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."

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