No caviar for a sound poet

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

IN one of his more mem­o­rable epi­grams Robert Frost de­scribed po­etry as ‘‘a mo­men­tary stay against con­fu­sion’’, a heart­en­ing def­i­ni­tion for budding poets if we con­sider the in­ten­sity of ba­bel around us to­day. To re­move some of the con­fu­sion sur­round­ing Frost him­self is among the ed­i­tors’ aims in this first of four planned vol­umes of his com­plete letters. It continues the com­mend­able project by Har­vard Univer­sity Press of bring­ing into print all the pri­mary ma­te­rial of one of Amer­ica’s most im­por­tant 20th-century poets.

The pop­u­lar­ity of Frost has not al­ways been high, how­ever. His death in 1963 co­in­cided with the ad­vance­ment of a fresh crowd who liked to dis­miss the gruff New Eng­land farmer as an arch-for­mal­ist fit for the home truths of coun­try al­manacs. Things only got worse with the pub­li­ca­tion of the au­tho­rised bi­og­ra­phy and selected letters at the hands of Lawrance Thomp­son. Thomp­son de­picted his for­mer friend as a brute, such that He­len Vendler in 1970 no­to­ri­ously called Frost a ‘‘monster of ego­tism’’ who left ‘‘a wake of de­stroyed hu­man lives’’.

So, will these col­lected letters re­bal­ance our pic­ture? Judg­ing by this first vol­ume, which takes us up to Frost at age 46 (he was born in 1874), he comes across very well: sym­pa­thetic, funny, self-dep­re­cat­ing, and both loyal and car­ing to­wards fam­ily and friends.

The first and short­est chap­ter here is ti­tled “The Early Years”, some­what of a mis­nomer given it cov­ers the pe­riod up to his 38th year. But that’s the thing with Frost. His lit­er­ary ca­reer only be­gan in 1915 when, as an un­known and prac­ti­cally un­pub­lished poet, with wife and four chil­dren, he bor­rowed money to travel to Lon­don in the hope of liv­ing by his writ­ing in the lit­er­ary cap­i­tal of the world.

He car­ried with him the manuscripts of what would be­come his first two vol­umes of po­etry, A Boy’s Will and North of Bos­ton. The two years that Frost spent in Eng­land were heady days. With World War I loom­ing, he found him­self in the city that was gath­er­ing many of the names that would come to de­fine the first wave of mod­ernism. In letters from this pe­riod we find him gate­crash­ing a party at Harold Monro’s new Po­etry Book­shop. He gets to know Yeats, whose man­ner ‘‘is like that of a man in some dream he can’t shake off. It is not a pose with him. He has to take him­self that way.’’ And he falls in with that fas­ci­nat­ing char­la­tan and ar­riv­iste Ezra Pound, for whom it was all a ques­tion of pose: he is ‘‘six inches taller for his hair and hides his lower jaw in a del­i­cate gold fili­gree of al­most mas­cu­line beard. His coat is of heavy black vel­vet. He lives in Grub Street, rich one day and poor the next. His friends are duchesses. And he swears like a pirate.’’

Al­though Frost soon drifted away from this cir­cle, Pound’s name continues to ap­pear in letters as a sym­bol of ev­ery­thing he wants to de­fine him­self against. ‘‘I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of be­ing caviar to the crowd the way my quasifriend Pound does.’’

In the early days of mod­ernism it seems ev­ery­one had a man­i­festo to foist on the world. Pound’s ‘‘make it new’’ is pos­si­bly the most bom­bas­tic of them, but Frost was not im­mune to this dis­ease. Letters show him for­mu­lat­ing his the­ory of the au­di­tory imag­i­na­tion. Rather than tak­ing the sen­tence as just a gram­mat­i­cal clus­ter, Frost wanted to fo­cus on its sound. The way you get a feel for sense from the in­to­na­tions of muf­fled voices heard through a door. Some­what limited as a the­ory of po­etry per­haps, but per­fectly rea­son­able. Less so when he in­sists the hu­man brain has an in­nate range of ca­dences sim­i­lar to those of birds.

Later he came to de­scribe things more sen­si­bly: ‘‘there are the very reg­u­lar pre-es­tab­lished ac­cent and mea­sure of blank verse; and there are the very ir­reg­u­lar ac­cent and mea­sure of speak­ing in­to­na­tion. I am never more pleased than when I get them into strained re­la­tion.’’

Speak­ing in­to­na­tions and col­lo­quial lan­guage are what Frost con­sis­tently cham­pi­oned. If poets can be di­vided into those who, like Wordsworth, in­voke the real lan­guage of men, and those like Mal­larme who seek the caviar, Frost is clearly in the first group. A dan­ger for this first type of writer is the tone of sel­f­righ­teous­ness that creeps in when we as­sume the ver­nac­u­lar will grant tout court au­then­tic­ity to a poem. This is un­true.

How­ever, it is also in­cor­rect to ac­cuse writ­ers in the sec­ond group of ab­strac­tion. All lan­guage is ab­stract. The real prob­lem is that words re­quire con­stant at­ten­tion to stop them drift­ing even fur­ther from re­al­ity through im­pre­cise use. While few of us can cast the first stone here, most to blame are those for whom lan­guage is a tool to bully pub­lic opin­ion, in the case of politi­cians, or, in the case of too many poets, to be­guile re­al­ity and one’s own sen­ti­ments. Cut­ting through the weasel words and po­et­i­cisms is the Sisyphean task poets of each age face.

Shake­speare was one of our best clar­i­fiers of the lan­guage, and it’s pleas­ing to learn that Frost rel­ished quot­ing the bard. As two brief ex­am­ples will show, the lines he pre­ferred aren’t found in the speeches of Polo­nius: from As You Like It, ‘‘Very good or­a­tors, when they are out, they will spit’’; and from Twelfth Night, ‘‘Aw, go shake your ears!’’. Frost him­self liked to ad­vise people to ‘‘gather your sen­tences by ear’’.

Poet Robert Frost cel­e­brat­ing his 85th birth­day in 1959

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