People think of Robert Frost these days, if they think of him at all, as the kind of old-fashioned, well-behaved New England poet who could safely be chosen to read at a presidential inauguration—a chronicler of rural beauties, family values, and snowy trips to Grandmother's house, much anthologized by educational authorities and often quoted by people who know little about poetry, but not really very good. So it may come as something of a surprise to run across a sentence by Randall Jarrell—possibly the twentieth century's sharpest, most judgmental poet-critic—that reads, in its entirety: "Robert Frost, along with Stevens and Eliot, seems to me the greatest of the American poets of this century."
If we have forgotten this about Frost, it is partly his own doing. His being chosen to read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration was only the final stage in a self-fashioned career as a folksy, unthreatening, publicly approved and approving grand old man of letters. He did his best, in this phase, to disguise his roots as an intellectual and scholar (he studied Greek and Latin), as a rebel (he dropped out of both Dartmouth and Harvard, never earning a college degree), and as a somewhat foreign body in the all-American republic (the son of a Scottish woman, Frost spent his mid-thirties in England, where his first two books of poetry were published). By perpetually reading aloud his most anodyne, self-aggrandizing poems, he assisted in the creation of that dusty, venerable heap of platitudes, that Frost-myth scarecrow whom modern readers have been so eager to ignore. No wonder he has been superseded in the contemporary imagination, not only by obvious giants like Lowell and Bishop but also by darker figures like Berryman and Plath. We prefer our poets diseased and quirky, these days, and no one writing now would make the list Jarrell made.
And yet Randall Jarrell may have been right. In my ancient paperback of Frost's poems (a sixty-cent anthology, last published in 1964, which includes a prefatory note about how you can obtain 78-rpm records of Robert Frost reading his own poems), I have used the initials "RJ" to mark in the table of contents the poems Jarrell singled out for highest praise. Some of them ("The Investment," "The Telephone") seem to my ear to have aged badly, or perhaps it's just that they sound too much like Jarrell's own poetry, which was mainly inferior to his brilliant criticism. But the best of these RJ-chosen poems—"Design," "Directive," "In a Disused Graveyard," "After Apple-Picking," "In Hardwood Groves," "The Fear," and of course the tremendous, incomparable "Home Burial"do convince me that Frost belonged in Jarrell's triad. The seemingly childlike simplicity of tone, diction, and rhyme scheme is balanced by a bleakness, almost a scariness, that is utterly adult, and it is the contrast between the two that drives each poem in like a knife. Even some poems that I recall as mere chestnuts, like "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," turn out to have the killer effect—attributable, in that particular case, to the eerie, brave, frightening repetition of the last line. In Frost's best poems, much is left unsaid, but what is said is often repeated, and this strategic combination fills the lines with obscure, alluring power.
But don't take my word for it: Just read Randall Jarrell's essay on "Home Burial." Collected in The Third Book of Criticism, it's called, helpfully, "Robert Frost's 'Home Burial,'" and it includes the poem itself in toto. This may well be one of the most persuasive and moving analyses ever performed on a single poem. When you finish it, you are likely to feel that Frost knew more about the relationship between men and women, between the dead and their survivors, and between ordinary speech and rhythmic poetic language than any American poet who ever lived. And perhaps he did.
Robert Frost, Amherst, New Hampshire, 1939.
Mark Richardson's edition of The Collected Prose of Robert Frost bears a strange, tangential relationship to the point I have been making. It is not by any means essential reading for either committed Frost fans or more casual poetry readers, and it contains a great deal of material (high school editorials, stories about chicken farming, speeches made to august and less august gatherings, ten-best and five-best lists of books) that one could happily have lived without. But it also includes five spectacular essays that Frost wrote about the art of poetry, or at least about his art of poetry; and taken together, these five pieces make a case for a degree of self-conscious craftsmanship we rarely associate with this poet. It's not just that he knew what he was doing—that much is obvious from the poems. But it turns out that he could explain what he was doing in ways that enable us to perceive his work with new eyes, and particularly with new ears.
Take, for instance, the four-page essay called "The Last Refinement of Subject Matter: Vocal Imagination." In it, Frost starts by showing how inflection gives meaning to speech—the way the word no, for instance, can mean five different things if spoken in five different ways. And then comes the connection to his poetry:
Poets have lamented the lack in poetry of any such notation as music has for suggesting sound. But it is there and always has been there. The sentence is the notation. The sentence is before all else just that: a notation for suggesting significant tones of voice. With the sentence that doesn't suggest significant tones of voice, poetry has no concern whatever.
This is useful stuff in regard to poetry in general, but it is invaluable when applied to Frost's own work. One realizes, on reading this passage, that the essential building block of Frost's poems is in fact the sentence. This is not something that one would say of the other great poets of his eraWilliams, for instance, who specialized in the tangible fragment, or Stevens, who worked with the extended philosophical trope—and it is an aspect of Frost's work that few subsequent poets took up. (Of present-day American poets, the only one who comes to mind is Louise Glück.) What makes the sentence essential to Frost is not just its orderliness and completeness but its relation to the intonations of speech: We know how a particular word should sound in his poems, and therefore what it must mean, because of the way it is embedded in its sentence. And yet that very idea contains its opposite, since we are aware that the same words could mean something else if they were spoken at other times, in other sentences; it is this, in part, that lends his poems their depth and mystery. Even the verbal fragment, the broken-off sentence, has its role to play in this dialectic, since each such fragment implies a whole sentence lying unspoken in the background. So those fraught, abbreviated exchanges between characters who don't fully understand one another (they are often husband and wife, as in "The Fear" and "Home Burial") have behind them the weight of too much understanding, too much meaning—the kind of knowledge that the speakers in Frost's dramatic poems are generally avoiding at all costs. What the sentence offers to Robert Frost, as a basic unit of poetry, is the moment at which the spoken and the unspoken most clearly interpenetrate each other.
The other four significant essays in the Collected Prose are "The Constant Symbol," "A Romantic Chasm," "The Hear-Say Ballad," and "On Emerson." They are all brief, and each one contains as many profound remarks and observations as "The Last Refinement of Subject Matter." That Frost didn't want us to have access to these pieces (he notoriously refused to collect his prose during his lifetime) perhaps says as much about the grand-old-scarecrow image he was trying to create as it does about his doubts in regard to the merits of his prose. The remaining 150 or so pages in the book do suggest that at least some of his doubts may have been warranted. But there are gleams throughout—in his amusing definitions of poetry, for instance ("Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting"), or in his idiosyncratic relationship to the great ideas of his time (he called the father of Marxism "the mystic Karl Marx" and took issue with Freudian theory: "The ruling passion of man is not as Viennese as is claimed. It is rather a gregarious instinct to keep together by minding each other's business. Grex rather than sex").
Frost may have resisted the very idea of such a collection, but no writer has ever been better served by an editor. I know nothing of Mark Richardson except what the jacket flap tells me—that he is a professor of English at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan—but this alone is enough to inspire Empsonian analogies. Only someone who had long since left behind the careerism of American academia would devote such evident labor, intelligence, and tact to such an apparently unrewarding task. Every piece of paper Frost wrote on has been examined and copied down, every obscure reference footnoted and explained—and yet there is no sense here of overdiligence, of scholar-squirreliness. One's overwhelming impression, on finishing the book, is of respectful love: Richardson's for Frost, and Frost's for the English language. If this love comes joined to an ironic wit in both cases, that is all to the good. The portrait of Frost that Richardson conveys in his introduction is alone worth the price of the book, for it seizes on precisely those moments when the poet revealed both his sense of vocation and his sense of comedy. No doubt he could not have had one without the other; and this volume, despite its chicken-farming stories (one of which is actually quite good), should go some way toward dispelling the image of Robert Frost as a platitudinous, straw-chewing naïf.
Wendy Lesser is the editor of the Threepenny Review. Her latest book, Room for Doubt, is just out in paperback from Vintage.