‘We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secrets sits in the middle and knows’Robert Frost, ‘The Secret Sits’
Robert Frost’s ‘The Secret Sits’ expresses the expansive economy characteristic of the very best poetry. For the best poems are those that accomplish much more in their evocation than appears quantitatively possible. The best poems have a fragile power: to evoke, in the most precise and concise manner, a sense of truth that you thought only ever belonged to you. Its a soothing contradiction: in so few words, in such a minimal occupation of space, a great many possibilities and certainties are communicated. The satiation I describe here is not solely a product of the poem’s statuesque brevity. Rather, that satiation also comes with allowing certain kinds of movement. The poem is still, in a sense, nailed to the page; nothing escapes the eye. But, somehow, that ease of consumption that comes with being contained on the fraction of a page, allows for much larger and shocking movements. Movements that are pleasing, self-stimulating, and regulatory, sustaining or creating a moment of psychosocial stability; in short, the poem’s brevity is part and parcel of its fecundity – the quantitative lack of material and our sense of ‘that’s it? that’s it?? I want more!!’ not only invites us to return and reflect (what does this poem mean? what is this poem?) but the poem extends this invitation to us repeatedly and unconditionally. Endlessly. You can come back as much as you want. And so Frost’s poem repeatedly invites us back, to reflect on what may be or could be or was intended in the brief gasp of ink before us.
These kinds of poems — poems like Frost’s — are a kind of concise maximalism. They stand in sharp contrast to that other, more fleeting genre of brevity: Frost’s poem does not vanish, like breath on glass. It doesn’t disappear into insignificance. At least, not entirely. Rather, it allows us to — no, implores us — to return to the poem and repeat a moment, again and again and again. And that repetition is beautiful precisely because it balances both predictability (I already know what is on the page, I just read it) and novelty (I read what was on the page, but I do not know it yet). There’s a pleasing sense of certainty in this formulation: I don’t know the poem, yet. Whilst we are occupied with this sense of a determined outcome yet to materialise, we become oblivious to the fact that Frost’s poem has, indeed, in fact, disappeared like breath on glass: the poem is no longer what we thought it was when we first encountered it. The first encounter is lost — Adam and Eve can’t return to the Garden of Eden once they are cast out — but the first encounter is replaced by a horizon of possibility, of possible certainty. And if none of the above applies, if the poem is truly without interest and attention to a reader, then we remain unaffected. We drop the slight, short, inconsequential poem as soon as it arrived — with the added certainty that we know what was on the page (typographically, at least).
All in all: it’s a perfect poem precisely because, in all the possible ways we look at it, in all of the above description, the poem sustains us. It is, in a sense, a not-too-pathetic sense, like meeting a new acquaintance — filled with potential as to what and who and why they could be, not yet ruined by certainty and lacking any pretension beyond what a surface can suggest: the poem is there, warts and all, upon the page. And we are invited to return and return and return, coming to learn about what this poem could be.
In the case of ‘The Secret Sits’, Frost is attempting to capture ‘The Secret’. He attempts this capture in both form and content. And I say ‘attempt’ and ‘capture’ because, as I’m sure Frost himself knew, to engage with a representation of the secret requires the acceptance and engagement of a full-hearted but Sisphyean endeavour. We must set out to capture ‘the secret’, knowing we never will, in order to at least glimpse it and the possibilities therein. And this attempt to capture, and thus to glimpse ‘the secret’ through our failure, is reflected at the level of form. Indeed, because of the brevity of the poem, Frost successfully glimpses the haecceity — the very constituency — of ‘the secret’. The very form of the poem appears to be a meta-textual comment on what ‘the secret’ is, exactly. For what is this thing we are looking at? This writing? These two lines? Is this, indeed, a poem, at all? Can a poem be a couplet? A couplet does, of course, depending on our cultural bias, connote a sense of completeness — a sense we may associate with the reading of a poem. Pairs, couples, one-plus-one… these small unities create a pleasing sense of wholeness, of completeness, of a Biblical, almost primordial, rectitude. The animals entered the ark, two by two… Yet, despite the sense of completeness that coupledom can connote, there remains a persistent sense that calling ‘The Secret Sits’ a ‘poem’ may be a category error. This cryptic couplet perfectly walks the line between poetry and epigram, leaving us to argue, perhaps endlessly, as to what this bloody thing is, exactly. At the level of form, then, ‘The Secret Sits’ captures that elusive and uncategorisable property that is essential to secrecy — ‘the secret’ always escapes absolute and taxonomic containment; we think we’ve seen it, and, indeed, we think we’ve seen all of it. But we haven’t. There’s always more, however cyclical and repetitive the ‘more’ of our discussions therein may be — the secret cannot be exhausted. And, yet, the pleasurable possibility of ‘the secret’ definitively being there, present, pinned to the page in your hands, is never denied. We could know it! We really could! Because it’s written there. Indeed, ‘the Secret sits in the middle and knows’. In one sense, our relationship with ‘the secret’ in Frost’s poem evokes an almost childlike, primordial secrecy, reminiscent of D.W. Winnicott’s descriptions of childhood games. When we play hide and seek, it’s a joy to be hidden but a disaster not to be found. And the poem, Frost’s poem, hides in plain sight on the page, inviting the play of possibility.
But where is this poem? Where do we find ourselves? Where is the secret? Well, if the secret of Frost’s poem ‘sits in the middle and knoes’… where is the middle, exactly? Frost’s poem doesn’t have a middle. If the secret ‘sits in the middle and knows’, we can’t approach it in this poem. For the poem is only two lines. If the poem were three lines — the Biblical trinity, the rule of three — then we could regard line two of the poem as the middle (and, therefore, ‘the secret’). And that would be euphonically fitting, considering what the second line of Frost’s poem is: ‘But the Secrets sits in the middle and knows’. We turn to line two of our imagined three-line poem, and it tells us where the secret is — it’s right there, sitting in the middle of the poem. But, alas, our imaginings can only go so far. We must, eventually, come back to the reality of the page in front of us — the material reality, the unerasable reality. There isn’t three lines in Frost’s poem. There isn’t ‘a middle’ of the poem, and line two isn’t the middle — its the end of the couplet, the final half, the denouement. Rather, in the two lines we are actually provided by Frost, we can’t find a halfway point. A middle. There isn’t a line 1.5 that we can read — that is, an intelligible, categorisable, sign-and-signifer. We just have that gutter, that blank space, between lines one and two. And perhaps this absense, and the presence that this absence makes, can be read as ‘the secret’ of the poem — as the elusive, limited, oblique, liminal knowledge of possibility inherent to awareness — contra knowing — affords us. We can only approach line 1.5 as an awareness of possibility. And this effect, this limited awareness of possibility, is very similar to the effect we achieved when imagining a hypothetical, three-line poem, in which line two would be ‘But the Secrets sits in the middle and knows’. What does ‘the Secret’ know? Where is the ‘middle’? Why does it ‘sit’ there? Is it humanoid? What does it look like? Questions arise, possibilities are realised, but no determined answers are nailed to the page. Only the poem is certain. All else is play.
We can’t neglect line one. It is, after all, in a material, measurable, and quantifiable sense, half of the poem. Our egghead statistician will tell us line one is 50% of the poem. And, in a related and differentiable sense, we can say that line one is perhaps half of ‘the Secret’ that ‘sits’ in line two. Again, we are led back to an essential quality of ‘The Secret’ — something that appears to be one thing, and yet always already exists as another. The secret is over there, sitting, in line two. Or betweem lines one and two. ‘ø’ as Badiou would perhaps call it. And, yet, the secret is also present in the first line of the poem, as the first line serves to anticipate and set up line two. Indeed, we can’t have line 1.5 without line one. The middle, then, is also the beginning and the end — the secret reifies and collapses the geometry of the poetry’s temporality; The Secret’ always plays to existing, discrete categories and measurements (beginning, middle, end) whilst also defying them too. It is, in that sense, a veritable trickster, evoking the Biblical and Miltonic world of Satan, defined by the daemonic interruption and creation of boundaries.
Line one provides us with the pitter-patter, left-foot-right-foot of life’s contradictions: we have the ritual frivolities (and, thus, joys) of living (‘We dance around in a ring’) and we have the ever-oblique inquisitions we attempt to make about ourselves and others (‘and suppose’). Then, in line two, the rituals and inquiries of line one are exposed as inconsequential; for, despite our actions, or, perhaps, because of them, ‘the Secret’ ‘sits in the middle and knows’. It knows what we don’t, precisely because we don’t know. We spend our time brooding and dancing and laughing and thinking and, in the end, the secret, the kernel, eludes and enables all of these things.
Robert Frost’s ‘The Secret sits’ is, to my mind, half of ‘The Secret’ in a wider, sociological sense. That half-complete quality is, indeed, the source of the poem’s power and accuracy; it affirms that the poem is aware of its subject matter — like, to some extent, a Gestalt image — by representing it as the elliptical presence of sheer possibility.
Recently, the other half of ‘The Secret’ was bought to my mind. In Three Comrades, Erich Remarque (better known for writing All Quiet on the Western Front) wrote:
‘Modesty and conscientiousness receive their reward only in novels. In life they are exploited and then shoved aside’
Erich Remarque, Three Comrades (London: Penguin, 2013), p.24
Why is that relevant to ‘The Secret’? Why is that the other half of the sociology of secrecy? Well, Remarque reminded me that, in life and art, we have ‘fictional truth’ (the truth we find in the verisimilitude of fiction) and ‘actual truth’ (the truth we find outside of fiction, the Real McCoy, the genuine article). This binary, if we call it that for now, connects with Frost’s poem. For what is the ‘actual truth’? What is the truth of our day-to-day lives? What is the truth of what we say and do, what is the truth we see in other people and ourselves? What is the truth we tell ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, that ensures are answer to Camau’s question — the great question — about suicide? And eventually we all realise, or glimpse, or dispute, that this distinction, this separation, of the fictional and actual truth is, to some extent, a necessary fiction in itself. A hallucination. This is not a novel, radical, or new claim. But the definitions of those boundaries, the very creation of them and the defiance of them, is dependent on that category we call ‘the secret’. That’s my point. The battles we wage in defining and separating actual and fictional truth hinges entirely on the category of the secret — what we know, what we don’t know, what counts as knowing, what can we know, who knows what and why, how do we know it, when did we know it, how are these disclosures and dissimulations orchestrated or denied or realised etc. etc. Who wins in defining the secret succeeds in constructing reality itself.
So what we see in Frost’s poem, then, is the epistemological and philosophical foundation necessary for Remarque to make his claim in Three Comrades. Frost aesthetisises and illustrates the very conceptual ground that makes the cycnicism of Remarque’s writing memorable, timeless, and insuperably true. And that existence of a contrasting ‘fictional truth’ and ‘actual truth’ is only possible when we create a quasi-consensual, mass, unquestioning belief in particular realities — composed of particular secrets. Only when enough people appear to be invested in certain beliefs about reality can we create distinctions between what is and is not ‘really’ true — what is real knowledge that we really know and is permissible, acceptable, insurmountable. And the reason ‘the secret’ is germane here, the reason ‘the secret’ is essential, is precisely because it is the very category and quality of belief — it is what makes belief possible and necesserary. The secret is the category and boundary line of presence and non-presence, the void necessary for concepts of trust, faith, and belief to exist in the first place. For if we knew all things, if we knew exactly what was indisputably true of all people and all places and all things — if we held the brains of others in our hande and knew all their shames and desires and hopes, where the sleephearts are buried, where it hurt, exactly, and how often — then we would do away with the very need for and existence of ‘truth’, ‘faith’, ‘belief’, and ‘trust’ — for they would no longer be necessary. No stone would be left unturned. Nobody would stand to have the benefit of the doubt; nobody would be a mystery. Everyone would be predictable and knowable.
So let’s conclude by saying that ‘The secret’ is a lysergic glue. It’s the social hallucination that binds us together and separates us into boxes, categories, and possibilities. The secret is how we create the conditions of our categorisation and how we overthrow these categories. The issue at present is that people, in an unprecedently visible way, are aware more and more about how fact and fiction can collapse into one another; that not everybody is bound up in the same lysergic glue. My response to this is not ‘we need to create new, mass hallucinations!’. ‘We need to found a new Lysergia!!’. ‘We need to create new fictions!’. Because we saw what happened, didn’t we, with the ‘grand narratives’ of the past. What defined ‘the public’, ‘the private’, and ‘the secret’ — what created those boundaries, and who were allowed to cross and redefine them — was deterimed by the few at the cost of the many — a coercive lysergia. No, the solution is to understand all of the above — everything I have said — sit with it all, reflect on it all, and realise this is not the end but the start; this is not a terminal diagnosis but the algorithm for a whole new means of living.
If it is the case, as I believe it to be, that we can never truly know anybody, and what comprises ‘true’ knowledge of ourselves and others is a matter of continually redefining the epistemological goal posts to progressive ends, then what do we do? What do we do? Because we are not equipped to live in the constant flux we currently occupy– at least, not in the sense that neoliberalism has sought to valorise: a resilient, insecure, perma-nomadism.
We need to be aware of Lysergia. We need to map what we know and what we do not know, create a cartography of epistemological presence and non presence. And once we do that, once we train ourselves to become attuned to the secret, we can begin a material revolution — we can redefine Lysergia for progressive ends and live there not as secrets but as beings attuned to the secrecy that can bind us together and tear us apart.