The need for walls?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 13, 2007
Filed in Communication, Culture

Dave Snowden is puzzled with one of my posts that mentions Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, when I say:

“when you read the entire poem (in context) you realise Frost is questioning the need for fences”


Dave responds categorically saying: “I cannot see any reading (my emphasis) that would support such a statement. The poem is about the dynamics and social process of mending, not the static nature of the wall.”


I understand the metaphor Dave. Give me a break. I’m surprised that someone with such a deep understanding of sensemaking and the need for multiple interpretations can only see one interpretation of a poem. Have a read of this part of the poem and hopefully you can see that the narrator is questioning the need for walls. Of course it is ironic that we are arguing over this particular poem.


Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
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.


I suspect you hadn’t seen this part of the poem because you were using other parts to make a point about barriers in complex systems. I think it’s a classic example of seeing what you are looking for.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Dave Snowden says:

    Well that rattled your cage 🙂
    I’ve read it many times Shawn, learnt it by heart at school, wrote essays on it placing it in the wider context of Frost’s work.
    A brief lesson in logic. If I say that I cannot see that there is any reading of the poem that would support your statement; it does not follow that I denying the legitimacy of other interpretations. I think there are many interesting ones, but the denial of walls is not one that is supported by the text.
    I stand my my original statment and interpretation and again reference you to the title, and the context in which the poem was written. I will resist any temptation to respond to your last paragraph in kind ….
    PS – why not switch on the Typekey identity? Most of the other bloggers allow this, rather than the more restrictive approach of approving blogs (even from friends) before posting?

  2. I know you like to rattle cages and I thought I would rise to the bait.
    Just asserting your authority doesn’t make what you say right. Nothing you’ve said here has changed my mind that the poem’s narrator is suggesting that life might be better, in some circumstances, without walls.

  3. dave Snowden says:

    I was not so much “asserting authority” as responding to your suggestion that I had not read the poem but only those verses that suited a particular interpretation. This poem is a particular passion of mine (and has been for years) and while I think there are several interpretations, the denial of walls is not one of them (although I notice you have reduced the claim to “some circumstances” to which I might not have reacted.

  4. I think we are getting to the nub of our disagreement. It seems that you thought I had denied that walls exist, which I don’t. What I said was that “… you realise Frost is questioning the need for fences.” There are two characters in the poem and the narrator defintely questions the need for fences, as the snippet above shows. I was not suggesting you hadn’t read the poem. I know you devour these things. My suggestion was that you hadn’t “seen” this part of the poem despite the many readings. But it is probably more complex than that.

  5. I shall resist the tempation to tease Dave by coming in and affecting the role of peacemaker.

  6. dave Snowden says:

    You could have both of us turn on you Jonnie ….
    Shawn, I don’t think the poem questions the need for “mending walls” and the necessity of boundaries. One of the character’s questions as part of the poem’s discourse strucuture, but both calls for, and continues the process of mending.

  7. Whew, it seems you agree with me. But one little thing, I’ve never said that the poem suggests one should not mend walls. Rather I suggested the narrator questions the need for walls.

  8. Viv McWaters says:

    This discussion reminds me of some work I’ve done recently on Difficult Conversations a la the Harvard approach. Conversations, they explain, can be broken into three types of conversations:
    1 The ‘what happened’ conversation – where most of us start and ultimately not very rewarding as it usually descends into blaming at some point
    2. The ‘feelings’ conversation – most important, I think, in one-on-one personal conversations (but not exclusively). The interesting thing about the ‘feelings’ conversations is that when it really happens it lasts for no more than 30 seconds, even less.
    3. The ‘gap’ conversation. This for me is the most interesting as a facilitator because it’s about being able to observe both parties and describe the gap. For example, in expectations, in the way we want to work etc. It is surprisingly difficult to do well, especially when we are one of the parties involved. It takes some some real brain gymnastics to step back from the ‘what happened’ and ‘what I’m feeling’ conversations going on in our own heads to identify and analyse the ‘gap’ and hence have that conversation with the other person
    Thanks for providing a good example of the ‘what happened’ conversation 🙂 I’m always on the lookout!

  9. It looks like we need your facilitation skills on this one Viv 🙂 What would you recommend as a practical next step?

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