Fences, Good Neighbors, and Immigration


Will America’s most famous poem about fences give us any insight into the border problems we are currently experiencing with Mexico? Let’s take a look at it and find out.

The poem I have in mind is, of course, Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” Here it is:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
He is all pine and I am apple-orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Among other things, the poem is saying that people put up walls even when there’s no real reason to do so. In that regard, the speaker seems to be talking about, say, the Sarah Palins of the world, who recently approvingly quoted the last line of “Mending Wall.” This in response to journalist Joe McGinniss moving into the house next to her to work on his biography about her. Here’s Palin’s Facebook quote:

Wonder what kind of material he’ll gather while overlooking Piper’s bedroom, my little garden, and the family’s swimming hole? Welcome, Joe! It’ll be a great summer – come borrow a cup of sugar if ever you need some sweetener. And you know what they say about “fences make for good neighbors”? Well, we’ll get started on that tall fence tomorrow …

I owe knowledge of Palin quoting Frost to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, some of whose readers have since launched into detailed interpretations of the poem. Of course I’m thrilled whenever poetry enters into the national political discourse.

Palin’s vision of good fences dominates much of the thinking about the U.S./Mexico border as well. The implicit assumption among the far right is that all would be well if “they” stayed in their place and “we” stayed in ours. Of course, the fence in the immigration debate is much more than geographical. My country speaks English, theirs Spanish; my country is predominantly white, theirs brown–and everything should stay that way.

Some of the intense reaction against our black president may be over the ways that he challenges traditional identity.  How else to account for the insistence in certain quarters, against all reason, that he is Muslim or was born in Kenya? The cognitive dissonance is so great that a portion of the population retreats into irrationality.

As Frost’s poem makes clear, these responses are moving in stone-age darkness:

I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying . . .

But change is coming as certainly as the frozen groundswell is attacking the wall. Perhaps these people are panicking because they sense it. New York Times columnist Charles Blow (an African American) notes that Tea Party complaints are erupting

at a time when the country is becoming more diverse (some demographers believe that 2010 could be the first year that most children born in the country will be nonwhite), less doctrinally dogmatic, and college enrollment is through the roof. The Tea Party, my friends, is not the future.

You may want “your country back,” but you can’t have it. That sound you hear is the relentless, irrepressible march of change. Welcome to America: The Remix.

Frost is putting his finger on such fears. But just as immigration is more complex than some would have it, so is the poem. First of all, the poem’s narrator isn’t entirely against fences. After all, he’s the one who alerts his neighbor that the wall needs mending and he helps him mend it.

The difference between the two men is that the speaker reflects on the issue of boundaries. There may be a role for the fence, but we need to examine what that role is. It’s a certainty that his apple trees won’t come flooding across the border to invade his neighbor’s pine trees if the wall comes down. Then again, Central Americans (and many others) certainly would come flooding across the border if the various fences went down. In terms of the poem, we’re talking about a cow situation.

I won’t get here into all the complexities connected with immigration: the conflicting interests (business, labor, consumers, immigrant families), the intricacies of the drug trade and the gun trade, the North American Free Trade Agreement’s impact on Central American farmers, American-Mexican relations in general. There has been enough hypocrisy and political demagoguery on immigration to sink a flotilla. I’ll just stick to what Frost’s poem can teach us.

First of all, he reminds us that the desire for fences goes deep and that logic can’t touch it. The fears are primal.

That’s the problem with Blow’s the-times-they-are-a-changin’-so-you’d-better-start-swimming-or-you’ll-sink-like-a-stone perspective. It doesn’t acknowledge how much damage the speaker’s neighbor can do if pushed into a corner. Join the Tea Party? Require racial profiling in Arizona? Something worse?

Frost does give us a vision of working on the fence side-by-side, which is at least a step. If there’s community, there’s the possibility for change. This vision of neighbors working together is where Obama puts his own hopes for progress. I quote the president from David Remnick’s recent biography The Bridge. (A tip to Newsweek editor Jon Meacham for alerting me to it.):

America evolves, and sometimes those evolutions are painful. People don’t progress in a straight line. Countries don’t progress in a straight line. So there’s enormous excitement and interest around the election of an African-American President. It’s inevitable that there’s going to be some backlash, potentially, to what that means—not in a crudely racist way, necessarily. But it signifies change, in the same way that immigration signifies change, in the same way that a shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy signifies change, in the same way that the Internet signifies change and terrorism signifies change. And so I think that nobody should have ever been under the illusion—certainly I wasn’t, and I was very explicit about this when I campaigned—that by virtue of my election, suddenly race problems would be solved or conversely that the American people would want to spend all their time talking about race. I think it signifies progress, but the progress preceded the election. The progress facilitated the election. The progress has to do with the day-to-day interactions of people who are working together and going to church together and teaching their kids to treat everybody equally and fairly. All those little interactions that are taking place across the country add up to a more just, more tolerant, society. But that’s an ongoing process. It’s one that requires each of us, every day, to try to expand our sense of understanding. And there are going to be folks who don’t want to promote that understanding because they’re afraid of the future. They don’t like that evolution. They think, in some fashion, that it will disadvantage them or, in some sense, diminishes the past. I tend to be fairly forgiving about the anxiety that people feel about change because I think, if you’re human, you recognize that in yourself.

If we have worn “our fingers rough” working on boulders with our neighbors, even those we don’t agree with, then (Obama is telling us) there is reason for optimism. Frost doesn’t talk about shifts occurring in the poem but they do happen.  In fact, there appears to be hope on another issue involving deep boundaries, the repeal of the Military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.   Who foresaw that wall starting to come down?  For all that he quotes the inherited wisdom of his father, Frost’s neighbor may be amenable to some changes.

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3 Trackbacks

  1. By Mending Walls Can Save Lives on June 2, 2010 at 1:20 am

    […] Better Living through Beowulf How great literature can change your life Skip to content BlogBook discussion groupsAbout « Fences, Good Neighbors, and Immigration […]

  2. […] Fences, Good Neighbors, and Immigration […]

  3. By The Grand Illusion that We Must Fight on June 4, 2010 at 1:08 am

    […] wrote Tuesday and Wednesday about Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and the fences that divide us, both […]


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