Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Little Down Time

Often, though scarcely always, my blog posts and my regional newspaper columns share the same subject matter.

I have suspended the latter for the summer, and am likely to do more or less the same with this blog. But I'll be back come Labor Day or so.

Meanwhile, I reproduce a small portion of a piece I'm doing for T
he Georgia Review on The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume I (edd. Donald Sheehy, Mark Richardson, Robert Faggen, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge and London, 2014).

I say nothing original or bright by stressing that a certain degree of accessibility lay at the heart of Robert Frost’s literary intentions. In a 1913 letter (p.154) to his former student and lifelong friend John Bartlett, he writes:

...(T)here is a kind of success called “of esteem,” and it butters no parsnips.  It means success with a critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader... I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds.

No matter it be impossible of total attainment (even if Frost came about as close as possible), that strikes me as a sympathetic ideal, and objections to it –as in our day to the witty and often moving poetry, say, of Billy Collins, who has the gall to be (gasp) popular too– are premised on the claim that it necessarily entails a dumbing-down of the poetic act.

However, if there is one thing made clear by this superb volume, it’s how wrong-headed are those who ever imagined Frost a simplistic thinker or one lacking in cultural sophistication. Committed as they must be to inclusiveness, the editors necessarily present any number of relatively unimportant letters, ones Frost himself viewed in that light, mere epistolary small talk with friends; but even in such communication, one astonishing thing among scores is the depth and breadth of the poet’s learning. Many of these letters contain literary allusions, ranging across the genres and from the Greek and Roman classics to Frost’s own contemporaries.

Consider this passage from a May 1915 letter to Yale professor of drama Walter Pritchard Eaton (p.328), whose Barn Doors and Byways, he ventures, could have been a work of poetry, not prose:


I think poetry itself is to blame. It seems to want to exclude too much... Far be it from me though to regret that all the poetry isn’t in verse. I’m sure I’m glad of all the unversified poetry of Walden– and not merely nature-descriptive, but narrative as in the chapter on the play with the loon, and character-descriptive as in the beautiful passage about the French Canadian woodchopper. That last along with some things in Turgenieff must have had a good deal to the making of me.

The references here, like many of Frost’s Shakespearean references, may be familiar enough, but a great number of others are so out of the way that I –no college dropout like the poet but one who stuck it our through that Ph.D. and who taught in literature departments for four decades– frequently needed the editors’ guidance to know that a literary reference had been made in the first place.  We find Frost –and my list is quite random– at various points recalling the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a W.B. Yeats play,  Rhadamanthus (son of Zeus and Europa), Algernon Swinburne, John Milton, Thomas Gray, Theodore Dreiser, Charles Lamb, a Scottish folk song, Rathindranth Tagore. I could go on at far greater length, but you get the idea.

Nor are all the letters’ allusions strictly literary. Look for Frost’s nods here and there, again for random example, at Jakob Boehme, Swedenborg, the Lawrence Textile Strike, Sir William Osler, The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a learned article on the 1918 influenza epidemic, Abraham Lincoln, Liliokuani, last queen of Hawaii.

Enough. The man’s curiosity and reading were almost stupefyingly vast.

Frost, of course, wore his erudition lightly, and his coyness about it was deliberate. The sense of life as lived by common men and women crucial to him, whatever store of autodidactic sophistication he had came in service of that sense. This seems in many respects all but exactly opposite from the approaches of his noteworthy contemporaries,  Williams excepted, who plainly vaunted their cultural sophistication. Common people’s lives, if they were rendered at all, would come in service of cultural sophistication, and often came by way of ironic juxtaposition to superior lives, including the poets’ own. Consider the pub scene in The Waste Land, say, or Pound’s telling judgment that “the man in the street is there because he doesn’t deserve to be let in.”

I would argue, however, that such a posture may actually have limited the intellectual and emotional range of many other Moderns. Once one disentangles Pound’s verse, for instance, its underlying thoughts and feelings tend either to be rather uninteresting or, worse, repugnant– or, worst of all, both at once. As for Eliot, a great author to be sure, his mind is more expansive than Pound’s, but the social and spiritual conclusions he reaches, even in his masterpiece Four Quartets, will be bizarre, even unpalatable, to many.

I’d rather read Wallace Stevens than either of these others, and I admire him sincerely, but even in his noble work, there are times, after I’ve read him at too great length, when I begin to suspect the presence of what he himself, in “Esthétique du Mal,” calls a “lunatic of one idea in a world of ideas.” We learn in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” that “our selves” in poetry must “take the place of empty heaven and its hymns,” and that capital-I Imagination is our most precious mode of doing so. The theme is iterated throughout his opus; it varies slightly, if at all, and even if it be well and good, in my library sessions I don’t find many who are attending to Stevens’s imperative.

Frost’s perceptions, on the other hand, are all but always too slyly rendered to fit any categorical thinking. I think he is the Moderns’ best exemplar of what Keats called negative capability, the capacity to be in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Almost inevitably, Frost will display at least two, and sometimes quite a few more impulses, some in apparent contradiction with one another, in the same poem. “The Road Not Taken” is routinely reduced to a plug for Emersonian self-reliance, but the poet makes clear that, however valid that reading may be from one perspective, there is an equally strong possibility that his choice of road was mere whimsy.

So long as the poem is read, too, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” will invite profoundly different construals. On considering the stunning sonnet “Design,” for one more example, are we to imagine it worse that there is a malign scheme at work in the world’s operations or that there is no design at all? And these are but the two most obvious questions raised by that lyric.

One could go on in this vein all but indefinitely when contemplating Frost’s oeuvre.

Then there is the plain and simple fact that Frost as the man behind the poems got his hands dirty, so to speak. (So, of course, did Dr. Williams, a figure whose life, in full disclosure, I tend to value far above his literary output.) This is another factor accounting for his largely avoiding the sort of condescension from Olympus so easily associable with Pound and certainly with Eliot when it comes to the lives of your average Jack and Jill.

Which leads us, at least obliquely, to the vexed issue of Frost’s own human and social qualities.  So often has this issue been hashed and rehashed that I mean not to dwell on it other than briefly. I find it important to ponder those qualities in short compass only as they reveal themselves in this splendid volume.

It is noteworthy that in a very long letter of March 22, 1915 to the African-American poet W.S. Braithwaite (pp. 264 ff.), Frost recognizes in himself that potential for the exploitative, hyper-ambitious, callous, and even misanthropic behavior with which Lawrance Thompson and R.H. Winnick so notoriously and effectively taxed him in their three-volume biography back four decades. But by my reading, the letter just cited could with equal warrant be seen to expose a man’s intention to suppress such impulses– which doubtless exist, at all events, in every human heart.

Frost’s comments to Braithwaite, seen by the Thompsonians as mere self-promotion, in fact offer a valuable retrospect on what went into A Boy’s Will and an insight into the nature of North of Boston. They are worth lengthy quotation. A Boy’s Will, the poet writes,

is an expression of my life for the ten years from eighteen on when I thought I greatly preferred stocks and stones to people. The poems were written as I lived the life quite at the mercy of myself and not always happy. The arrangement in a book came much later when I could look back on the past with something like understanding.

            ...I suppose the fact is that my conscious interest in people was at first no more than a technical interest in their speech– in what I used to call their sentence sounds– the sound of sense... I began to hang on them very young.

            ...I say all this biographically to lead up to Book II (North of Boston). There came a day about ten years ago when I made the discovery that though sequestered I wasn’t living without reference to other people. Right on top of that I made the discovery in doing The Death of the Hired Man that I was interested in neighbors for more than merely their tones of speech– and always had been.

To me, these are the words of a man who has grown up, and who has the wit to recognize that development and so largely to put away childish things. They scarcely strike me at any rate as the words of an unbridled egotist. And as we move through The Early Letters, they witness to the breadth and sincerity of Frost’s friendships, some casual, some, like the ones with Sidney Cox, Louis Untermeyer, John Bartlett and above all Edward Thomas, as close to a soul-mate as the poet ever had, as deep perhaps as a person could know.