Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Robert Frost: Golden Boy

I think I was subconsciously putting off this entry because of my long history with Robert Frost, the details of which I’ll spare you in this post. If he were alive, let’s just say I’d be willing to defend his poetic honor to the death (but it wasn’t always that way). Frost was one of those rare poets who had such amazing success in his career while he was alive that it’s hard not to envy him: FOUR Pulitzer Prizes, numerous teaching fellowships, reading at Kennedy’s inauguration, and nearly thirty published books/collections. I don’t think I could live long enough to produce that much. His personal life, however, was fraught with grief, depression, and loneliness.

Frost was born in California (not Vermont! not New Hampshire!) and moved to New England when he was 12 after the death of his father. His mother died when he was 26. Frost and his wife Elinor had six children, but she died in 1938 and poor Robert only outlived two of his children. There was a history of depression in his family, including his mother and sister (who died in a mental institution), and two of his own children (a daughter who was committed, and a son who killed himself). This was perhaps the recipe for Frost’s poems, which often deal with the cruelty of nature and the poet’s attempts to understand a world that is all the more frightening the closer you look at it.

Three of my favorite Frost poems deal with this subject, which I think can also be described by the epitaph on Frost’s grave (from one of his own poems): “I had a lovers’ quarrel with the world.” The favorites are “Design,” “Acquainted with the Night,” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Here’s “Acquainted with the Night,” since you may have already read the other two:

I have been one acquainted with the night.

I have walked out in rain --and back in rain.

I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;

And further still at an unearthly height 

One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.

I have been one acquainted with the night.

Yes, it’s a sonnet. And before you can complain that I keep posting sonnets, let me remind you that it’s a reflection of the time (the 1920’s) and not of my personal preference. This poem reminds me a little of Neruda’s “I’m Tired of Being a Man.”

I think Frost was a genius in that he was an extremely close observer of the world, which in my mind, makes for the best poet. He also captured the human voice so well, in all of its various speech patterns. I read that he wrote “Stopping By the Woods On a Snowy Evening” in fifteen minutes as if he’d been possessed. And it’s in iambic tetrameter. I’d like to see someone do that today. It’s like the poetry equivalent of perfect pitch…effortless poetic rhythms that are both natural and composed. Let’s give the man the credit he deserves.

I just wanted to say a few words about Frost’s long poem, “New Hampshire,” since it gave his book its title and then won him the Pulitzer. It is, indeed, a long poem (but not epic!). You can read it for yourself, but I have to say it’s really not that great, though a little more playful and even funny. I liked the part about Vermont the best (no surprise there). I’d always thought of Vermont and New Hampshire as enemy states or foils, but after reading this passage in Frost’s “New Hampshire,” I may have changed my mind:

She's one of the two best states in the Union.
Vermont's the other. And the two have been
Yokefellows in the sap yoke from of old
In many Marches. And they lie like wedges,
Thick end to thin end and thin end to thick end,
And are a figure of the way the strong
Of mind and strong of arm should fit together,
One thick where one is thin and vice versa.

And last, but not least, here is some really cool footage of Frost giving a reading. It's from a documentary about his life called "A Lovers' Quarrel with the World." This particular reading was either at Amherst or Sarah Lawrence...I'm not sure which.

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