Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia

Frost Complete, At Last

A review of Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose & Plays, edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. Dana Gioia's essay "Robert Frost and the Modern Narrative," published in the Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 2013) here.

"A great wrong will be set right," wrote critic John Russell when the Library of America first announced its plans to publish the "Literary Classics of the United States" in complete, authoritative, and affordable editions. Since it began in 1982, the series has become the gold standard of contemporary literary publishing, issuing individual volumes that range from Benjamin Franklin to Flannery O'Connor. Now Library of America has released its eighty-first volume, the first to feature a Twentieth Century poet—Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose & Plays. Reading through this attractive volume, one wants to exclaim, "A great wrong set right." And in the process the true achievement of a great poet is presented fully for the first time.

As one of the most popular poets the United States has produced, Frost would hardly seem to need a Library of America volume to secure his reputation. This compact 1000-page compendium, however, represents the culmination of a decade long effort to rehabilitate Frost's stature in American letters. It gathers all of Frost's verse together for the first time, including 94 poems that have either remained unpublished or uncollected. The new volume also restores Frost's own texts, which have been unavailable for nearly thirty years. The book also contains three unpublished or uncollected plays and numerous early short stories as well as the most generous selections ever of his essays, speeches, letters, and interviews. For students of American poetry, this is not just an important book; it is an irreplaceable one.

At the time of his death in January, 1963, Frost had achieved a degree of fame unequaled by any modern American poet. He was not merely a celebrated writer but a public figure who seemed to embody a certain native national wisdom. In front of television cameras, radio microphones, or crowded lecture halls, Frost played with poised perfection the role of the philosophical farmer-poet. His appearance at John Kennedy's 1961 Presidential inauguration still ranks as the most famous public appearance in the history of American literature.

Frost's public image was no accident of media coverage. It was the careful creation of a poet for whom fame eventually became the anodyne for a private life made desolate by unbearable suffering and loss. Frost's consumptive father died when he was eleven, and his family left San Francisco for a precarious existence in New England. The poet's first son died of cholera at four; another daughter died in infancy. His only sister went insane, a fate shared by one of his daughters. His youngest daughter (and favorite child) died agonizingly after childbirth. Another son committed suicide. As his wife lay on her deathbed, Frost waited outside the door. She never asked for him, and she died without their exchanging a word.

Frost never allowed the public to view these private sorrows. His poetry seems so compellingly personal that one forgets how seldom it is overtly autobiographical. His most painful poems, like "Home Burial" or "'Out, Out—,'" are mostly narratives, which distance their tragedies by placing them in fictive lives. Fear, guilt, and suffering cast their shadows across his poetry. In art as in life, however, Frost resourcefully kept those dark themes in careful balance so they did not overwhelm him.

Frost's particular genius was to create a poem that convincingly argues two opposing views at once. The narrative poems demonstrate this talent in obvious ways. In "Home Burial," for instance, the husband and wife talk at bitter cross-purposes failing to recognize the propriety of each other's grief. If neither person is entirely in the right, then too, neither is entirely in the wrong. "I make it a rule," Frost admitted "not to take any character's side in anything I write." Like Shakespeare, Frost's imagination was capacious enough to encompass contradiction. He used the friction of irreconcilable opposites rubbing against each other—sometimes humorously, more often tragically—to spark the dramatic energy of his narratives.

In Frost's lyric poems, however, his gift for opposition took a more complicated turn. On the surface he would create an engaging poem that memorably argued some sensible point of view. Meanwhile underneath he would set loose another line of argument that subversively qualified or rejected the surface message. A careful reading of Frost's most famous poems suggests how often they mean something almost the opposite of their popular interpretations. In "Mending Wall," for instance, the speaker does not agree with the farmer's pronouncement that "Good fences make good neighbors." Nor does "The Road Not Taken" unambiguously assert that the choice of paths "made all the difference." While the Modernists made the surfaces of their poems complex and forbidding, Frost made his surfaces deceptively simple. On close examination, however, his seemingly lucid poems often unfold into imaginative enigmas.

Literary reputations often undergo drastic revision after an author' death, but the posthumous devaluation of Frost surely ranks among the extreme cases in American literature. Frost's appointed biographer, Lawrance Thompson, had grown to hate his subject. Soon after the poet's death, he began publishing a scathing three-volume attack—a 2000 page denunciation all the more compelling for being passionately unfair. Even Thompson's index was designed to discredit his subject. It included copious entries under headings like "Cowardice," "Jealousy," "Rage," "Revenge," and even "Badness." Frost's admirers felt betrayed by Thompson's revelations of egotism, envy, and ambition. Soon the same reviewers who had once celebrated the personable poet now derided him as a monster. "A more hateful human being." opined one outraged critic, "cannot have lived." (So much for Hitler and Stalin.)

Frost had never been fashionable among academic critics. His conservative poetics and populist sympathies stood at odds with the experimental and elitist credo of Modernism. By the time the final volume of Thompson's malicious biography was published posthumously in 1976, Frost had become a remote and anomalous figure to scholars saturated with High Modernism and the avant-garde. He was a master of formal poetry in an age of free verse, a narrative poet in a period that dismissed the very notion of poetic storytelling, and a popular poet at a time when serious poets and the public were reportedly not on speaking terms. Although his work never entirely vanished from the reading list, he was increasingly treated as a minor poet.

Not until William Pritchard's boldly revisionist Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered appeared in 1984, did the tide turn in the poet's favor. Critics recognized the imbalance in Thompson's biography. The full complexity and diversity of the poems was rediscovered. Meanwhile the revival of form and narrative among younger poets demonstrated that Frost remained a powerful and positive influence on American poetry. Today Frost's influence on new poetry is stronger than it was at any point in his own lifetime. The scholars are only now beginning to catch up.

One egregious consequence of Frost's scholarly neglect was the unavailability of accurate texts. After his death, an editor zealously repunctuated the poems to make them appear more conventional—adding and removing commas, hyphens, question marks, etc. This situation lay unnoticed by scholars for years until Donald Hall calculated that 1364 changes had been made, mostly without any justification. Altering commas and question marks may seem trivial until one remembers that punctuation is the author's instruction on how to read a poem aloud. Frost's prosody was explicitly auditory—based on matching and counterpointing formal meters with American speech rhythms (what he called "the sound of sense"). Change the punctuation, and one changes the sound. Meticulously edited by Mark Richardson, the new collection is the only available text that prints Frost's poems as the author intended.

For most readers the greatest interest in the new Frost volume will be the appearance of the 94 previously unpublished or uncollected poems. With the inclusion of these works, Frost's poetic oeuvre now stands complete—except for a few brief and mildly obscene obiter dicta, which remain suppressed or unverifiable. Reading through the uncollected mature work, one is struck by how canny the poet's judgment was concerning his own writing. There are no lost masterpieces among the new work. There are, however, many poems worth savoring. "On the Sale of My Farm," and "New Grief," both written around the time of A Boy's Will are moving if modest additions to his canon. There are also some witty exercises in free verse (clearly parodies of Pound) done in 1913. Although mostly minor, this huge crop of new work adds depth and perspective to Frost's poetic identity.

One cannot help but note how many of the uncollected poems are bawdy. Frost surely understood that it was best for his carefully managed public image to keep these poems under wraps. While today this ribaldry humanizes Frost, the Eisenhower-era was not quite ready for its national bard to publish double-entendres . The title of Frost's 1957 epigram, "Sym-ball-ism," gives a malicious wink at the Freudian critics then so fashionable, but the poem itself — appropriately enough for the verse of a chicken farmer—concerns the more enduring theme of "country matters:"

The symbol of the number ten—
The naught for girls, the one for men—
Defines how many times does one
In mathematics or in fun
Go as you might say into zero.
You ask the heroine and hero.

The uncollected works fall into four categories: juvenilia, occasional poems, light verse, and mature poems. The juvenilia is the most numerous category, and it illustrates Frost's growth from a competently versifying high school student to the perfect lyricist of A Boy's Will. Frost was no Wunderkind. As these early poems illustrate, his development was slow and deliberate, beset by false steps. He loved tradition well enough that it took him twenty years of private labor to shake off the easy music and lofty attitudes of Victorian Romanticism. As late as 1907 (when he was thirty-three), Frost could still begin a poem with:

We shrine our fathers as their wars recede
With the heroic dead that died of old,
We shall strew flowers for them year after year;
They shall have flowers themselves more than they need!

The single most compelling new poem is probably "The Middletown Murder," a 93-line narrative written in 1928. The poem presents an adulterous affair that ends in a grotesque shooting. Written in rhymed couplets (rarely a secure measure for Frost's serious poems), the narrative wavers unsuccessfully between psychological realism and black comedy, but the story and characters are memorable. The total effect seems un-Frostian, which is to say that the poem shows Frost exploring new territory—more explicitly sexual, more provocatively violent, less densely textured, and almost cinematically fast. Frost knew the experiment didn't work, but it is fascinating to imagine him successfully hammering out this new mode.

The book also includes an intelligently detailed 27-page chronology of Frost's life. This biographical prècis provides invaluable perspective on the poems and prose. It also points out a central paradox in Frost's career—the great poet of New England was born and raised through childhood in San Francisco. Critics have made little of this curious fact, but it strikes me as central to the poet's imaginative identity. Frost's sensibility was deeply shaped by his first eleven years in California. It is particularly instructive to note that the early experience of this future farmer-poet was thoroughly urban. He lived in the apartments and hotels of San Francisco, California's only big city in the late 1870s. He never saw snow or dramatic seasons. The first woodlands he visited were not birch forests but the oaks and redwoods of the Napa Valley.

Even Frost's family roots were only partially in New England. The poet's mother was Scottish. Born in Leith near Edinburgh, she emigrated at twelve to Columbus, Ohio. Only his New Hampshire father came from the region with which Frost ultimately made his deep and decisive identification. Even his father's Yankee identity is problematic. During the Civil War William Frost ran away from home to try to enlist on the Confederate side. He was unsuccessful, but his Copperhead sympathies remained with the South. It is no accident that the great bard of Yankee New England bears the ironic name of Robert Lee Frost.

When the eleven-year-old Frost followed his father's body to Massachusetts in 1885, he saw the region with fresh and foreign eyes. This Western city-boy had never seen a New England autumn or a snowfall. Unlike a native, he took nothing in this new landscape for granted. The flora, fauna, weather, and folkways of the Northeast were new to him, and yet their connection to his dead father gave them a deep resonance. Frost's position was, therefore, half-in and half-outside the region. This situation is not an unusual one for the defining poet of a particular place—Constantine Cavafy, Alexandria's great poet, for example, spent much of his childhood in Liverpool and Constantinople. The newcomer has to make conscious sense of a place in ways a native never bothers. Frost was an elective New Englander, and a convert is always more passionate about the new faith than someone born to a religion.

The Library of America volume may also finally secure Frost's place as one of the century's wisest poetry critics. Because Frost's critical style differed so radically from standard academic writing, his importance here has also been missed by most scholars. The editors of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, for example, state fatuously, "Unlike Yeats and Eliot, he has almost nothing to say in prose." A reader not looking for standard academic criticism, however, will find Frost's prose contains some of the most eloquent and insightful statements ever made about the art of poetry. He was never particularly interested in analyzing individual poems or literary trends. Frost's chosen subject was the purpose of poetry in human life. On this theme he has few peers in terms of both profundity and originality.

Poetry, Frost remarked, "is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget." The new Library of America collection decisively ends the impoverishment of Frost studies. Presenting the author's work completely and accurately for the first time, it fully restores a great poet to American literature. We have had many versions of Frost. At last we have the real thing.

A detailed discussion of Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" is online here.