What the Poet Was Thinking

Article excerpt


Wallace Stevens, a contemporary of Robert Frost's, once wrote of another poet that "the design of all his words takes form / And frame from thinking and is realized."

Harvard University Press is now getting into print a good deal of evidence from outside Frost's poems as to what the poet was thinking. Last year Harvard published the contents of the notebooks that Frost kept over many decades. Now we have "The Collected Prose," a much more extensive and better annotated version of Frost's prose writings than we have had in print up until now.

Mark Richardson, the editor of "The Collected Prose" - but not of the "Notebooks" - is the author of a good book, "The Ordeal of Robert Frost," and has an alert and discriminating mind. In the course of his 130 pages of explanatory notes, Mr. Richardson had the wit to include selections from conversations with Frost that Frost's biographer, Lawrance Thompson, wrote down but unaccountably didn't include or take into consideration for the biography.

These recent compilations come very late in the day, more than 130 years after Frost's birth. In fact, only after his death at 88 were any of his formal writings other than his poems collected and published. Contrast this publication history with that of T.S.Eliot, who is, in many ways, Frost's opposite number among the great first generation of 20th-century American poets.

Before Eliot was 40 at the end of the 1920s, his essays along with his poems had transformed the academic approach to poetry. He taught the professors who taught the English majors how to read . . . his own poems as well as other modernist poems along with all the other poems ever written in Europe and America.

In Eliot's essays, the approach to poetry is set forth in crisp discursive language that is easy to follow and to apply. It is systematic. It is the sort of construction that the poet, e.e. cummings, had in mind in characterizing another contrivance as "a machine to measure spring with."

Like Eliot, though in his own way, Frost was an educator of readers. He taught English in New Hampshire schools during the early years of the 20th century when he was allegedly a farmer. Then from a bit before 1920 until his death he taught at many colleges and universities. He received an honorary degree from Oxford. He wrote a good many essays and gave quite a few lectures. But his approach to literature was decidedly unsystematic.

Mr. Richardson includes in his notes the following characteristic remark drawn from Thompson's records: "The poet, Frost says, is never systematic. He is more like the man in the streets who sees things unsystematically. He views life in fragments."

Just as life comes in fragments when one is passing down the street, so, according to Frost, does it also beset the composing poet. Even if the poet is at his desk, he is undergoing inner and outer occurrences that he cannot have anticipated when he set down the first word of the poem. Even in that seclusion the world is coming in at him via, among other avenues, his conscious and unconscious memories.

As Frost says in what may be his best essay, "The Constant Symbol," "every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements." The out-setting poet should expect a series of surprises and even some lucky accidents. …