No caviar for a sound poet
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 His literary career only began in 1915 when, as an unknown and practically unpublished poet, with wife and four children, he borrowed money to travel to London in the hope of living by his writing in the literary capital of the world.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