Win-Win

Peter Howarth

  • The Collected Prose of Robert Frost edited by Mark Richardson
    Harvard, 375 pp, £25.95, January 2008, ISBN 978 0 674 02463 2
  • The Notebooks of Robert Frost edited by Robert Faggen
    Harvard, 809 pp, £25.95, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02311 6

The first and last pieces in this new Collected Prose have never been reprinted before, but they have a misleadingly familiar ring. In 1891, Frost got himself elected to the editorship of the Lawrence, Massachusetts High School Bulletin, and his opening salute to his classmates insists that ‘this chair, when not acting as a weapon of defence, will be devoted to the caprices of its occupant.’ A fortnight before his death in 1963, he sent a message from his hospital bed to the Poetry Society of America: ‘I may wobble when I’m sitting up but I never waver.’ These declarations of independence sound reassuringly like the Frost of the anthologies, the author of ‘guidebooks for the spirit of individualism’, as Robert Faggen puts it, attracted to empty woods and roads less travelled, and suspicious of New Deals and other easy offers of a lift.

But real individualists don’t read guidebooks, and Frost wasn’t writing them. On receiving the Emerson-Thoreau medal in 1958, he thanked his hosts with the mildly insulting remark that no one could really be an Emersonian: ‘Emerson disabused me of my notion I may have been brought up to that the truth would make me free. My truth will bind you slave to me. He didn’t want converts and followers.’ Neither did Frost. What he really wanted was competition:

No subversive myself I think it very Emersonian of me that I am so sympathetic and admiring with subversives, rebels, runners out, runners out ahead, eccentrics and radicals. I don’t care how extreme their enthusiasm so long as it doesn’t land them in the Russian camp. I always wanted one of them teaching in the next room to me so my work would be cut out for me warning the children taking my courses not to take his courses.

This appetite for sparring appears under several names and with varying degrees of friendliness, but it’s a guiding principle behind all the writings on poetry and politics collected in these two substantial volumes. Explaining to non-poets what the poetic instinct feels like, for instance, Frost says it’s the same as ‘when familiar friends approach each other in the street’ and sense ‘before knowing the pleasantry they will inflict on each other in passing’. Frost’s favourites among his own poems were the ones that ‘I have carried through like the stroke of a racquet, club or headsman’s axe,’ as if getting a poem right was like executing a good shot, or perhaps your opponent. One of his notebook entries says: ‘A poem shouldn’t mean, it should be mean.’ The Romantics exalted poetry’s harmonising power; Frost wants the equilibrium of permanent struggle. Poetic ‘form exists when one principle is locked in its opposite’ in ‘the clash of two goods’. He famously damned free verse for being like trying to ‘play tennis with the net down’, because its flexibility disallows such competition. In another entry, Frost agrees with Kant that our feeling for art depends on rising above merely private concerns, but his metaphor makes disinterested aesthetics sound like arm-wrestling: ‘Life is that which beguiles us into taking sides in the conflict of pressure and resistance, force and control. Art is that which disengages us to concern ourselves with the tremor of the universal deadlock.’ Since life is a ‘unity of opposition barely held’, government, too, should be ‘a place where all the ambitions should be thrown together in emulation and rivalry’. The relationship between the US and the Soviet Union, he was happy to hear Khrushchev say when he interviewed him in 1962, was one of ‘heroic rivalry’, a phrase Frost probably put into the premier’s mouth.

This zest for public contest is a striking feature of the aphoristic style of Frost’s prose. The aphorism is a miniature show-stopper, designed to leave audiences applauding while sceptics scrabble for a comeback, and although the notebooks were never meant for publication, the drafts of speeches and poems in them always read like rehearsals for a public performance, or provocation. As Faggen’s introduction points out, there is also an etymological link between ‘aphorism’ and boundary-line, the limits of which Frost’s poems were always interested in testing. ‘Good fences make good neighbours,’ the next-door farmer says in ‘Mending Wall’, in a phrase often mistaken as a motto about fundamental rights to privacy. In the poem, it’s a retort to someone who finds the mending tedious:

You are not logged in