Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Morning Reading: "In the Cold, Dark, Futile Woods"

The new issue of The Threepenny Review arrived on Friday - a bounty including the usual suspects - Javier Marias and Wendy Lesser - poems by Kay Ryan, Tony Hoagland and Dean Young - and Louis B. Jones' appreciation of Robert Frost's collected prose and notebooks (recently published by Harvard University Press):


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

To read the rest of Jones' essay, titled, "In the Cold, Dark, Futile Woods," click here.


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