Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Have I ever mentioned how much I love Robert Frost? I looooove Robert Frost. Deceptively simple. Beauty without frill. Somehow, I believe him without feeling manipulated. I once wrote a paper (and gave a presentation) comparing the phonosemantics in Robert Frost’s poetry and the lyrics of one Mr. Dwayne Michael Carter, better known as “Lil Wayne.” They seem to dig a lot of the same poetic devices, much to the surprise of my higher-browed classmates at the time.
Besides its ironically gorgeous nonchalance about the coming apocalypse, Fire and Ice also offers us a perfect example of ellipsis. Whereas Mr. Carter likes to go by “Lil Wayne,” the unassuming ellipsis often dons the moniker, “dot dot dot.” Since this is poetry, we don’t have to actually write the dots. But they’re there. See ’em? Frost advises that while “Some say the world will end in fire,” others “say in ice.” But of course, no one literally says, “in ice.” No. They say more than that. Their full exclamation is that the world will end in ice. After all, just saying “in ice” alone would make no sense, right?
But because that opening phrase is just as jarring as it is undeniable, its repetition is unnecessary — especially for the sake of something as vain as English grammar. If Frost had uttered “the world will end” two times, that whole thought would have been cheapened, like any widget in a widget-flooded market. So instead, line two finds this phrase not repeated but elided. One might argue that the unsaid second is even louder than the spoken first.
Ellipsis is a rhetorical device. More importantly, it is the speaker’s good faith expression of trust that an audience in its due diligence will in fact infer the implied. The speaker takes a leap of faith that listeners will get it. Anything else would almost certainly over-explain, if not outright condescend. An audience who feigns confusion after hearing “some say in ice” has violated that trust and jeopardized the health and productivity of the entire exchange.
In the same vein, “Black lives matter” simply means “black lives matter as much as anyone else’s life matters.” That second part is elided only because it can’t be chanted, hash-tagged, sloganized, screen-printed, or bumper-stickered. Complete thoughts get hacked for quick delivery all the time in social politics, just as they do in poetry. So why does this particular shorthand make folks uneasy? “Black lives matter” does not mean other lives don’t matter. It’s just a reminder that in addition to those who have enjoyed the luxury of mattering all along, blacks now matter too. Yes, white lives matter and blue lives matter and indeed all lives matter. But if you wield those phrases as dismissive retorts to BLM, then you probably don’t get it. Of course all lives matter. That’s about as obvious as “some say the world will end in ice.” It’s so ridiculously plain that it need not even be argued — which is likely one of the reasons why Frost left it out.
This ellipsis might also abbreviate something along the lines of “black lives matter more than your personal insecurities, your power trips, or your particularly stressful morning.” Understand. Once people think they’ve seen one too many disturbing police encounters seemingly excused on the grounds of “I had had a really shitty day” or “how dare she refuse to put out her cigarette,” they often feel compelled to remind folks that lives outweigh those relative trifles. And by “lives,” I’m not just talking about pulses and brain waves. I’m talking about humanity itself. Yes, there are studies and data compilations that at first glance would seem to belie any significant racial element to policing. And yes, white people do find themselves on the receiving end of questionable police action. But reality always takes a back seat to perception. BLM is rhetorical code for a broader public inquiry into the media-driven impression (accurate or not) that police encounters escalate more quickly with black folks than otherwise.
All this hapless hubbub over a missing too. On the one hand, it seems a silly quibble. (Catch the ellipsis there?) On the other hand, in the era of instant mass media, words matter almost as much as lives do. So we’ve got to get this right; because frankly, I fear what I see brewing between black folks and our beloved Blue Line. Many well-meaning minorities are too quick to focus on race to the exclusion of all else. Equally naïve are those honest cops who convince themselves that everyone is colorblind. If we need to better train our police to keep their cool and stay professional even when dealing with rude or mouthy or self-righteous citizens, then let’s not allow our pride get in the way. If we need to educate the public that it’s not always as simple as opting for a Taser — or if we need to teach them that yes, in fact, the cops can legally ask you to step out of the car — then great. Let’s do that too. Either way, the police and the communities they serve must each acknowledge their own bad apples and unequivocally excommunicate them. Now. Otherwise, one group might as well be fire, and the other, ice. And Frost has already clued us in on how that all plays out.