The Book Club

Frost as Gen-Xer and Other Speculations

Dear Sarah,

Oooo–spiky, spiky! Yes, no, maybe so, break your neck and stub your toe, as we used to say in the playground. Mind if I have a crack at my own question before going on to yours?

I’m certain Frost would have written poems even if perfect psychoactive pharmaceuticals had lifted his glooms and soothed his furies without the least hint of dry mouth, tremor, or reduced sexual function. He was too great a word musician not to. He had whole volumes of poetry singing in his ears and driving him on (I mean the ones he read and memorized–Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Burns, Keats, Shakespeare, Longfellow, and on and on). But the content of his poems is another matter. For one thing, any little change in anyone’s life might make a huge difference. Suppose that crow hadn’t happened to shake down that dust of snow from the hemlock tree? There’s one poem gone right there. Or suppose the crow had done its bit, but Welbutrin was keeping the poet on an even keel. No change of mood, no part of a day saved from having been rued. No hemlock tree in the first place, perhaps, hinting about Socrates’ suicide (if you think that’s far-fetched, remember what a keen classicist Frost was). Of course, even without Prozac, the guy did live to 89, survived the tragic deaths of five of his six children, and told us over and over again all through the poems: I’d love to kill myself, but I’m not going to. With the burden of keeping him alive lifted off the poems, might they have filled up with other themes? (Not that they don’t also have other themes as it is–but the struggle with darkness shows up in pretty much all of them.)

About his living off other people’s energy: I think he was using it to feed not his poems but his emotional needs. If he’d been less needy, that wouldn’t have done the poems any harm. I think. Of course, as you say, we’ll never know.

On to your question: Would Frost reborn as an Xer be embraced today? And would he be writing poetry, or would he have picked something more conducive to stardom–movie director? pop star? president? New Age guru? talk show host? astronaut? author of computer viruses? what did you have in mind?

The first part of the question is a real poser, because it’s hard to imagine what American poetry would look like today if he hadn’t existed. No Frost, no Robert Lowell, no Richard Wilbur, no Donald Hall. No Adrienne Rich. You might say no Allen Ginsburg. Anyway, all those poets (and lots of others) would probably be quite different. Who knows what we’d make of him in that strange, Frost-free world? I think I’d still love him for his clean, Bach-like formalism and redemptive bitterness, but his tradition formed my taste. And if you can imagine the tradition to exist without him, then wouldn’t today’s young Frost seem derivative? Like when Doris Lessing presented her novels under a pseudonym and they were trashed as weak imitations of Lessing.

Would he choose poetry or some other, more fame-friendly profession? That depends on his childhood training. Remember, he was raised in the days before TV, radio, talkies, or even silent movies. Families entertained themselves by reading aloud and making their own music. His mother read him Burns and Scott, the Bible, Fenimore Cooper, George MacDonald. Literature infected him early on. He sought fame through his poetry, but the point was the poetry: If it had been the fame, there were plenty of better paths to it, even then. Could a different kind of training have affected him differently? Could early exposure to cartoons have made him an animator, early trips to Bouley Bakery have made him a chef? I doubt it, but what do you think?

One of the things I’ve always loved about Frost is his literary references and how well he hides them. It’s like a scavenger hunt, or one of those hidden pictures in Highlights. I sometimes wonder how much he was aware of them as he wrote the poems, and how much they just snuck in, the way you find yourself humming a tune under your breath without thinking about it and only later realize that it has some startling relevance to what’s going on with you. Meyers is good on this subject–he has a nice list in the back of the book of (some of) the references he’s found. Do you have any favorites?