THE NOTEBOOKS OF ROBERT FROST
Edited by Robert Faggen
Harvard University Press, $39.95, 809 pages
REVIEWED BY ROBERT GANZ
Here we have the first volume in a projected new set of edited gatherings of what Robert Frost deliberately and abundantly left behind. These notebooks constitute his intellectual autobiography, a wonderful setting forth of the rich and vivid life of his mind going on over many decades.
In the 44 years since Frost’s death in 1963, much has been made of the elusiveness of his poetry as if he were hiding a lot and had a lot to hide. The publication of these notebooks should lessen the sense of his being so much of a puzzle. Frost was, among other things, a man of ideas. And these ideas can easily be formed into at least one recognizable constellation.
In the notebooks, carefully preserved over a period of almost 70 years, he writes that “I would rather be wise than artistic.” In mid-career, he expected that the powerful ideas that had long been “rolling around” in his head would eventually coalesce and get so clarified as to hamper his agility as a poet. For an artist perhaps it is better if you don’t know too clearly what you think.
But Frost wasn’t much afraid of clarity. He deplored the willful obscurity of some of his contemporary poets. These notebooks show that what gave his thought its life was his passionate belief in the importance of the individual person’s freedom of action. A couplet from one of his poems, “Let me be the one /To do what is done,” might have served as his motto. An entry in the notebooks asks “how far can we carry the idea of human responsibility?” The point was to carry it just as far as possible.
Very shortly after Frost’s long-delayed emergence in the ‘teens as a major poet, new intellectual fashions took over that were opposed to the belief that the active individual person is all-important. Frost, at least for the high-brows, became the odd man out; and, as the notebooks indicate, he knew it. After all, he spent more than half his life, not on the farm, but with fellow faculty members in college and university English departments where, in the 1930s, many were rooting for Uncle Joe.
The cornerstone of their Marxism, of course, was its opposition to individualism in favor of collectivism. Not individual persons, but social conditions were said to determine events. The Freudians, for their part, held that we were powerless creatures of the subconscious, obsessed and paralyzed by our own subjective versions of the past.
Like the Freudians, the third new group, the modernist artists, put the individual mind into a place apart from everything else. T.S. Eliot, for example, insisted that poetry was properly an escape from emotion and personality. Thus he repudiated Emerson’s brave proclamation that “the poet stands among partial men for the complete man.” The modernists, then, gave us, not actions directed outward upon objective things and other persons, but representations of isolated and self-contained states of mind.
In Proust, for example, the principal protagonist mainly watches things happen. In Joyce’s “Ulysses,” nothing much does happen. We see minds at work to scarcely any practical effect. But most of Frost’s poems tell stories. He assumed that readers are especially animated by curiosity as to how someone “will do,” when sorely tested.
This curiosity seems understandable, since, after all, we mainly live our real lives in close engagement with an unstable world that forces us to be dependent and intent upon practical outcomes that are anything but guaranteed.
Frost felt that this beleaguered condition of having to hang upon unguaranteed outcomes is particularly reflected in the language of poetry. “Everything written is as good as it is dramatic,” in the sense that good words also hang upon outcomes. They aren’t merely saying, naming or describing things: “it has been my great object in poetry to avoid” the tone of “plain statement;” and while “it is the common way to think of the sentence as saying something … , it must do something as well.”
Good words, then, are serving the speaker’s and writer’s practical intentions or “designs” upon things and other persons. They are projected outward. Even the seeming monologues in Frost’s poetry are really shaped to constitute “my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied.”
Poems are made up of speech-acts occurring on several levels all at once. For instance, no poem comes forth in a void; rather it amounts to a grave risking of the poet’s thoughts and feelings into the hands — the understanding and judgment — of others: “this is the deepest humility [and, your reviewer, would add, the necessary humility, in or out of writing] to submit to the hasty, cruel and unfair judgment of your fellow men.”
Many of Frost’s protagonists are men and women who bring skillfully to bear upon their surroundings the tools of their trades: scythes, plows, pitchforks, rakes, ropes (tackle), ladders, axes, weapons … even cathode rays. among the necessary means of attaining one’s practical ends.
As with any of the other tools, so with words, one has to learn how to use them — learn what they can, not just say, but bring about. For instance, it is good to know and be able to deploy every “one of a great many kinds of ‘No’ all spelled exactly alike with the same vowel and consonant yet all quite distinct.” Accordingly, Frost wrote mainly for the ear rather than the eye.
Both saying and knowing are properly actions dependent on the conscious and unconscious choices we make, for both of which sorts of commitment we may be held responsible. Thus, for instance, even “to attend to anything is inevitably to act in such a way as to attend to it more or else to attend to it less.” The tools we use in speaking and understanding inevitably affect what is seen or said:
“Facts come to the mind as stars come out in the evening sky, scattered broadcast, thin at first and then thick enough to suggest constellation. The lines … between them that bring out the figures are ours, and the final and only conscious part of our world building. A world you didn’t make? Yes, you did too. There is proof that there were countless offerings to the senses that you kept out unconsciously.”
“You,” in this case, is the poet A.E. Housman, who famously characterized himself as “a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made.” Frost’s reply, “Yes, you did too,” means that we are always closely interacting with what surrounds us. Far from being lonely strangers in the world, we “were born used to it,” as Frost writes in one of his essays.
There is a great difference between what we only think is the case in life and the way it is in practice. Things that are neatly separate and distinct in thought are jumbled messily together in practice: “life is a … mixture in which matter and spirit are made one by the paddle of action.”
Amid the great jostling and shaking together of things in the field of action it is a wonder that anything is accomplished. Real prowess is required, every day, along with its attendant traits of character, which include belief, hope, love, vision and preference. The modernist inveighers against the so-called “intentional fallacy” made a great mistake in assuming that the conscious intellect is the main source of our intentions … our acts
As a poet, Frost sought to bring out the heroism in daily life of “the unconsidered person” … give him his due. It even “takes a hero to make a poem,” he made bold to say. And so the reader ought to honor that heroism and the poet’s perilously fulfilled intentions by doing “nothing to the poem that it never was written to have done to it.” Postmodernists please take notice.
Robert Ganz is a professor of English at The George Washington University.