- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2008

Wallace Stevens, a contemporary of Robert Frost’s, once wrote of another poet that “the design of all his words takes form / And frame from thinking and is realized.”

Harvard University Press is now getting into print a good deal of evidence from outside Frost’s poems as to what the poet was thinking. Last year Harvard published the contents of the notebooks that Frost kept over many decades. Now we have “The Collected Prose,” a much more extensive and better annotated version of Frost’s prose writings than we have had in print up until now.

Mark Richardson, the editor of “The Collected Prose” — but not of the “Notebooks” — is the author of a good book, “The Ordeal of Robert Frost,” and has an alert and discriminating mind. In the course of his 130 pages of explanatory notes, Mr. Richardson had the wit to include selections from conversations with Frost that Frost’s biographer, Lawrance Thompson, wrote down but unaccountably didn’t include or take into consideration for the biography.

These recent compilations come very late in the day, more than 130 years after Frost’s birth. In fact, only after his death at 88 were any of his formal writings other than his poems collected and published. Contrast this publication history with that of T.S.Eliot, who is, in many ways, Frost’s opposite number among the great first generation of 20th-century American poets.

Before Eliot was 40 at the end of the 1920s, his essays along with his poems had transformed the academic approach to poetry. He taught the professors who taught the English majors how to read … his own poems as well as other modernist poems along with all the other poems ever written in Europe and America.

In Eliot’s essays, the approach to poetry is set forth in crisp discursive language that is easy to follow and to apply. It is systematic. It is the sort of construction that the poet, e.e. cummings, had in mind in characterizing another contrivance as “a machine to measure spring with.”

Like Eliot, though in his own way, Frost was an educator of readers. He taught English in New Hampshire schools during the early years of the 20th century when he was allegedly a farmer. Then from a bit before 1920 until his death he taught at many colleges and universities. He received an honorary degree from Oxford. He wrote a good many essays and gave quite a few lectures. But his approach to literature was decidedly unsystematic.

Mr. Richardson includes in his notes the following characteristic remark drawn from Thompson’s records: “The poet, Frost says, is never systematic. He is more like the man in the streets who sees things unsystematically. He views life in fragments.”

Just as life comes in fragments when one is passing down the street, so, according to Frost, does it also beset the composing poet. Even if the poet is at his desk, he is undergoing inner and outer occurrences that he cannot have anticipated when he set down the first word of the poem. Even in that seclusion the world is coming in at him via, among other avenues, his conscious and unconscious memories.

As Frost says in what may be his best essay, “The Constant Symbol,” “every poem is an epitome of the great predicament; a figure of the will braving alien entanglements.” The out-setting poet should expect a series of surprises and even some lucky accidents. “It takes a hero to make a poem,” Frost said in one of his interviews.

Every good poem involves risk-taking; not least with its eventual reader. In “The Constant Symbol,” Frost asks, “How can the world know anything so intimate as what we were intending to do?” A question not easy to answer, especially if the poet permits himself to say what he — and perhaps only he— really has to say.

Here as often elsewhere, Frost is discussing what he once called “excursions.” In another bit from Thompson’s conversations with Frost, it is reported that “we talked more about ‘excursions’ out of the self in search of others. And that it seems important; to go out of the self in search of others, rather than just sit at home, secure in self.”

It is typical of Frost and not typical of many other writers on poetry to feature the making of a poem rather than on the results of that act. The notebooks include a version of a saying of Kierkgaard’s, “Live forward; think backward.” On the one hand, there is the uncertainty and turbulence of life when one is facing “forward” toward it while things are occurring.

Quite different is the relative quietude and settledness of life when one is looking back in thought at an experience after it is over and it has become clear what was happening.

In or out of poetry, Frost keeps recalling us to the moments of action when one is undergoing the world and the incertitude of struggle. This is not the condition in which most academics are mentally at home. Nor was it mentally attractive to many other writers in the perilous and confused years of war and Depression during which Frost spent most of his career.

Many of them were resorting to the compensating collectivist certitudes of, say, communism, fascism, Freudianism, the Church and a formulaic approach to literature that evades “the wild free ways of wit and art.” It was a time, Frost wisely says in a poem from the early Forties, that was suffering from “too much all-fired belief.”

Frost is a poet of the individual person’s lonely freedom of action: Freedom, then, not from things but for things. And the freedom to do things leads always to an “entanglement” with — almost an enslavement to — things and persons: The condition of both doing and undergoing or freedom and bondage that is celebrated in Frost’s poem, “The Silken Tent.”

As he said in one of his letters, in art and thought his main theme was “the almost incredible freedom of the soul enslaved to the hard facts of experience.” Even though Frost is the least obviously obscure and difficult of the major 20th-century American poets, he is also the least clearly understood of them, perhaps because of the enduring darkness and confusion that he asks us to accept … and accept with grace.

It should also be said of these writings that Frost is a very natural and elegant prose stylist in many forms, not least in the charming and light-fingered, sleight-of-hand stories, included here, that he wrote for his own children. In or out of prose, he honors our lonely freedom enough to leave many sayings for his reader to finish for himself.

Robert Ganz is a professor of English at George Washington University.

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