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The Problem with Frost

October 17, 2009

[Robert] Frost once said he wanted to be seen as “the exception I like to think I am in everything.” The problem with being an exception to every category is that after a while you begin to frustrate the categorizers. Consequently, Frost now occupies a position as unique as it is unstable. He’s a definitive Great American Poet, yet he’s never been embraced by the American academy as eagerly as, say, Ezra Pound. (In fact, Frost may be the only poet who is universally acknowledged to be a master but who nonetheless seems to require periodic reputation-buffing essays from the likes of Randall Jarrell and Seamus Heaney.) He’s a technician of prodigious agility, yet he generally limited himself to iambics, and favored rhymes like “reason” and “season” or “star” and “far.” And then there is the fraught matter of his popularity. Unlike almost every poet of comparable ability, Frost can claim a general reading audience, especially among readers who want poems that “make sense” — yet his aesthetic is evasive, arguably manipulative, and has at its core a freezing indifference that would make the neighborhood barbecue awfully uncomfortable. Still, as the critic Richard Poirier argues, “There is no point trying to explain the popularity away, as if it were a misconception prompted by a pose.” It’s easy to see how a poet this contradictory might suffer from the unsubtle ways in which we tend to talk about things like experimentalism and “the mainstream.” In such arguments, Frost will be simplified at best, ignored entirely at worst.

-David Orr, “Frost on the Edge,” NY Times, Feb. 4, 2007

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