Robert Frost, an American voice
If, as a rule, American society pays too little attention to its poets, perhaps too muchm has been said and written about the life and work of Robert Lee Frost. Though Mr. Frost's princely reputation in American letters is secured, and a handful of frequently anthologized poems are virtually common knowledge, the vast body of the poet's work is no longer well-read today.
The real danger in all this verbiage (both the voluminous critical analysis and continual personal gossip) is that it makes a fresh and individual approach to the poetry nearly impossible. Before the first dusting of snow can coat the imagination, the reader has already performed the standard English-class translations. For example, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep..."; instead of "the dark woods" read: "the lure of depression, surrender, oblivion"; instead of "promises to keep", read: "earthly ties and human involvements."
There can be no deeply emotional response to such reading, only the smug selfsatisfaction of the puzzle-solver. (I am reminded of Walt Whitman's complaint, "Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?") This is both sad and ironic, because Robert Frost committed his life and his writing to the primacy of individual feeling and imagination. The poem is nearly meaningless when considered merely as a solved code, a picked lock. Without the smell of the horse and the snow, the sound of the bells and wind--without the sensation of darkness, aloneness, and one's reaching mind--the poem is simply not complete.
Like Whitman before him, Frost desired to be more than a poet; he wanted to become an "American Voice"--a persona larger than his verse where all character, tone, and vision would be united into a life. At times, Frost relied too heavily on his guise of "New England bard," the farmer-philosopher dispensing homespun wisdom. But because the man was too large and far too complex to be shield by such a mask, he transcended it in his finest writing. His failure to live up to his self-concept is the subject of much current documentation (too loudly and too cruelly offered, I think) concerning the personal and family tragedies in Mr. Frost's life. But in the struggle to match adversity with the creation of a life of thought and design, a true American personality is revealed--poignant and tragic, quiet and splendid all at once.
What about Frost's work makes it so endearing and enduring? If it was revolutionary at one time to refocus the poem from "beautiful talk" to actual images of life--from formal diction to the speaking voices of rural New Englanders--the surprise has long since worn off. What supplies Mr. Frost's poems with a vitality and a relevance to a new generation of readers comes from his particular conviction about poems and poetic thought. Frost said, "A poem is a momentary stay against confusion." More than a masterly display of craft, the writing of a poem re-creates our grasp of the world's intricate features and affirms its likeness in the human heart. Even the most stubborn and cynical mindset is shaken free by Frost's deceptively simple verses. "Stand here with me in this woods," they coax us. "Have you ever noticed how some birch trees are arched over like...." So clear, so enticing is the poet's new vision, the reader forgetsm to resist, and is spirited away. Though the political, social and cultural spheres appear to flay in utter chaos (somehow perfecting their confusion daily), still there are experiences that defy that confusion, that reveal a shape and an order to the world. A poem, then, is an effort to perceive and re-create form, to confirm the principles of a human life so that one may go on to live them... for another day. The act of listening, again and again, for a poem to emerge from the day's events gave Frost a sensitivity and a grasp on the simple turnings of our human seasons. In Frost's eyes, this "lifted our suffering to a higher plane of regard" and counterbalanced that pain with a deepening tenderness and understanding.
If poetry is in part "artful performance, " the poet does not turn away from the cold reality of things; on the contrary, he guides you back into life with a new appreciation for the muted secrets embedded just beneath the surface of "small talk" and simple moments. In "Mowing," Frost wrote: The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows...." And so his poems examine the "facts" of the world--both the natural phenomena and human occurrences, A brook, a new calf, neighbors at work, the death of a child, a solitary walk; without preaching, the poet treats each subject with a loving care until the heart of the matter rises up, seemingly from our own eyes. Using broad descriptive strokes and a perfectly balanced tension between what-is told and what is held back for the reader to imagine, Frost's images lift up off the page. Though they are simple in nature the wonder of his lyrics is that they conjure strong and vibrant histories that we somehow have shared all along.
In the simplest human acts, a measure of choice and dramatic discovery is portrayed. The missing element for most individuals is the eye to appreciate and the voice to celebrate the hidden dimensions of experience. In providing a special "eye" and "voice," Frost did approach Whitman's ideal of a "Spokesman for these States"--the poet who provides those essential reflections for his people. Almost 20 years after the poet death. American infinitely more disillusioned and desperate for new images of a national potential. It is hard to say whether our contemporary artists have failed to create a cultural movement that can represent a new America, or if America has lost its ability to believe in poets' voices and artists' visions.
But for many 'readers of Robert Frost's work, it is impossible to think of certain realms of experience without having the poet's voice emerge along with their own. For me, when I see birch trees bent to left or right, I like to think of Mr. Frost thinking of the boys that conquered them. And when a lissom, white trunk is arched nearly to the forest floor, I can't help but see the lovely young girls' brushing their hair alongside them. When two roads diverge in a yellow wood, a city intersection, or a field of thought, the poet's mind enters beside my own--a trusted companion who challenges my choice, accompanies my traveling, and even reminds me of the road I did not take this time.
From The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1916, (C) 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Copyright 1942, 1944 by Robert Frost. Copyright (C) 1970 by Lesley Frost Ballantine. Reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers