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How does Robert Frost create tension in the poem "Out, Out—"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Frost's poem, "Out, Out--," there is an underlying tension between machine and human.

One interpretation of Frost's poem "Out, Out--" considers the year in which it was written, a time when boys were losing their lives to the machinery of war. The technology of war was tearing limbs from young men, depriving them of the vigor of their youth, if not their lives. Perhaps, then, in this poem Frost imitates the dichotomy of man and machine in war, one that is certainly unfair when the "man" is still but a boy.

The tension of this poem is first expressed with the personification of the saw; that is, Frost affords the saw the powers of a living creature, thus equalizing it as a potential adversary to the boy, just as in war. It is an aggressive creature, too, that works ever so swiftly: 

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,...
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,

Clearly, the saw's aggression is expressed when it "Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap—" severing his hand.

The onomatopoeia of "buzz" and the sound words in the above lines create a certain tension, as well. For, the saw makes aggressive and disturbing noises with the snarling and rattling sounds. Also, the alliteration of "dust and dropped" and "saw snarled...snarled," which speeds the line, suggests a certain danger for the boy.

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Jason Lulos eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The first line describes how violently the buzz-saw moves and sounds as it "snarled and rattled in the yard." Then the speaker counters that violent image with how pleasant the landscape is in the background. He then comes right back to the violence of the buzz-saw, repeating how it "snarled and rattled" in line 7. So, in this peaceful world, there is this threatening object that snarls like a lion or tiger. Once again, the speaker suggests a cessation to this violence, stating that "nothing happened." This is temporary. This back and forth dichotomy of violence and peace heightens the tension. The tension is increased even more when he suggests something will happen.

Call it a day, I wish they might have said,

To please the boy by giving him the half hour

That a boy counts so much when saved from work.

The tension climaxes with the "leap" of the saw. Again, the saw is personified and this makes it seem like a predator. We might also call this "zoomorphism" rather than personification or anthropomorphism because the saw is given the characteristics of an animal. The tension reaches its peak when the saw takes the boy's hand and is sustained until he takes his last breath. By treating the saw like a living predator, Frost provokes the reader to prepare for some kind of attack.

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