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The Other Robert Frost

October 17, 2009

“Besides the Frost that everybody knows, there is one whom no one even talks about. Everybody knows what the regular Frost is: the one living poet who has written good poems that ordinary readers like without any trouble and understand without any trouble; the conservative editorialist and self-made apothegm-joiner, full of dry wisdom and free, complacent Yankee enterprise; the Farmer-poet–this is an imposing private role perfected for public use, a sort of Olympian Will Rogers out of Tanglewood Tales; and, last or first of all, Frost is the standing, speaking reproach to any other good modern poet: ‘If Frost can write poetry that’s just as easy as Longfellow you can too–you do too.’ It is this ‘easy’ side of Frost that is most attractive to academic readers, who are eager to canonize any modern poet who condemns in example the modern poetry which they condemn in precept; and it is this side that has helped to get him neglected or depreciated by intellectuals–the reader of Eliot or Auden usually dismisses Frost as something inconsequentially good that he knew all about long ago. Ordinary readers think Frost the greatest poet alive, and love some of his best poems almost as much as they love some of his worst ones. He seems to them a sensible, tender, humorous poet who knows all about trees and farms and folks in New England, and still has managed to get an individualistic, fairly optimistic, thoroughly American philosophy out of what he knows; there’s something reassuring about his poetry, they feel–almost like prose. Certainly there’s nothing hard or odd or gloomy about it.

“These views of Frost, it seems to me, come either from not knowing his poems well enough or from knowing the wrong poems too well. Frost’s best-known poems, with a few exceptions, are not his best poems at all….It would be hard to make a novel list of Eliot’s best poems, but one can make a list of ten or twelve of Frost’s best poems that is likely to seem to anybody too new to be true….

“Nothing I say about these poems can make you see what they are like, or what the Frost that matters most is like; if you read them you will see. ‘The Witch of Coos’ is the best thing of its kind since Chaucer. ‘Home Burial’ and ‘A Servant to Servants’ are two of the most moving and appalling dramatic poems ever written; and how could lyrics be more ingeniously and conclusively merciless than ‘Neither Out Far Nor In Deep’ or ‘Design’? or more grotesquely and subtly and mercilessly disenchanting than the tender ‘An Old Man’s Winter Night’? or more unsparingly truthful than ‘Provide Provide’? And so far from being obvious, optimistic, orthodox, many of these poems are extraordinarily subtle and strange, poems which express an attitude that, at its most extreme, makes pessimism seem a hopeful evasion; they begin with a flat and terrible reproduction of the evil in the world and end by saying: It’s so; and there’s nothing you can do about it; and if there were, would you ever do it? The limits which existence approaches and falls back from have seldom been stated with such bare composure,”

Randall Jarrell,”The Other Frost,” 1953

In this short interview with Curtis Fox (courtesy of the Poetry Foundation), the poet Kay Ryan picks up Jarrell’s enthusiasm for Frost and carries it into a spirited discussion of Frost’s mastery of metaphor. Ryan also touches on why today’s fashion-conscious poetry readers are mistaken to overlook Frost. Ryan is, however, more forgiving than the harsh and exuberant Jarrell.

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