The Book Club

Personality and Poetics

Dear Polly,

Allow me to reframe a little. To be honest, I wasn’t really looking for an answer to my question of what kind of person Frost would be if he were alive today. I agree with you that any answer would be fatuous. But my question is less trivial (to me at least) insofar as it identifies one of the qualities I respond to most in Frost. You’re right that he was born a poet. His great joy in life was to invent and subvert metrical schemes, dream up and camouflage patterns, introduce sounds to each other and see how they got along. He adored the tradition and trained himself rigorously, and he was as well-read as any poet you could name.

But I like him because for all his born naturalness, he wasn’t a poet just for the sake of poetry. More than that was at stake. Poetry for him was the answer to a really dire question: how to function in the world. Both of the biographies we’re discussing this week emphasize this practical urgency in Frost. He wrote poems to divert himself and to clarify some Bergsonian and Darwinian and New Hampshirean ideas about human behavior and the universe; he also wrote to stave off depressive collapse, vindicate himself after years of fucking up, assert his brave if occasionally reactionary independence, keep his name out in the public eye. One senses behind many a Frost performance some task that he set out to accomplish. The best of his poems pose a philosophical question in the form of a narrative or a nature scene (see for example “Design,” in which a spider kills a moth, prompting the question of whether God is more sinister than benign). But the biographies occasionally reveal a more mundane and immediate goal (one early poem–was it “The Tuft of Flowers”?–served as a job application to teach at a school).

At its best, and also at its less than best, Frost’s poetry combines the purest of soundplay with a rare, naked purposefulness. This is what Wallace Stevens complained about when he condescendingly accused Frost of writing up mere “situations.” For his part, Frost responded that Stevens wrote about “bric-a-brac.” I like a fair number of Stevens’ poems a minute smidgeon better than all but the best Frost. On the other hand, I find Frost’s poetics, and the things he wanted to communicate, more relevant and moving.

So, apparently, did the unprecedented thousands of people who bought his books over the years and turned out to hear him read. You’re right, of course, that Frost’s poems mapped out the very context in which we’re reading him this week, and it’s meaningless to try to imagine contemporary poetry minus his influence. I would just propose to you that he dominated through his personality almost as much as through his poetry. (You catch glimpses of this in Updike’s review. Updike complains that Frost’s ugly personal behavior was powerful enough to rub out the effect of hearing him read “Stopping by the Woods” aloud. But at the same time, Updike grudgingly admits, Frost’s brave rebelliousness–again, the personality–set an example for other writers.)

I see a kind of yin-yang movement here. It seems to me that Frost takes his personal struggles, and the little brook behind his farm, and the birds in the beech trees he can see from his window–he takes all these things and turns them into something universal. At the same time, he seeks something in return from the reader. In exchange for the profound and universal message he’s supplying, he seeks acknowledgment (entirely deserved) of his singularity and prowess and unencumbered independence. I don’t mean to debase Frost with psychobabble or water the poems down for contemporary usage when I say that more than most poets, Frost writes to get a response.

Let me try to rephrase my cloudy idea. This morning you separated Frost’s personal neediness from his poems. My love of and occasional reservations about Frost’s poetry come from a feeling that they’re a little less separate than you assert. I think in Frost’s special case the personality comes first, then the poems. This is why I indulged in the extremely idle and perhaps unjustifiable speculation of whether a contradictory, driven, Frostian soul living today would work as a poet, or whether the love of form and the pragmatism and the need to rebel and found a school of one could be imported to another medium–one where it’s easier to reach a large, appreciative audience.

Again, as you may want to point out, there’s no answer to this question, and probably no point in asking it. But what’s done is done. Thanks for your indulgence, Polly. I’ve really enjoyed all your entries so far. I trust you’ll move us onto more fertile ground tomorrow.