Robert Frost, Everyman’s Library- Frost: Poems, (Knopf, June 1997), 256 pages, poetry, hardcover, $12.50 U.S.
When this arrived in the mail, I was not enthused. I grew up reading Frost, along with Shelley, Tennyson, Byron, Brown, Plath, and others like them. I had even gloried in them at one time. By now, however, I felt I had outgrown them like a favorite stuffed toy. Frost’s devotion to nature and farming in New England had long become boring to me. When I studied him through the Yale Open Courses, it nearly felt like torture. The joyous relief of having finished Frost’s segment of the class is difficult to describe.
Imagine my puzzlement upon learning that Frost was a major influence on my favorite poet Seamus Heaney. Once this fact was pointed out to me, it became alarmingly easy to see. Not that this diminished the absolute thrill and lingering calm I feel when reading Heaney’s musical words, but it certainly gave me pause. Maybe there was something about Frost or to his work that I had overlooked, or forgotten?
Hence, I went back to the Frost lectures which I had printed out and stored in a folder for future reference. I read them over carefully and reweighed Professor Langston Hammer’s arguments that Frost was very much a modern poet, despite all his adherence to pastoral themes. His discussions on complicity in Frost’s work, of Frost’s constant referencing and allegorizing, his attempt to explain what Frost had called ‘ulteriority’: it all made sense and I could see these points clearly demonstrated in Frost’s writings. Still, I remained unmoved.
Then the thought occurred to me that what was lacking was the viewpoint of a younger person- a simpler view. Maybe the poetry of Frost was actually being muddied by all this analysis and the cynicism that comes with the passing of one’s years. Maybe the key to understanding Heaney’s reliance on this master and my own childish delight was to disengage the inner critic and disregard the analysis of others. There was also the possibility that I had allowed myself to become prejudiced against Frost as a result of a strong personal passion against “nature poetry” in my own work. It was time to listen to the poems again- just the poems.
It was precisely upon this epiphanic realization that this particular volume of Frost’s poetry arrived. It proved to be just what the doctor ordered. This pocket-sized hardback collection was edited by John Hollander and contains a hearty amount of the best of Frost’s work. Everything about this book speaks to simplicity. The Forward is short and to the point, without all the usual remarks toward criticism. There are no footnotes or other annotation. There is a brief index of first lines to close the book. There are no photographs or drawings of any kind. Even the cover is simple- only necessary text on a white background. There are absolutely no frills at all to distract from the beauty of this poet’s oeuvre.
This compliments the poems therein perfectly. While Frost was a master of multiple meanings- and these are not often readily apparent- his presentation was always overwhelmingly simple and rooted in the culture of an agricultural New England. It celebrates a hard-working people in an endangered world. Without all the distractions usually attendant to poetry, Frost shines like a new penny, as they say. His words are calming and quiet like the intimate register of a loved one’s voice. This same intimacy can make the things he at times has to say all the more disturbing but through it he accomplishes this roughing of familiarity on a deeper level than he might otherwise. These are qualities Heaney adopted eagerly and to equal effect.
I recommend this particular publication of Frost to anyone whether as an introduction to Frost or as a refreshing re-reader to a poetic veteran. It is a great thing to read in bed before sleeping since it is soothing to contemplate. And for once, nevermind whether Frost was a Romantic poet or a Modern one, or exactly what all the meanings he may have intended are. Nevermind the endless reams of essays and critiques that have focused on these poems. If you must have meaning, let it be the personal meaning you yourself give them at that hour that you happen to be reading them. Read them out loud, quietly to yourself, and feel the taste and hear the sound of the words as much as see them. You may discover Frost in a whole new way. Or perhaps you will rediscover him a I did.