There is an old view of Robert Frost as a talented simpleton—but his letters reveal the deep intelligence behind his poetryby Clive James / January 23, 2014 / Leave a comment
Frost in Vermont, 1958: “When not actually practising his art, he thought about it so hard that it was a wonder he had time for anything else” © Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
While its subject was still alive, the first two volumes of Lawrance Thompson’s relentlessly hostile biography of Robert Frost had already come out, creating a lasting image of the simple poet as a manipulator without conscience. Journalists of all altitudes loved that image because it made for easy copy: cracker-motto bard envied real poets, etc. After Frost died, a third volume of the biography finished the job. On the basis of the complete trilogy of dud scholarship, published between 1966 and 1977, the opinion formed that the gap between Frost’s achievement and his real life was too glaring to be tolerated. Helen Vendler, justifiably regarded in the US as a guru in matters of poetry, pronounced Frost to be a monster of egotism.
When I last heard of her, Helen Vendler was proclaiming the virtues of John Ashbery’s circular poem, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which has been published in limited edition circular book. While she deals with the vital critical question of whether the reader should turn the book around, or take a turn around the book, we can assume that if there is any further correcting to be done to Frost’s reputation as a monstrous egotist, it probably won’t be done by Helen Vendler. Too good a critic to be completely deaf to Frost’s poetic quality, she published, in 2012, an essay that praised his lyricism, but the essay did not do much to make up for her 1996 Paris Review interview in which she lavishly name-checked dozens of her touchstone American poets while mentioning Frost exactly once, and only in passing.
Luckily not even America—still a puritan culture in which an artist’s integrity must be sufficiently unblemished to impress Oprah Winfrey—has proved entirely devoid of critics and academics who can handle the proposition that the creator of perfect art might be a less than perfect person. Though Thompson’s hostility was a powerfully attractive theme for the kind of dabblers who would always rather read blame than praise, it could not quite offset the praise from such an expert witness as, say, Randall Jarrell. In his mighty little book Poetry and the Age, Jarrell showed for all time just how Frost worked the miracle of disguising the complicated as the elementary.
But although Frost’s artistic greatness is nowadays more widely acknowledged, it is still generally thought to be the output of some kind of simpleton. There have been further, and less crass, biographies since Lawrance Thompson’s, but they have had to fight a hard battle, as for a town already reduced to rubble. The damage that was done by Thompson still lingers. Deaf to a tone that made him the living echo of Iago, Thompson wrote to Frost: “The simple truth is that I love you.” God help any artist who acquires so passionate a lover. Onlookers, thirsty for gossip, will always think that there must have been something in it. To put Frost’s proper renown back on track, what’s needed is the re-emergence of common sense.
The new collection of Frost’s letters should help. Eventually there will be three volumes, but the first volume is already enough to prove, if proof were needed, that Frost was anything but the shit-kicking fireside verse-whittler of legend. When not actually practising his art, he thought about it so long and hard that it was a wonder he had time for anything else. His detractors would like to think that he found plenty of time to suborn editors, sabotage rival poets and practice infinite cruelties on his wife and family, but even his detractors must have noticed that he got quite a lot of meticulously crafted poems written. These letters are proof that his working methods and principles were the product of a mental preoccupation that began very early. Right from the start he had an idea of what a poem should do.
He wrote his first poems at home in America, but did not get as far along towards an acknowledged status as he had a right to expect. Eventually, when he was already 38 years old—a late age to become an expatriate—he sought a more hospitable literary environment in England. But before he crossed the Atlantic in 1912, he was already regaling his American editors and poetic acquaintances with his considered ideas about poetry: ideas that add up to a conception of modernism still pertinent today. He talked of “skilfully breaking the sounds of sense with all their irregularity of accent across the regular beat of the metre.” This was an early occurrence of a key phrase: the sounds of sense, or the sound of sense, went on cropping up in his writings, lectures, letters and conversations to the very end of his life.
It was a true idea, not just an easy motto. Implicit in the idea was that the spoken language supplies the poet with a store of rhythms which he can, and indeed must, fit in counterpoint to the set frame of the metre. A hundred years later, very few poets want to face the labour involved in doing this.
But those few are the ones we tend to notice. What we notice is their musicality, and conjuring music out of spoken words was an aim that Frost made explicit. He was ready to suffer neglect as long as he could pursue that aim. Having safely arrived in England, Frost wrote to an American friend: “Poetry is not a living. It is not even a reputation today. It is at best a reputation next year or the year after.” Does that sound like a master manipulator hustling for position?
Of course it doesn’t. But he was justifiably concerned with getting his work put in front of the public; all the more justifiably because he was, in his own schooled and studious opinion, pretty good. “A little of the success I have waited for so long won’t hurt me. I rather think I deserve it.” In England, he was able to bring out the first few slim collections that could somehow never find a publisher back in America. In England, his self-esteem was augmented by esteem from others, with a familiar result: he was able to worry less about the awkward necessity to blow his own trumpet. And anyway, some of his new fans could blow a trumpet at the level of a military bugler announcing the next dawn.
Ezra Pound admired him, and told the literary world. Prominent writers listened to Pound because they had no choice: he got into their heads like an earwig. We can deduce two main reasons for Pound being impressed by Frost. The first is merely persuasive: Frost really was at home in Latin and Greek, whereas Pound only pretended to be. But Pound, armed with an infinite intellectual arrogance, was not easily made to feel ignorant by anybody. The second reason is decisive: Pound could see—or, better to say, hear—that Frost was a supreme technician, a bearer of the modern torch. Frost’s advocacy of a language “absolutely unliterary,” of a “war on clichés,” was catnip to Pound, who had long favoured just such a campaign himself. The fact that Frost was better equipped than himself to pursue it was not one that crossed Pound’s mind; or if it did, he was not inhibited in his determination to jump up and down on Frost’s behalf.
Frost, a lifelong enemy of all arty pretension, thought that Pound dressed the part of the poet. But Frost never disparaged Pound’s antics, even when they worked to his, Frost’s, detriment in the very area which his English sojourn was meant to ameliorate: his standing at home. Pound not only proclaimed Frost’s virtues, he insisted on announcing, at the top of his voice, that those virtues had been beyond the comprehension of American editors. Frost, who had always been polite to editors even when they rejected him, was appalled. Quite apart from the question of elementary courtesy, Frost knew that he would have to go home some day soon, and at this rate the earth would be scorched before he got there. He and Pound fell out. But it was after they fell out, and not before, that Frost told a friend: “Pound is the most generous of mortals.” A poet who is out to sabotage his rivals—a monster of egotism—doesn’t say things like that.
Frost rated Pound highly but Yeats even higher: “the man of the last 20 years.” Amiable and clearly decent, Frost was welcomed into all the right groups of literati; “the allurements of the London literary crowd.” But he was allured only up to a point. He seldom gave his whole admiration to anyone. He was glad to have the company of the Georgian poets but his praise for their work was generalised. His praise for WH Davies was specific but limited: “those flashes in a line.” He was unequivocal only about Edward Thomas, his fellow late-starter. Here, surely, is the certain and final proof that Frost, from the career angle, was at least as much a giver as a taker. He did everything he could to help Thomas along as a poet, and when Thomas was killed on the Western Front, Frost’s grief was terrible.
Despite the loss of a true soulmate, however, Frost’s invasion of Europe had been an early version of D-Day. Success was achieved and made secure. But there was nothing easy about the process, and a close reading of these letters will reveal that England, despite its traditional congeniality for an idealistic literary class, was just as rich a source as America for chumps, cheats and fools. Booby-traps were made more deadly for Frost by his accursed virtue of honouring a bargain. There was a woman called Mrs Nutt who got hold of some of his best copyrights and used them to screw him around for years. He should have had her bumped off. (Later in his life, he should have lowered the boom on Lawrance Thompson, but nobody could persuade Frost against honouring a promise even if it killed him, and that one damned near did.)
Back in America, he could take pride in the success of his plan to build up a reputation offshore. It had worked, and he had become thought of, at long last, as a prominent American poet. But poetry, in the material sense, was still not a living. He worked hard to make a go of farming, thereby providing himself with the store of imagery that lent the substance to nearly all of his most memorable work. But in the long run he could not make farming pay the rent. Farming is a full-time job, and perhaps Frost spent too much time with his mind on other things—poetic masterpieces, for example.
And as always, when he was not actually writing, he was thinking about how to do it. Thinking about the local rhythm of a phrase within the grand rhythm of a sentence might not have been the best thing to have on his mind while trying to plough a straight furrow, but it was good preparation for teaching. Though his image in our minds is of a taciturn rustic artisan stacking stones to form a wall, he actually spent most of his life giving lectures. He had a gift for prose, but that was where the gift went to: it was talked out across a lectern. Though the duties and skills of tending the land were always present in his imagination, he was quite proud of his knack for holding an urban audience. “I am a much better teacher than farmer,” he said.
Scanning the addresses from which the later letters in this volume were sent, the reader will find that Frost was often on the road. A born performer, and doubly blessed because he performed his own stuff, he was in demand in distant colleges for the kind of evening in which the poet gives what amounts to a one-man show. Frost was inventing the poetry circuit; the blessed device which nowadays, both here and in America, helps to keep the best poets alive—as well, unfortunately, as some of the worst. Frost soft-pedals all questions of stipend, but it’s a fair guess that his share of the gate made the trips worthwhile. No wonder Thompson hated him. Frost was self-sufficient, and a true acolyte can allow the object of his worship any virtue but that. Helpers want to be needed.
Frost made no apology for collecting his rewards. “Nothing is quite honest that is not commercial.” If what he did had been subsidised, he wouldn’t have felt that it was proper work. You could call it a right-wing view. He was conservative in many ways, but none of them matter except one: he was a die-hard believer in art as a discipline, and not as a mere indulgence. For him, there could be no such thing as “the literature of irresponsible, boy-again, freedom.” But even while he still lived, we were already surrounded by the literature of boy-again freedom, and girl-again freedom too. Today, freedom rules, and the rules are nowhere.
Yet some of the thousands of our current poets might harbour the secret urge to take their work seriously. They might be like those bad boys in the Anthony Burgess novel who sat in the back of the class surreptitiously teaching themselves Latin. In view of that possibility, there is plenty that a clueless but hungry young tyro can learn from Frost, and the learning would be made more palatable by the fact that there was at least one kind of freedom that Frost believed in all the way.
Frost was the man, even more than Eliot and Pound, who both formulated and demonstrated the modernist principle of listening for the rhythms of poetry in the language around us: “We must go out into the vernacular for tones that haven’t been brought to book.” In our day as in his, the privilege of bringing vernacular tones to book is a freedom beyond price. Our tyro might find this privilege reassuringly near to his own propensity for bunging down anything that comes into his head, but he might as well start from a position of comfort, because he faces a mountain of hard work. Among the many things that poetry essentially is, poetry is essentially the business of finding a form by fitting things into it. Frost, in this respect not conservative at all, thought, or said he thought, that the resultant form should be equally non-threatening to everybody. “I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds,” he said. “I want to reach out.”
His most formidable detractors think that his reaching out was too often a folksy grab at the lapels. The truth of the matter is that the typical, seemingly unambitious little Frostian poem is a wonder of sophisticated construction: no other poet could have done it. Our tyro—Coleridge would have called him a nursling—will soon find that Frost’s poetry, even at its most approachable, is the product of craft at a level that it takes sweat even to analyse, let alone to emulate. Frost could tell you what made an English vowel long or short; it was as if he had transported the tools of a quantitative language, Latin, into a new language, English, that was not supposed to have quantities, only stresses. But Frost had studied how the metre and the intonation formed an interplay which, on the page, would stabilise the rhythms of a conversation overheard from the next room; a conversation whose specific meaning might be a mystery but whose drift was detectable from how the speech rose, fell, sped and slowed. It was a version of Eliot’s electrifying proposition that poetry in a foreign language could communicate before it was understood.
Eliot, the man of the century, respected Frost. I myself, who have never stopped reading Eliot since I was a student in Sydney in the late 1950s, have often stopped reading Frost—not, I think, because he daunts me, but because his vast barn of country reference is not congruent with my personal experience. Most Australians, including the literary people, are city-bred. (Les Murray is almost unique in his closeness to the land; the main reason, I think, why he sometimes reminds us of Frost.)
So I keep on having to rediscover Frost, but I am delighted each time I do. Whatever else they reveal about him—perhaps he stole cars—the next two volumes of letters are bound to go on showing that he was as thoughtful and hard-working as an artist can get: further evidence that the best of modernism is a way for the classical to keep going.