Sunday, March 15, 2009

Early Frost

(Reflection upon the first few dozen pages of ROBERT FROST: COLLECTED POEMS, PROSE, & PLAYS in The Library of America.)

Before my voice changed, I could recite all of "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," and key phrases in "The Road Less Travelled" and "Mending Wall." My teachers treated Frost as a voice apart, wonderful and unmatchable as Shakespeare.  (The AP exam my senior year presented both writers in one: Frost making allusion to Shakespeare in the poem "Out, out--:). To this day, Robert Frost’s words and wisdom are tucked away in the same mental file as The Lord's Prayer, Psalm 23, and The Gettysburg Address. All the contemporary poetry I've read and enjoyed in adulthood has seemed to be written by mere mortals, while Frost remains on his pedestal.

This year, I've resolved to make my way page by page through his Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays, to re-evaluate him. Here's what I've discovered, so far:

His life, summarized in a chronology at the back, was much more complex than I'd heard. In his youth, through his twenties, I notice a theme of having to prove himself to be more than his mother's boy. His father died early; he grew up in San Francisco long before returning to become the quintessential New England writer. Several items tell us how he got in fights, fought two boys at once, beat 8th grade boys when he took over his mother's unruly class, and how he was beaten up by those same students in an ambush later that year. Besides work in the classroom, he was a drama teacher, and a mill worker, before he settled down on a farm. We also read that he “heard voices” when he was nine; and close relatives were institutionalized with debilitating mental illness, including his sister and his daughter.

In his earliest collection, Frost was imitating poetry that must have been pretty corny even in the early 1900s. Take, for instance, the first lines of the penultimate poem in that first collection, “My Butterfly”:
Thine emulous fond flowers are dead, too,
And the daft sun - assaulter, he
That frighted thee so oft, is fled or dead. . .
But the last verse in that collection achieves a gracefulness that sounds natural despite the triple rhyme, and that rhyme clicks the thought into place:
Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
The next collection, NORTH TO BOSTON, published in 1914, begins with “Mending Wall,” and we sense a quantum leap for Frost. It’s no longer a young man alone with his old man’s thoughts. In that first poem, and in all of the others, it’s one mind wrestling with another’s. A taciturn neighbor mutters, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Our poet says, “I wonder / If I could put a notion in his head: ‘Why do they make good neighbors?’” Many of the other poems are like short - short - films in verse: setting the scene with sensual detail, then a dialogue. Often there are spaces and indentations that have the effect of Pinter’s pauses. There are soliloquies (Frost emulating Browning), including this, from “A Servant to Servants”:

It’s got so I don’t even know for sure
Whether I am glad, sorry, or anything.
There’s nothing but a voice - like left inside
That seems to tell me how I ought to feel,
And would feel if I was all gone wrong.
You take the lake. I look and look at it.
I see it's a fair, pretty sheet of water...
... but the character, a woman, doesn’t feel the beauty that draws others to the lake. She is a fictional character dealing with mental illness in the family as Frost did.

We can see Frost developing a different technique in some of these, where our poet is an intermediary between characters of strong opposing feelings. In “The Death of a Hired Man,” it’s the wife attempting to shield the sleeping, good-for-nothing hired hand in the next room from her husband’s ire. In “The Black Cottage,” our spokesperson is a parson describing how he bridges the gap between old and young in his church. In “The Code,” an employer and two hired hands have been working on a farm, and one of the laborers has just left in a huff. Our spokesperson is the remaining worker, trying to explain the quitter’s state of mind to the employer.

Rhythm, sometimes rhyme, enter in, but always so naturally that they don’t intrude, but lend a sheen, and a sense that everything is just right.

All that said, these are still the work of a young man in a context. The popular culture of his day was filled with melodrama, the populism of Progressive “muckrakers” and a fascination with deaths of innocents. So we get a young couple still mourning the death of their infant child (“Home Burial”), and the shyster company lawyer trying to bilk the stoical mill worker maimed on the job, and a sort of ghost story. His poems concern the cook, the housekeeper, the farm hand, the decayed home of the forgotten old woman, and the honorable farm life compared to the decadent urban life.

I checked the blogosphere to see whether I’m thinking along the same lines as others, and stumbled happily across the blog of Dana Gioia (, recent head of the NEH, a poet around my age whom I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in a small room at Emory University. I’ve read his book CAN POETRY MATTER? in which Gioia describes the insularity of many contemporary poets, English Departments, and poetry publishers.

According to Gioia, the purposeful accessibility and public persona of Frost made him a target for a hostile biographer and academic disdain.

Gioia quotes Frost about that dramatic angle in his poems: “I make it a rule not to take any character's side in anything I write." Gioia comments, “Like Shakespeare, Frost's imagination was capacious enough to encompass contradiction. He used the friction of irreconcilable opposites rubbing against each other—sometimes humorously, more often tragically—to spark the dramatic energy of his narratives.”

Gioia continues:

In Frost's lyric poems, however, his gift for opposition took a more complicated turn. On the surface he would create an engaging poem that memorably argued some sensible point of view. Meanwhile underneath he would set loose another line of argument that subversively qualified or rejected the surface message....In "Mending Wall," for instance, the speaker does not agree with the farmer's pronouncement that "Good fences make good neighbors." Nor does "The Road Not Taken" unambiguously assert that the choice of paths "made all the difference." While the Modernists made the surfaces of their poems complex and forbidding, Frost made his surfaces deceptively simple. On close examination, however, his seemingly lucid poems often unfold into imaginative enigmas.
About Frost’s capsule biography, Gioia makes a point about a “central paradox in Frost's career—the great poet of New England was born and raised through childhood in San Francisco.” So, coming from temperate urban San Francisco to rugged, snowy, rural northeast, Frost “took nothing in this new landscape for granted. ...The newcomer has to make conscious sense of a place in ways a native never bothers. Frost was an elective New Englander, and a convert is always more passionate about the new faith than someone born to a religion.”

Thanks to Gioia for introducing me to this quote, which I am evidently the last English major to learn: Poetry "is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget."

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Butterfly That Draws Us In

(Reflection on MADAME BUTTERFLY. Composer: Giacomo Puccini. Librettists: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Based on play by David Belasco. Patricia Racette stars. Directed by Anthony Minghella. With Marcello Giordani as Pinkerton, Maria Zifchak as Suzuki, and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless.) Photo above from and, at left, from

I had seen pictures of Anthony Minghella's stripped-down production of Madame Butterfly, and its eerie little life sized puppet of "Trouble," the boy borne of Buttefly's short honeymoon with Pinkerton. I wondered if there weren't a whiff of condescension in the Oscar-winning director's comment that, for the stage, you had to direct it "theatrically." I'd read about his use of Japanese theatrical techniques. Ho - hum, I'd thought. Been there, done that. Had I written my review before seeing it, I would have written this:

Yes, the Japanese element of Butterfly is important and skillfully woven into the score, but the piece is still an Italian opera, not the ritualized Japanese drama that Minghella wants to force out of it. The director’s treatment of stage action and character is all style and surface, epitomized by the astonishing idea of presenting Trouble, the 2-year-old son of Butterfly and Pinkerton, as a Bunraku puppet. The puppet is cute as a button, and it’s ingeniously manipulated by three onstage hooded figures, but the device succeeds only in further diverting our attention from the dramatic situation and italicizing the mechanical artifice of the staging. The stiff interactions among the real-life characters are not much more convincing, and we lose touch with them and their problems almost the moment they appear.

These are the words of Peter G. Davis, reviewing the production for NEW YORK magazine. But having seen it myself now, I wonder if Davis perhaps had made up his mind before he saw it.

There is another possibility, that Davis simply didn't have a good enough seat. With the cinematic advantage of closeups, we watched the tears form and drop from Maria Zifchak's eyes in her role as Suzuki as the little family kneels and waits for Pinkerton's imminent return that never comes. We saw the momentary looks of terror in Patricia Racette's eyes as she sang most forcefully Butterfly's faith in the man who married her. We saw the warmth, pride, and sadness in the Japanese suitor who would take Butterfly and son away from their lonely hilltop house... a character who made no impression on me in the other production I've seen of this. Sharpless, the American consul, likewise projects smoldering indignation at the way his countryman has abused the delicate Japanese girl, and tender concern for her, for her son, and for her servant Suzuki.

Backstage, Zifchak told interviewer Renee Fleming that Minghella purposefully tightened the focus of the stage to a little box of light. He told the actors to fill that box, and to do no more. "He told us, 'We must draw the audience into us.'" She also commented that Minghella wanted the part of Suzuki to rise in importance, and it's hard for me to imagine the show now any other way, than to have Suzuki on stage for most of the show, a mostly mute witness whose face shows judgement, regret, hope, despair, fury. She and Butterfly communicate with small gestures -- a meeting of hands or a slight shaking of the head.

Even with warning and photos, I was surprised by that puppet. He runs on stage, arms outstretched. Butterfly picks him up in her arms, and his little legs kick in pleasure. His expression is always inquisitive, always on the line between wonder, delight, and trepidation... fitting all the situations he experiences. Unlike Davis, I felt the presence of the character and projected all the appropriate feelings onto him, and even felt protective of him as Butterfly does . . . all the while also being intrigued at another level of consciousness by the mechanics of the operation, and the awareness that three dedicated artists were manipulating him. Stagehands in black also animate the scenes with paper lanterns and origami birds.

MInghella forecasts the action of each act beginning with mute action or dance. Act One is preceded by a stylized dance with fans the presages the final image of the opera. (Unfortunately, the HD visual transmission blacked out for a couple of minutes in the middle of that opening sequence). Act Two shows the advancement of three lonely years with the simple shifting of a screen. Minghella uses another human puppet for a kind of ballet "dumb show" version of Act Three performed during the prelude to the act, and it is again very affecting and strange at the same time -- I think more affecting because more strange, as if the theatricalism distills the feeling.

My mentor Frank Boggs, who has seen many Butterflies in his 80+ years, marvelled that he had often admired operas before, but he had never been moved. (Mr. Boggs, a world-renowned bass baritone, also commented about the self-satisfied and undependable Pinkerton, "How appropriate that he's a tenor.")

Of course, the central figure of Cio - Cio San must hold the center of the piece, or it's all for nothing. I remember seeing the show the first time, and being uninterested because, while Pinkerton was a cad, Cio - Cio San was a ready-made victim. Not here, thanks to Manghella's direction. Writing of the soprano who opened in Manghella's production back in 2006, critic Patrick Stearns wrote of her "potentially controversial characterization of Butterfly as someone who had emotionally outgrown repressive Japanese culture before the opera started. That opened the door to full-blooded displays of temper and tragedy, plus a compelling loss of poise inconceivable in traditional productions."

Before it started, I commented to a neighbor who knew nothing of the opera that she should have her handkerchief ready. I meant it ironically, implying that it's effective at manipulating the emotions and it's also a bit comical for being such a tear-jerker. Then tears came in many unexpected moments, and always mixed with the element of appreciation for what the artists were achieving to clarify Puccini's vision. Unforgettable.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sue Grafton's P, Q, R, and T: Best for Last

(More reflections on Sue Grafton's alphabetical mystery series. Her novels I through O and especially S are discussed in another article on this blog, July 14, 2008.)

In Sue Grafton's series of alphabetical novels, her best two may be the most recent two, S is for Silence and T is for Trespass.

About P is for Peril, I had mixed feelings. There's an interesting detective plot digging into events several months old to find a missing person. For thrills and that surge of violence at the climax, however, Grafton introduced an unrelated subplot involving a handsome stranger, and it was less than satisfying to have one plot wind up before the other.

Q was unique in being based on an actual unsolved mystery. The story takes Kinsey out of her usual haunts, and it involves her with two retired detectives, one nearing the end of his life. That one wants to tie up loose ends in his career by finding the identity of a badly decomposed teenaged girl found in a stone quarry in the summer of 1969 -- a year when runaway teens and Charles Manson made headlines. Ms. Grafton paid to have a forensic expert make a reconstruction of the face of a real teenaged girl whose body was found that year in a stone quarry.

I'm afraid that R is for Ricochet was a hard slog for me, because the main line of the plot seemed to be sidelined by the love lives of Kinsey Millhone and of her 89 year old landlord Henry. "R" might stand for rambling. To be honest, I'm thirty pages from the end and not interested enough to finish it.

I've discussed the wonderful S elsewhere (see July 14th, 2008), along with the novels before P.

Now T is for Trespass shows Grafton in control. Again, a musical analogy is apt. Grafton opens the novel with a short meditation on predatory people, and she reprises that at the end. In between, every plot and subplot -- even the landlord Henry's dating of a real estate agent -- relates strongly to that theme of predatory people who don't see anything wrong with how they manipulate others for gain.

Reading T, I was reminded of the novels by Charlotte Armstrong. In Armstrong's novels written in the 50s and 60s, she lets the reader know step by step everything that the bad guys are doing. The suspense grows as the reader wonders how far the bad guys will get before the good guys figure out what's going on.

The plot involves a caregiver (pseudonym Solana Rojas) hired to take care of Kinsey's elderly neighbor. Kinsey grows uneasy right away, in a scene that recalls our first glance of Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne describes a look that twists across Chillingworth's face like a snake, then disappears like a snake in its hole, through the man's immense effort at self-control. In Kinsey's first conversation with Solana, the dialogue quickly goes awry:

It was like being in the presence of a snake, first hissing its presence and then coiled in readiness. I didn't dare turn my back or take my eyes off her.... In that flicker of a moment, I could see her catch herself. Some kind of barrier had come down and I'd seen an aspect of her I wasn't meant to see, a flash of fury that she'd covered up again. It was like watching someone in the throes of a seizure -- for three seconds she was gone and then back again. (p. 137, paperback edition).

But it's a problem for the novelist built-in to the plot, that Kinsey can get only rare glimpses of the caregiver's tricks, over a period of weeks. Grafton faces a sort of stage management problem. How can she keep our interest with Kinsey in front of the curtain while she shifts the scenery backstage for the next act? Here, Grafton involves Kinsey in a handful of errands serving deadbeats with legal papers. These less - than - life- threatening subplots are still interesting, and with great skill, Grafton ties some of them in to the main plot (as when a deadbeat renter lives on the same seedy block of apartments where the deadbeat villainess lives -- a plausible coincidence), and all of them are tied by that theme of predators -- with a real estate hawk, a bogus civil suit, and a pedophile.

Grafton is learning her craft as she goes. Of course, we are, too. Can she still surprise us with U? I'm rooting for her.