Rock Rumination in the Key of Frost
“The question he frames in all but words, / is what to make of a diminished thing.”
– Robert Frost
When I was twenty, I played in a mediocre rock band. Our primary virtues were volume, 7/4 time signatures, and a trove of effects pedals that coiled around the stage like a digital leviathan. We drew inspiration from The Beatles and The Ramones, the sonic ennui of Radiohead and Sunny Day Real Estate. We performed in nearly every venue in Eastern Washington: living rooms, coffee shops, barns, churches, WSU, even The Met in downtown Spokane. We played until fingers bled, leaving Rorschach streaks on Telecaster pick-guards. We wrote songs with titles like “There’s Too Many Kids in the Tub” and “Wandering Selkie.” We were, in short, your typical garage band.
Creating music with those guys was sublime, my first artistic adrenaline rush, but it didn’t last. After college, the band broke up. Visions of Thom Yorke stardom were replaced with other dreams, better dreams: marriage, vocation, and eventually children. This progression is quite normal, but it brings to mind a poem that I often use in my literature courses here at Northwest.
“The Oven Bird,” by Robert Frost, is interested in hopes, desires, and ambitions left by the wayside. The poem recognizes that life, more often than not, is a process of learning how to endure loss, how to come to terms with what Langston Hughes once called the “dream deferred.” The surest foothold for despair is to dwell on the might have been rather than what God has done and continues to do in our lives. “The Oven Bird” is an appeal to the athlete who experiences a debilitating injury, the artist who can’t find her niche, or the individual in the throes of unrequited or lost love. We live in a world of diminished things. How we decide to respond to this reality is the essence of Christian discipline and maturity. As Paul reminds us in his epistle to the Corinthians: “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
Human beings are hardwired for redemption; we can’t help it, which is why death is so pernicious and idolatry so seductive. Sehnsucht fulfillment is often pursued through relationships, life work, technology, art, etc., rather than through our Creator. Looking back, I’m keenly aware of how music could have become my identity, my idol, apart from Christ. If I’m sounding too much like Kierkegaard here (either / or), so be it. Just as Bob Dylan once sang, “You gotta serve somebody,” I believe my pet preferences, my Facebook “likes,” my lame attempts at hipster irony, potentially keep me from the things of God: His commands, mercies, and promises.
A poem like “The Oven Bird” is a reminder not just to anticipate the “diminished things” that life will bring, but to embrace them as avenues for God’s redemptive work. This is one of the great paradoxes of faith. My wife and I will be welcoming our second child into the world any day now. I have no idea what she will look like, what joy or sorrow she might bring to the Webster family, but I do know this: it will be impossible to imagine life without her once she arrives, and if need be, I will happily sell all of the guitars and gear I own to take care of her. That, I think, is the essence of God’s redemptive narrative. Feeble, terrestrial efforts, indie-rock misadventures, can be put in service of the eternal, into a goodness that, in the words of Simone Weil, is “always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”