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Winter 2011

In the Cold, Dark, Futile Woods

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Louis B. Jones

The Collected Prose of Robert Frost,
edited by Mark Richardson.
Harvard University Press, 2008,
$39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

The Notebooks of Robert Frost,
edited by Robert Faggen.
Harvard University Press, 2010,
$39.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

About Robert Frost, it should be borne in mind that he was fashioning his distinctive style and voice long after Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” had sounded to raze the old structures of meter and rhyme, when poets like Robinson Jeffers, say, were building up from that rubble. Perhaps partly for this reason, the several neat rows of poems Frost left behind look now, in posterity, to be weathering well, some maybe tilting in the turf these days, but deeply inscribed with a traditional, formal simplicity to keep them legible through many more ages’ storms of fashion. Frost always did say it was his goal “just to lodge a few poems where they’ll be hard to get rid of,” and in that effort he apparently sacrificed innovation. (If he was tempted at all by innovation.) Right up until his death in 1962, he went on offering out the same four trusty iambs, mostly—or sometimes three iambs, sometimes five—while the world’s podiums were occupied by such free-verse innovators as T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and even the first raiding parties of so-called “Beats.” All these phenomena Frost ignored or openly deplored. Wallace Stevens he called “the bric-a-brac poet.” Eliot he snubbed most churlishly on a number of awkward public occasions, always in the face of Eliot’s more debonair grace and forgiveness. He met with Pound in London before he’d ever published a book, and the great mentor did try to educate him in the new manner, though it didn’t stick.

To say Frost didn’t innovate isn’t totally accurate. Rather, he disguised and smoothed over any renovations he found it propitious to make. One of his most adroit was his bringing the gait of ordinary American syntax into verse; the plainness of a Vermont farmer’s sentences feels built into the poetic meters, so that the self-conscious hinky-jinkiness and the cramps of the metrical foot fall away and the poetry takes flight just as if it were free verse—catchy, limpid on a first reading. In this, he was an avowed student of Catullus all his life. Catullus had a way of making an informal insult or a lewd little seduction fall neatly into the dactyls that already exist naturally in the grain of Latin. Plain English, in Frost’s hands, folds into iambs. (“When I see birches bend to left and right across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy’s been swinging them…”)

Frost has always been viewed as a poet too interested in popular accessibility to be much of a high achiever—that is, his poems may not richly reward long, close attention; you pretty much get them on a first reading, at least compared to the likes of Eliot and Stevens. However, just to speak personally and I’m probably not alone, during much of my own life I find I’ve been walking around experiencing, from time to time, the pulse of many of those New England iambs in my temples:

…sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler…

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

I have gone out in rain—and back in rain

For I have had too much / Of apple-picking

It seldom occurs to me, frankly, to contemplate any of the thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird; nor could I recite from memory more than a few lines of “Four Quartets,” poems which on the Truth-Beauty Meter (or the Ambition Meter) must score up there near the Tao Te Ching and the Sermon on the Mount. I wonder if, in the dark times of my life, or the merely dim times, I’ve gotten more of real consolation and upbringing from Frost. Frost’s having been acquainted with the night; his temptation to pause a little too long in the dark, cold, futile woods; his letting a boughful of snow dump over his head and not worsen but improve his dreadful day; or just his thinking it’s important that a newborn calf “totters” when its mother licks it—all these homely considerations have come to rescue me often, in the real life I lead while my hand is on the hoe-handle or the steering wheel, my eye on the oncoming road, my ear attentive to NPR or just the valley winds. Moreover, in almost every Frost poem, there’s somewhere the encounter with darkness, darkness deepened and worsened, perversely, by putting on light versification’s frock. Frost used to speak with mockery of himself as “that poet of stone walls, birches, and belilaced cellar holes,” with a sarcasm licensed by the open secret of his career: that most of his work is about the terrors, death and meaninglessness and solitary inarticulacy. The temptation to linger which is offered by cold dark woods is not a lightsome one, it’s rather a desolate one. And anybody who will simply read the twenty lines about choosing the road less traveled will see that it’s not a boast of the poet’s own nonconformity, nor any kind of endorsement of nonconformity—not at all. It’s an admission that no existential decision of ours really ever makes any “difference.”

In these two new collections—the one a volume of Frost’s surprisingly stingy lifetime output of prose pieces, the other his more voluminous personal notebooks, both volumes beautifully edited and published together in a uniform edition—a picture emerges of a curious life arc. His biographical facts are probably familiar enough already. Born into a troubled, not to say squalid, family (a family that reverse-migrated in defeat back from California, minus its tubercular dad), the young Robert Frost went out into the world as a college drop-out and proceeded to start his own family in a fresh squalor of his own. Illnesses—of the nervous type, as well as the pulmonary type—plagued both generations, and then would be visited again on Frost’s own children. Intermittently successful as a schoolteacher, he pitched up on a small farm in Derry, New Hampshire, which had been purchased cheaply for him by a rich grandfather. Frost, although in literature he adopted the pose, was never much of a farmer; he was really always a literary schemer. He (and this speaks volumes, for anybody who lives on a country place—indeed it does more than speak volumes, it condemns him) slept in late every morning of his life.

However, during a short decade on the Derry place early in his life, he coined the handful of dependable poems that he would be reciting publicly for the next forty years. “Mowing,” “Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” “Birches,” a first shot at “Directive,” “Love and a Question,” “After Apple Picking,” and many other reliable talismans come from this period. Some of these he kept out of public view for many decades, for he had a healthy resistance to getting published and would keep a piece at home for his personal fondling over many years.

Taken as a whole, this prose collection is a delightful miscellany. First we get several cocky teenage editorials he wrote, with some magniloquence, for his high school newspaper (a paper for which he seems to have been virtually the entire staff), and then his valedictory address, almost unintelligible for its juvenile pretensions—pretensions which, however, were the trembling compass needle pointing the grown man’s path out into the world. Then there are a few lovely short stories. They’re all about chicken farming, and the men and women who practice it, published during his Derry years in local trade journals, The Eastern Poultryman and Farm-Poultry. And how wonderful to have this—short fiction by a young Robert Frost! In these stories, the personality of Frost’s New Englander begins to appear, the philosophical, laconic, chthonic fellow we see in the later-published narrative poetry like “Home Burial” and “Death of the Hired Man” and “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Frost was a lucky writer for having discovered a place he could love, and a form of society he could admire for its virtues. Few of us really have that. Also in this time, he wrote a handful of essays about educational practices, as during this period he was making a living teaching at small academies. Pedagogy would remain a lively interest all his life. For he never quite left Academe, depending eventually on colleges for his living.

Then, running along in chronological order, the rest of the Collected Prose volume is made up of the various thank-you speeches and addresses and book prefaces that an increasingly eminent poet is called upon to provide. He liked public speaking. He got to be good at it. He could charm people, and he knew it, especially once he’d refined his persona; and he sought invitations with unashamed self-promotion. Whenever he could wangle it, he went, as he called it, “barding around,” at college campuses or in any venues that would pay him, provided he was sure he would be the center of attention. When John F. Kennedy’s man Stewart Udall suggested to the young President-elect that, at the 1960 inauguration, Robert Frost might strike the correct new note of “high culture” by reciting a dedicatory poem, the idea had come from an overture first made by Frost. Frost did, in the end, read a poem on inauguration day. But Kennedy knew Frost to be a calculating entertainer, and his first response to Udall’s suggestion was to veto it. “Oh, no!” he said. “You know Frost always steals any show he’s part of.”

The prose in these later years is thus interesting for its portrait of an artist fashioning his public persona, his patter-and-shuffle, his “character.” The essays and addresses from this period, though they might have been delightful when delivered from a dais in person, can make for trying reading. But in among these essays are some fine epigrams and brilliant non-sequiturs. The best piece here, a really sublime stretch of meditative prose, is a never-published preface for an edition of E. A. Robinson’s King Jasper—a piece so wildly jumbled, so aggressive in seeking tangential topics, that the publisher who first requested it of him had to decline it in the end. (The president of Macmillan remarked in an in-house memo: “As you know we have asked Robert Frost to write an appreciative introduction to King Jasper. It has come in and is impossible, terrific. It simply can’t be used.”) It wanders off into right-wing politics—Frost was quite a reactionary—and praise of his own poetry and What’s Wrong With Kids These Days, and for long stretches it ignores the topic of E. A. Robinson entirely. It’s a brilliant bit of cranky writing.

Cultivating a literary celebrity, in a newly affluent and better educated America, Frost was a pioneer, making himself a public, national poet, creating a sort of small vitrine for the display of an American “Poet Laureate” in a time when that official institution hadn’t quite taken shape. So he was doing some trailblazing in PR skills which subsequent American poets, knowingly or not, have benefited from. My own parents, as examples of his fans, are probably illustrative: midwestern suburbanites in the Sixties, Mr. and Mrs. Jones of Wilmette, Illinois, were neither of them college educated; they had come from simpler places to become urbane Chicagoans. When Frost’s last collection, In the Clearing, was published in 1962, my mother bought a new hardcover with a heavy parchment dust jacket and a sewn binding, its paper-stock a rich deep sacramental cotton-fiber bond including deckle edges. It was published by Holt in an edition of sixty thousand copies, a huge print-run for a book of poetry, and though it was Frost’s most mediocre collection, it was reviewed with reverence in all the periodicals that ambitious autodidact suburbanites might subscribe to. My mother gave me that book as a birthday gift, inscribing it to me with a blue Papermate pen, and still today, when sometimes I have to hike some distance to clear clogs out of an actual irrigation weir of my own, the words of that fine simple little you-come-too poem called “The Pasture” make the trip lighter.

As for the other volume considered here, The Notebooks of Robert Frost, I find myself in the unethical, unscrupulous position (for a reviewer) of not having closely read every single word. This package of eight hundred pages in fine print contains lists, fragmentary jottings, half-born ideas still in their latency, and thousands of notes that would have been opaque to anyone besides Frost or his intimately devoted scholars. To read it is to peer into the dense plasma of Frost’s consciousness, the blip-and-arc traces in his cloud chamber. For example, the image of a milkweed pod—as a symbol of nature’s principle of prodigal waste, waste above all, as the method of all creativity—appears in his notebooks sixty years before that image would be put to use in a published poem. Thus a good portion of these pages will be unusable to the casual reader. Faggen provides a welter of end-notes, for the dedicated; and, for the dedicated, these notebooks will offer a rich, microscopic view of the particles that over sixty years went into the making of Frost’s poetry. Frost was hardly a bumpkin farmer, and he had interests ranging widely in philosophy and science and politics, Bergson and Einstein, Chaucer and Chekhov and Chesterton; it’s instructive to see what a vast ideological forest—what an exotic jungle!—the man botanized in, to return with the few pale pressed flowers we think of today as his work. Also recorded here are multiple rough drafts of poems, in many versions. It’s lovely to see the rhythm of the working poet’s almost involuntary peristalsis as he composed a poem by taking runs at it, repetitively, getting it a little less wrong each time, and a little more right each time, fitting his thoughts to the metrical foot.

Obviously for a certain kind of reader (me, for example) Robert Frost’s poetry has proved memorable, somehow more practical or more to-hand than that of Eliot or Pound. A burr, of course, furnishes the metaphor of his remark about “lodging a few poems where they’ll be hard to get rid of”; the rhyme-and-meter artifice equips a poem as a burr is equipped, with barbs, for the long ride and maybe the long-delayed germination. Also, it may be that the success of a less complicated poem is ascribable to a basic principle in human nature: that people keep what they can use. What you’re not using, you tend to leave behind. I can foresee a day when, say, Wallace Stevens’s austere, perfect, crystalline “Snow Man” will have for me a better pertinence and will live actively in my memory intact. It would be the day when, with attained wisdom, I might possibly possess or at least glimpse the possession of “a mind of winter.” But in my day-to-day life now—days that require the usual patience and hope and pleasure in work—I find it a practical and still-nifty observation of Frost’s that “One luminary clock against the sky / Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right”; and I like it largely, I imagine, because of its sneaky unpretentiousness.

Louis B. Jones's new novel, called Radiance, will be out in the spring of 2011 from Counterpoint Press.

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