanted to bring Ilya Kaminsky’s devastating poem “We Lived Happily During the War” into my classroom, but I needed to think about how. I teach thematically, and as a result, every work I teach connects to a theme. The more I thought about “We Lived Happily During the War,” the more I wanted to put it into conversation with “Mending Wall.”

My rationale is that both poems deal in some way with complicity. The speaker in Frost’s poem doesn’t rail against all the barriers and borders we put up. He says “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” But what is the “something”? Not necessarily the speaker. After all, he is the one who reaches out to the neighbor to say it’s time again to repair the wall between their properties. If he doesn’t exactly agree that “good fences make good neighbors,” he also doesn’t disagree because he continues this annual ritual—a ritual he’s not sure about. Kaminsky’s poem asks us to think about what we are doing (enough?) during a time of crisis or war.

In crafting my lesson, I drew from two excellent resources. First, Poetry Foundation has a poem guide for “Mending Wall” that includes a great analysis of the poem and offers interesting insights. Second, the podcast On Being: Poetry Unbound has an episode devoted to “We Lived Happily During the War” in which the host, Pádraig Ó Tuama, talks the listener through his analysis of Kaminsky’s poem. These resources helped me craft discussion questions for a teacher-facilitated class discussion of the two works.

I started class with some biographical details about Robert Frost. I like to introduce my students to the people they’re reading. Here is a good, relatively short biography of Robert Frost.

We listened to Frost read the poem “Mending Wall” and then read the poem on our own again, annotating and jotting down our thoughts.

After we read the poem, I asked students some questions:

  • What is Frost talking about literally in this poem?
  • What is he talking about metaphorically? (Students will probably identify this poem can be read about geopolitical borders, but if not, you might gently nudge them.) Are we driven toward connection and cooperation or are we more mistrustful?
  • Who gets the last word in the poem? How does that choice impact the poem’s message?
  • Who is the one who suggests the two go out and rebuild the wall? (Notice it’s the speaker, who seems less inclined to put up walls, who suggests it’s time.)
  • Why do they rebuild the wall? What purpose does it serve?
  • How do the speaker and the neighbor interact? Does the speaker confide his thoughts to the neighbor? Who does he confide in?
  • If fences do NOT make good neighbors, what does? Who is our “neighbor”?
  • In his old age, Frost said this poem had been “spoiled” by being “applied.” This comment seems to imply Frost wishes he could control how people interpreted or applied his work. Do we have to respect his opinion, or is it okay to interpret or apply his work in ways he might not have intended?

I told students Frost published this poem while living in England in 1914. We turned a historical lens on the poem and discussed how the times in which it was written may have informed the poem’s message. I shared how this poem became a Cold War poem after the Berlin Wall was built and that George H. W. Bush quoted from this poem when it came down in 1989. I referred to Ronald Reagan’s famous speech in which he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I explained that even if Frost wrote this poem at another time, he can’t control how people read and apply it later on. He might not even have been thinking about geopolitical borders when he wrote it, but even if he wasn’t, it doesn’t matter, especially if so many people see that message in his poem. Poems take on a life that no one can foresee, much less control.

One might argue this recently happened with Ilya Kaminsky’s poem, “We Lived Happily During the War.” I put this poem in conversation with “Mending Wall,” even though I have no idea if Kaminsky considers his poem in conversation with Frost’s poem or not. I showed my students this excellent feature on Kaminsky.

As we did with Frost, we listened to the poet read his work. I love Kaminsky’s dramatic reading.

It may be important to share that Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily During the War” opens his collection Deaf Republic. Deaf Republic is about a town, Vasenka, in which soldiers shoot and kill a young deaf boy at a puppet show performance taking place in the town square. As a means of protest, the townspeople refuse to hear and create a subversive sign language to coordinate their fight against the soldiers’ oppression. It reads in some ways like a verse play, with a cast of characters.

As we did with Frost’s poem, we took a few minutes to reread Kaminsky’s poem. You might have students read and discuss in small groups. You know your students and their preferences for working.

After we took that time to unpack the poem, I facilitated a discussion, asking the following questions:

  • What repetition do you notice in the poem? What is the effect? (Be sure to unpack the implications of the repetition of “house” and “money” and “not enough”).
  • What is the “house”? Who is in your household? (Encourage students to think more broadly, as Kaminsky does when he starts with the street of money, the city of money, the country of money; could our “house” be our country?)
  • If everyone in our “house” is okay, is that enough? Should we be doing more for people outside our “house”?
  • What about the repetition of “money”? What does that make you think of? (The podcast mentions how crises and wars can be opportunities for people to make money.)
  • Who is the “we” in the poem and how do you know?
  • Later the speaker asks forgiveness—”(forgive us).” Why is that in parentheses? What is the speaker asking forgiveness for? Would you forgive the speaker? Would you want to be forgiven if you were the speaker? Do you think you could be forgiven? Who needs to be forgiven?
  • What does the speaker mean by “happily”? What is living happily, especially in the context of living happily during the war?

The podcast discusses the “politics of disability,” which may be interesting to share with students as well. There is also a connection to Martin Niemöller’s piece, “First they came for the Socialists…” I would definitely bring that piece for discussion. Pádraig Ó Tuama mentions in the podcast that in so many places in the world, people are dying or just trying to survive the day, while others are picking out a color to paint their kitchens. He says, “There’s a brutality about that. This poem isn’t, I think, trying to make us feel guilty about those things, but it is trying to say, ‘Are you doing enough?’ Because the poem has the invitation to say, ‘we protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough.'” Pádraig Ó Tuama invites us to wonder “What is the ‘enough’ going to be?”

One of my students said he felt like Kaminsky’s poem reminded him of the United States’ isolationist policies during World War II until Pearl Harbor. He explained the connection to his peers, who really appreciated it. Reading these poems gave us an opportunity to use a historical lens (or new historical) to examine how poetry can speak to the time in which it was written and the times in which it might be read.

Finally, I asked students how these two poems could be in conversation with each other. How are their messages related? I placed them in a unit on the theme of Tradition and Progress. I might argue they explore the tension between the two ideas. Like Frost’s poem before it, “We Lived Happily During the War” has taken on a new life in the wake of Russia’s invasion and war in Ukraine, especially as Kaminsky is a Ukrainian-American poet. Both poems might have been addressing the times in which they are composed, but they also speak to our time.

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