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:

Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’

Exasperated, the speaker starts to wonder if he could ever persuade his thick-headed neighbour otherwise, but realises he’s hit a wall in the process of mending one:

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes the thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbours.’

Good fences are here making one neighbour cross with another, but it’s unclear whose problem this is, and whether the message is about patience or stupidity. This, though, is Frost’s provocation to the reader: to realise the aphorism isn’t going to let you find out which way to take it is to find yourself in the same edgy situation as the speaker, veering between amusement and annoyance that his neighbour’s aphorism says what it says, and can’t be reasoned with or got behind. This is where Frost’s many dramas about undecidable conflicts come closest to a modernism like Wallace Stevens’s: they make the shifting boundaries between poem and reader part of what the poem is commenting on. Typically, Frost thinks of this kind of reflexivity as a ‘game’, where the poet’s job is to hint at what he means, in order, as he writes in one notebook entry, to ‘see if he can catch the reader out.’

Frost’s feeling for neighbourly rivalry came very early on. The Collected Prose includes for the first time all 11 of the stories he wrote between 1903 and 1905 for The Eastern Poultryman and Farm-Poultry as emergency sources of income when his farm was doing badly. They are, as Mark Richardson drily observes, ‘surely the best poultry-stories written by a modern American poet’, but they are less about the hens than the reputations of their owners. This is not the moralist’s New England of isolated farmsteads eking out a proud, solitary existence against the elements, but a country in which every neighbour is poking his nose over the fence with advice, quick to scorn and quicker still to wonder how he can catch up. There is a lot of buying birds for show, and even more about poultrymen worrying whether they’ve been made a fool of. Agents spy out good-looking strains in small farms like football scouts looking for potential champions, while passing salesmen talk about ‘tendencies’ in contemporary hen-house design, as if this were House and Garden rather than Farm-Poultry.

John Evangelist Walsh has remarked that it was in these stories, published ten years before his first book of poems, that Frost had his first successes in capturing the flavour of real speech, voices which he later insisted poetry couldn’t do without. ‘Write with the ear to the speaking voice,’ he recommends in an unpublished essay from 1941, ‘The Last Refinement of Subject-Matter: Vocal Imagination’, since ‘what attests the imagination of the poet are significant tones of voice we all know and easily recognise, but can’t say we have grown familiar with from having met them in books.’ The poetry Frost found in his neighbours’ tones is almost always this teasing, jockeying, gossiping sort rather than the equally realistic speech of flat weariness or awkward pauses. Frost first began to explain his theory of capturing ‘definite recognisable sentence sounds’ in letters to friends written between 1913 and 1915, when he was living in England, and his examples usually involve people coaxing or in combat: ‘You mean to tell me you can’t read?’ or ‘Damn an Ingersoll watch anyhow.’ Although these letters are not reprinted in the Collected Prose (a Collected Letters is in preparation), interleaved with notebook drafts of the ‘Last Refinement’ essay is a page declaring that ‘the sentences must spring from each other and talk to each other even when there is only one character speaking.’ Frost’s example is straight from the farm gate: ‘You mean to say he wants two hundred dollars for that old warhorse?’

These combative tones are what Frost missed in free verse, though his comments on his Modernist contemporaries eagerly make up for the lack. We can always know whether new poetry is good, begins an early, rather grudging eulogy to Amy Lowell, because it strikes us instantly as a kind of ‘immortal wound’ we shall never recover from, with a ‘barb to it and a toxin’. But the comparative blandness of the next sentence is more poisonous: ‘How often I have heard it in the voice and seen it in the eyes of this generation that Amy Lowell had lodged poetry with them to stay.’ The metaphors simply won’t be groomed smoothly into praise:

Amy Lowell was distinguished in a period of dilation when poetry, in the effort to include a larger material, stretched itself almost to the breaking of the verse. Little ones with no more apparatus than a teacup looked on with alarm. She helped to make it stirring times for a decade to those immediately concerned with art and to many not so immediately.

‘Stirring times’ in the vicinity of ‘teacup’ hints that Lowell’s revolution was actually sugaring genteel poets as much as shocking them. Behind this suspicion of her Imagism – a poetry that ‘flung flowers’ into the eye rather as Ruskin complained that Whistler flung paint – lies Frost’s more deeply felt rivalry with Pound. Frost was initially flattered and grateful when Pound took an interest in him as a modern American poet in England, and he was one of the poets who got Pound off the American government’s charges of treason after World War Two. But already in 1913 he sensed that Pound’s approval had ulterior motives, as an unpublished poem lamented:

In praising me
You were not concerned so much with my desert

As with your power
That you praised me arbitrarily
And took credit to yourself
In demonstrating that you could thrust anything upon the world

The verse is too slack to have any poetic bite, but that was part of Frost’s point about free verse in general. Buried in the Notebooks is the first draft of a play about the duel to which Pound challenged the poet Lascelles Abercrombie in 1913, after Abercrombie had proposed that modern poetry could learn from Wordsworth’s interest in contemporary speech. The drama fails to ignite, as did the duel (Abercrombie neatly bested Pound by suggesting as his choice of weapon that they pelt each other with copies of their unsold books), but it’s interesting for the scenario Frost embeds it in. Pound is Ezekiel Poise (a name poking fun at Pound’s Idaho medievalism by combining poesy and Boise) who has set up a poetry bureau in which rich young idiots are coached in free verse, which Poise then supplies to tame editors who would ‘publish anything Ezekiel sends them’. Imagists made much of the similarities between metrical form and production-line values, but the implication here is that it’s free verse which allows the ‘mass production of poets’, by simply making things too easy.

Frost, on the other hand, prided himself on encountering resistance from both poems and their audiences, and if it wasn’t there he would look for it. Although for much of his life he depended on teaching, he was always suspicious of the middle-class paradise of the college or artists’ colony, a suspicion manifest in a double-edged tribute to his friend Percy MacKaye. MacKaye had lobbied for fellowships to support writers at many universities, including Frost’s position as poet in residence at the University of Michigan, but Frost’s gratitude is wearing thin when he describes MacKaye’s ambition that the ‘national life, the raw material of poetry . . . shall at last cease to be raw at all, and poetry shall almost write itself without the intervention of the artist.’ If life ever became poetry itself, then poets like Frost would be out of a job; one notebook entry thanks the Lord for the crudity of American life and its ‘raw material, which is the part of life not yet worked up into form’. The ideal artist, it continues, is a ‘brute who can knock the corners off the marble block’. Many of Frost’s bons mots on the writing process look for authenticity in the feeling of having one’s own corners knocked off. ‘The Constant Symbol’ (1946) spins an analogy between a poet finding his way into a rhyme scheme and a politician getting steadily more entangled with the power and compromise of public office, so that a poem is ‘the figure of the will braving alien entanglements’. The word ‘alien’ here was not, however, meant to give ammunition to the free versifiers who believed that using regular forms meant losing your soul:

The ruling passion in man is not as Viennese [i.e. Freudian] as is claimed. It is rather a gregarious instinct to keep together by minding each other’s business . . . The beauty of socialism is that it will end the individuality that is always crying out mind your own business. Terence’s answer would be all human business is my business. No more invisible means of support, no more invisible motives, no more invisible anything. The ultimate commitment is giving in to it so that an outsider may see what we were up to sooner than we ourselves.

It’s not clear whether Frost means that committing yourself to a publicly recognised form is like having your business minded by others, or whether it’s part of the process. But the point is that writing poems means poets understand themselves better than they might actually want to, and the many grouches against actual socialism in the Notebooks only underscore how abrasive Frost believed the self-knowledge that others provide could be. ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’ sounds more gentle when it claims that a poem, like love, ‘begins in delight and ends in wisdom’. But in the Notebooks this wisdom is not the poet’s own: ‘All art begins at the pleasure end and whatever wisdom it may or may not wind up in . . . may be left to your keepers, your friends, and relatives to provide.’

The great virtue of Frost’s poetics was to stand out against the formalism of his era, and to insist that the internal dynamics of a poem always entail a feeling for external social relations. Lyric, he thought, is really ‘repartee’; rhythm works when it springs with the tension of the conversations it carries. To sense that drama is to intuit the ‘good spacing’ that democratic co-existence requires:

The danger of the age is that too many kinds of people will fail to realise that the separateness of the parts is as important as the connection of the parts. The parts must not possibly be derived from each other, but must be made to look like a good set. This is equally true of the parts of a poem and the parts of society.

But the problem with idealising unity-in-separation emerges in a shocking passage in the Notebooks which immediately follows the demand for ‘repartee’:

The sentimentalism of the last two hundred years has been wrong in abolishing slavery. Civilisation is a partly artificial condition, but it must never become too artificial or it will break down: and it is probable that an entirely slaveless society is too artificial to be healthy.

These new American slaves are the ten million on welfare who are incapable of looking after themselves, and who must not be allowed to bring down everyone else. Relaxing the laws of competition will only pander to them and handicap the strong:

They shall have their protection from want. But no protection without direction . . . We will be firm and they must submit to those who know what is good for them. Once wholly protected and directed – that is the definition of a slave. Let us not gag at words. Remember that freedom is not incompatible with slavery.

Only if you’re the slaveowner. Frost was opposed to large-scale capitalism and the state charity of the New Deal alike because he felt both eliminated independent struggle. But he was so committed to the principle that egalitarian strife was the only means of preserving dignity that he could see little difference between being helped by the state and being owned by it. Perhaps this tough talk is aimed at disillusioning Roosevelt’s supporters, but it tacitly maintains one standard for poetry and another for politics. For though he always claimed to be a firm believer in ‘the trial by market everything must come to’ (‘Christmas Trees’), Frost’s vision of poetry as competition really depends on no one losing. A poem cannot have its form triumph over its content, or one voice dominate another: unlike in sport, the ‘object in life is to win-win a game with the play of a poem’. And win-win is a conflict resolution strategy, not a recipe for heroic rivalry.

Richardson’s volume amplifies the text published in his Library of America edition with substantial extracts from Frost’s other unpublished essays, many of which are rather more interesting than the work they comment on, and it’s a pity more room wasn’t found to print them whole. Faggen’s approach is to reproduce the Notebooks exactly as you would see them in the manuscript, and to give detailed cross-references allowing the reader to trace the themes that run across 60 years and 44 books. At present, however, there is some controversy over whether he has transcribed them accurately. Two scholars independently claim to have found thousands of errors, including whole missing pages. Harvard University Press is sticking by its man, and the paperback edition promises to set much right again. It doesn’t inspire confident quotation, but doubtless Frost would have relished the ongoing struggle.