Robert Frost and my new iPad

by Rob Tiller

I’ve finally managed to memorize The Wood Pile, by Robert Frost. It’s a strange, bleak poem, about walking through a frozen swamp and not seeing very much, except snow, trees, a bird and a decaying wood pile. Just as the narrator doesn’t really know why he keeps walking deeper into a frozen swamp, I’m hard put to explain why I went to the considerable trouble of memorizing this poem. It’s difficult to picture an ordinary situation in which anyone would voluntarily listen to a recitation with pleasure. But memorizing it entailed many many readings with close examination of every word, and through that process the poem gradually revealed a stark startling beauty.

At the end of the poem, the narrator wonders at the isolated decaying wood pile, and remarks that the person who made it must be “someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks” so as to “forget his handiwork on which he spent himself, the labor of his ax.” It may be that the laboriously created, carefully measured, woodpile is one of Frost’s poems, and that Frost is pointing up the minor tragedy of art that fails to reach its audience. He also seems to be saying that remembering can be harder than creating. It isn’t hard to see that we all constantly live in eagerly turning to fresh tasks and also, without realizing it, forgetting other valuable things.

Yesterday I turned to the fresh task of learning how to work my new iPad. It is a very pleasing little device both in form and function — light, sleek, quick, uncomplicated, but sophisticated. I got it mainly to use as a reader and a web surfer, though it may turn out that other functions, like the video viewer or some game, will turn out to be useful to me. To get started, I put some of my favorite poetry on the Kindle reader, including W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Frost, thinking it would be a comfort to have them along in my travels. I also felt it would be worthwhile to always have handy some Proust, and downloaded Swann’s Way.

Within a few minutes I’d figured out how to make the Kindle reader application do some interesting things, like go to the table of contents, jump to a given page, highlight text, make a note on the text, and change the typeface of the work. This was mainly a matter of touching the screen in various ways, some of which were not immediately obvious. Experimenting with it was fun.

It’s remarkable how learning how to work new devices (sometimes hardware, but most often software) is now a constant feature of modern high tech life. In days gone by, a new device might come into my life every few months, but now it’s more like every few hours. The concept of the iPhone, and probably the iPad, includes encouraging the constant addition of more and more apps. Each app has at least a small learning curve, which consumes some amount of human energy.

Other than causing fatigue, do the apps do anything? The best thing they do is speed up information gathering. Whether the subject is world politics, scientific research, movies, or restaurants, it’s possible to get information faster. This could lead to better decisions. The problem is that our brains can only go so fast and only hold so much. Like John Henry racing to put down rails against the steam hammer, we can’t possibly keep up with the pace of our powerful computers.

So we have to figure out when to say, basta! On any given day, we have to be careful about turning to too many fresh tasks and forgetting what is really valuable. We have to quit downloading apps all the time and read something beautiful and profound, like Frost or Proust. Small, slow, and error-prone as our brains are, we need to protect and care for them and nourish them well.