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Frost’s Modernity

ISSUE:  Spring 1978
Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. By Richard Poirier. Oxford. $11.95.

Stevens’s poems have enjoyed secular canonization. Eliot’s appear to dignify the collapse of a culture. Williams’s justify their break with a poetic line by founding a new one. Pound’s are even held up as forming the vortex of an “era.” But what of Frost’s? Must his obvious popularity continue to obscure his undeniable centrality? Not if Richard Poirier’s new book is read with the attention it deserves.The Work of Knowing is not only the best book on Frost but a very elegant critique of the myth of modernism upon which the fortunes of Frost’s reputation have for too long had to depend.

Reputation is everything when it comes to the life of poetry: Poirier faces the hard truth that criticism must be a matter of canon formation as much as loving explication. Reputation determines whether one is taught, and upon that depends how one is read, and if one will be understood. In the crossfire over which poetry is the most authentically “modern” (Pound/Eliot v. Stevens/Williams) no one seems to have been fighting for Frost. Poirier cuts below the critical debate to question the legitimacy of its central term:

Condescensions directed at Frost by many admirers of the classical texts in English of twentieth-century modernism derive in part from the assumption that modernist literature was made inevitable by historical realities of the twentieth century.

In this view, literature reflects a cultural predicament by becoming “an image of the incoherent and fractured nature of contemporary reality,” Poirier suggests that the image has been mistaken for the reality, that “the dislocations characteristic of Eliot’s poetry,” for instance, “are not inevitably the result of the cultural and historical conditions. In the resemblance between the earlier and later poems, there is an implicit and perhaps embarrassing question. Are the literary characteristics of modernism prompted necessarily by direct confrontations with historical and cultural crises? Or do they not issue as possibly from mysterious personal ones?” The last question ought to become the thesis statement for the next ten dissertations on Eliot, a poet whose work we have severed from its moving engagement in deeply felt private limitations. Any modernism is a reduction which presumes that only a certain kind of poetry can be central to an age suffering from a malady which that poetry itself may very well have invented. Frost naturally threatens the stoical self-importance of the Wastelanders when he chides them that “It is immodest of a man to think of himself as going down before the worst forces ever mobilized by God.”

Frost’s poetry has also had the bad luck to frustrate a convention dear to the academy: literary periodization. English departments cherish those divisions of literary production into “eras” which make specialization possible. Only a few poets enjoy the distinction of being taught as if they were not of an age but for all time. It is his very susceptibility to historicizing hypotheses which makes a poet like Eliot so attractive. Under the pressure to renew the curriculum, any apparent breach with tradition can become the standard of literary excellence. And then follows the ugly multiplication of students bent upon studying only what is overtly experimental, new, “modern.” Frost can serve as a barrier against further slippage into the slough of relevance precisely because his accessibility is founded upon inconspicuous allusion. He renews tradition—discreetly. If Richard Bridgman can show how the great strains of American prose style coalesce in Hemingway, it ought to be possible to find the whole of English poetry at work in Frost. Under Poirier’s hand, Frost emerges as a master of “traditions of poetic style and religious and romantic metaphysics especially of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.” If after everything has been said about his modernity, we finally teach Eliot because he enlarges and extends such traditions, we should, for the same reasons, teach Frost.

Loving explication is just what Poirier performs in order to restore Frost to the canon. The act of criticism accepts the invitation issued by the act of creation to remind us that “the figure” a reader makes in conjunction with a poem “is the same as for love.” Frost’s poetry continually tests the limits of the analogy it proposes (as in “All Revelation”) between the figures made by love, nature, and poetry. If poetry for Frost most often results from the perception of analogies between the natural and the human, it is because poetry participates in the same quest for balance within limits, freedom within form, which conditions relations within and between the natural and human worlds. The emerging shape of this discovery accounts for a good deal of the drama of Frost’s career. In publishing A Boy’s Will, Frost’s “original omissions and discriminations are the result of his loyalty to the complex and mystifying way in which languages appropriate to sexuality, poetic practice, and nature are, in his consciousness of them, not to be separated one from the other.” Poirier argues that Frost withheld from publication early poems like “The Subverted Flower” which might have made prematurely explicit his sense that the experience of sexual love is implicit in so many of our perceptions of similitude. The very discretion which has put people off can thus be understood as a carefully controlled strategy of self-presentation. Frost “settled on a structural plan” in his first and later books “that prevents any simple autobiographical reading.” Much of the fun in reading Poirier is in recovering a Frost we did not know we knew.

Frost’s careful husbanding of poems “is the conduct of someone for whom the availability of a haven, real or imaginary, is necessary as a provocation to any step into the unknown.” His search for a form in which to domesticate his far-flung analogies involves Frost in a recurring search for home. Wandering and return are perhaps the major themes of Poirier’s book. Home can become, as so often for Frost’s women, a stifling prison, “the habitation of that death whose anguish it is supposed to ameliorate.” Or it can become the occasion for extravagance, as in “the sturdy little poem “The Investment,” “where you indulge “the desire to enhance it by spending more than you have.” But it functions most powerfully to prevent “violations of decorum,” as a constant necessary stay against the confusions of undomesticated desert spaces which can tempt the poet into the terrors of the sublime.

The difficulty of finding a proper haven for his fictions Frost translates into what Poirier calls “the work of knowing.” No less than Stevens does Frost engage us in exploratory acts of the mind. It is the engagement that counts, “the dramatic trying out of metaphor. You may save your soul in the process, because it is the process that will save it, not any theological faith prior to it.” Frost’s testing of metaphor against fact often involves a muscular effort foreign to Stevens, “the exertion of body and mind necessary to bring anything to birth.” Both poets nevertheless think of the work of poetry as “a critical inquiry into itself and its own procedures.” In his reading of poems like “A Boundless Moment,” Poirier shows Frost to be as firmly grounded as Stevens in the tradition of dallying with “false surmise” perfected in “Lycidas,” “It is a process, to use Frost’s own good way of describing it. . .of letting one’s “own pretense” deceive,”

He halted in the wind, and—what was that
Far in the maples, pale, but not a ghost?
He stood there bringing March against his thought,
And yet too ready to believe the most.

“Oh, that’s the Paradise-in-Bloom,” I said;
And truly it was fair enough for flowers
Had we but in us to assume in March
Such white luxuriance of May for ours.

We stood a moment so, in a strange world,
Myself as one his own pretense deceives;
And then I said the truth (and we moved on).
A young beech clinging to its last year’s leaves,

“This is a poem of highly volatile intellectual and imaginative movement. It is the drama of a mind trying not to make Supreme Fictions out of what nature might allow or discredit. It is trying to do something more difficult: to measure without disillusionment, indeed with wit and pleasure, how nature and man participate in that creation of illusion which is essential to the sequestering power of poetry.” While Frost’s poetry has always drawn us into such playful and difficult labor, it is Richard Poirier who makes it possible to recover for consciousness the shape of an activity which the poet, in his decorous refusal to impose, has left us utterly free to repress.


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