Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A poet plain and simple

Not just representation, Yaakov: I think we're moving toward a plainspokenness in poetry in a way that we haven't seen in poets of stature since Robert Frost.

By this I mean that what you read is what you get with Frost—there’s little subtext and no stylistic jujitsu. The words are plain on the page. For this reason, among 20th-century American poets Frost is the most universal in his appeal. He’s like the painter Andrew Wyeth. People just like his work no matter what critics might say, although increasingly they’ve been saying good things as they’ve come to appreciate what he achieved.

Frost’s grandest achievement is a powerful impact on Irish poetry over the past 40 years. Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon have both been influenced by Frost. In his Nobel lecture Heaney said, “I love Robert Frost for his farmer’s accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness,” which describes Heaney’s work as well. And in a interview Muldoon cited Frost as “one of my favorite poets,” demonstrating his favor by cutting-and-pasting bits of Frost into his own poems and praising Frost in his literary criticism for traits that he himself is noted for. After these two great poets acknowledged their debts to Frost, literary critics had no choice but to fall in line lest they fall into irrelevance.

The language of Frost’s poetry isn’t poetic so much as it is vernacular. Just as Wyeth painted representational art in an age that valued abstraction, Frost wrote “language really used by men,” as he once said, and most often in traditional blank verse in an age that valued avant garde experiments in diction and form, novelty over tradition.

I’m referring to the age of modernism in art and literature, spanning the years 1880 to 1950 or thereabouts in literature (modernism dominated art until the early 1980s). Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963, but only biographically could he be considered a man of his age. Temperamentally he was an outlier like Wyeth.

Frost was born in San Francisco but he’s known as a poet of New England because he lived there most of his life and chose its rural life as his principal subject. Heaney’s description of Frost’s poetry was apt: Frost did own a couple farms in New England. But Frost was never much of a farmer and supported his family largely through teaching and public readings—as a popular poet he drew good, paying audiences.

Frost is beloved by readers for his plainspokenness but he’s admired by critics today for his refusal to romanticize rural life or find transcendence in nature where there’s only nature, coldblooded and red in tooth, like the frenzied sharks in Moby-Dick. Consider the sense of foreboding in one of Frost’s most beloved poems:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

It’s this deep darkness, I think, that appeals to Heaney, whose own poetry can be gothic in its sense of foreboding.

Frost was keenly aware that early critics dismissed his poetry as mere sentiment dressed in traditional versification—“calendar poetry,” one critic called it. In 1916 he defended his poetry on his own terms, with a little parable that generations of readers have taken to heart:

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This is a parable about his choice to save avant garde experiments for another day, a day that likely wouldn't come. The key line is the penultimate “I took the one less traveled by,” meaning the one more traveled (“by” negates “less,” i.e., fewer travelers bypass the road). He took the road that was grassy and inviting, not the one that bent ominously in the undergrowth.

The key word is “sigh” in the first line of the last stanza. It’s a word that can signal either bliss or sorrow. Its ambiguity suggests that Frost is satisfied with his choice but concedes he may regret it one day, although that day is ages and ages hence, and that’s what makes all the difference. To borrow a homely adage that Frost himself might have used: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Frost’s refusal to romanticize rural life may stem from personal experience. He endured more than his share of sorrow. His father died of tuberculosis when he was just 11, leaving the family with $8 to their name. Frost's mother died of cancer in 1900. In 1920, Frost had to commit his younger sister, Jeanie, to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later.

Mental illness apparently ran in Frost's family, as both he and his mother suffered from depression, and his daughter Irma was committed to a mental hospital in 1947. Frost's wife, Elinor, also experienced bouts of depression. They had six children all told: son Elliot (1896-1904) died of cholera, son Carol (1902-1940) committed suicide, daughter Marjorie (1905-1934) died from puerperal fever after childbirth, and daughter Elinor Bettina died three days after birth in 1907. Only daughter Lesley and the institutionalized Irma outlived their father. Elinor had heart problems throughout her life, developed breast cancer in 1937, and died of heart failure in 1938.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life,” Frost said. “It goes on.”

He earned his dark sense of foreboding.

1 comment:

Doug Logan said...

Great post, Murchadha. If we didn't have writers like Frost and Billy Collins once in a while, poetry would wither beyond recovery. There never was a time when plain speaking didn't trump -- in the public ear -- ornament and mystery, particularly self-referential mystery. You mention Andrew Wyeth as a painter who has always been loved despite the critics. If he is parallel to Frost and Collins, maybe we could also compare, say, Robert Service and Norman Rockwell -- both artists who had tremendous and genuine popular appeal despite the fact that many in their fields thought them merely sentimental. Maybe there's something to be said for sentiment, too?

Good blog. I'll be baaackkk.