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Friday, November 27, 2020

POETRY

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With Momodou Camara

Dear esteemed Standard reader,

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We wish to continue from where we left off last week and proceed with looking at one of my favourite poems of all time and the selected commentaries about The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

The volume, for which Frost won his first Pulitzer Prize, “pretends to be nothing but a long poem with notes and grace notes,” as Louis Untermeyer described it. The title poem, approximately 14 pages long, is a “rambling tribute” to Frost’s favourite state and “is starred and dotted with scientific numerals in the manner of the most profound treatise.” Thus, a footnote at the end of a line of poetry will refer the reader to another poem seemingly inserted to merely reinforce the text of “New Hampshire.”

Some of these poems are in the form of epigrams, which appear for the first time in Frost’s work. “Fire and Ice,” for example, one of the better known epigrams, speculates on the means by which the world will end. Frost’s most famous and, according to J McBride Dabbs, most perfect lyric, “Stopping by Woods on a Snow Evening,” is also included in this collection; conveying “the insistent whisper of death at the heart of life,” the poem portrays a speaker who stops his sleigh in the midst of a snowy woods only to be called from the inviting gloom by the recollection of practical duties. Frost himself said of this poem that it is the kind he’d like to print on one page followed with “forty pages of footnotes.”

West-Running Brook (1928), Frost’s fifth book of poems, is divided into six sections, one of which is taken up entirely by the title poem. This poem refers to a brook which perversely flows west instead of east to the Atlantic like all other brooks. A comparison is set up between the brook and the poem’s speaker who trusts himself to go by “contraries”; further rebellious elements exemplified by the brook give expression to an eccentric individualism, Frost’s stoic theme of resistance and self-realization. Reviewing the collection in the New York Herald Tribune, Babette Deutsch wrote: “The courage that is bred by a dark sense of Fate, the tenderness that broods over mankind in all its blindness and absurdity, the vision that comes to rest as fully on kitchen smoke and lapsing snow as on mountains and stars—these are his, and in his seemingly casual poetry, he quietly makes them ours.”

A Further Range (1936), which earned Frost another Pulitzer Prize and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, contains two groups of poems subtitled “Taken Doubly” and “Taken Singly.” In the first, and more interesting, of these groups, the poems are somewhat didactic, though there are humorous and satiric pieces as well. Included here is “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” which opens with the story of two itinerant lumbermen who offer to cut the speaker’s wood for pay; the poem then develops into a sermon on the relationship between work and play, vocation and avocation, preaching the necessity to unite them. Of the entire volume, William Rose Benet wrote, “It is better worth reading than nine-tenths of the books that will come your way this year. In a time when all kinds of insanity are assailing the nations it is good to listen to this quiet humor, even about a hen, a hornet, or Square Matthew. … And if anybody should ask me why I still believe in my land, I have only to put this book in his hand and answer, ‘Well-here is a man of my country.’”

Most critics acknowledge that Frost’s poetry in the 1940s and ’50s grew more and more abstract, cryptic, and even sententious, so it is generally on the basis of his earlier work that he is judged. His politics and religious faith, hitherto informed by skepticism and local color, became more and more the guiding principles of his work. He had been, as Randall Jarrell points out, “a very odd and very radical when young” yet became “sometimes callously and unimaginatively conservative” in his old age. He had become a public figure, and in the years before his death, much of his poetry was written from this stance.

Reviewing A Witness Tree (1942) in Books, Wilbert Snow noted a few poems “which have a right to stand with the best things he has written”: “Come In,” “The Silken Tent,” and “Carpe Diem” especially. Yet Snow went on: “Some of the poems here are little more than rhymed fancies; others lack the bullet-like unity of structure to be found in North of Boston.” On the other hand, Stephen Vincent Benet felt that Frost had “never written any better poems than some of those in this book.” Similarly, critics were let down by In the Clearing (1962). One wrote, “Although this reviewer considers Robert Frost to be the foremost contemporary US poet, he regretfully must state that most of the poems in this new volume are disappointing. … [They] often are closer to jingles than to the memorable poetry we associate with his name.” Another maintained that “the bulk of the book consists of poems of ‘philosophic talk.’ Whether you like them or not depends mostly on whether you share the ‘philosophy.’” Indeed, many readers do share Frost’s philosophy, and still others who do not nevertheless continue to find delight and significance in his large body of poetry. In October, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech at the dedication of the Robert Frost Library in Amherst, Massachusetts. “In honoring Robert Frost,” the President said, “we therefore can pay honor to the deepest source of our national strength. That strength takes many forms and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. … Our national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.”

The poet would probably have been pleased by such recognition, for he had said once, in an interview with Harvey Breit: “One thing I care about, and wish young people could care about, is taking poetry as the first form of understanding. If poetry isn’t understanding all, the whole world, then it isn’t worth anything.” Frost’s poetry is revered to this day. When a previously unknown poem by Frost titled “War Thoughts at Home,” was discovered and dated to 1918, it was subsequently published in the Fall 2006 issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. The first edition Frost’s Notebooks were published in 2009, and thousands of errors were corrected in the paperback edition years later. A critical edition of his Collected Prose was published in 2010 to broad critical acclaim. A multi-volume series of his Collected Letters is now in production, with the first volume appearing in 2014 and the second in 2016. Robert Frost continues to hold a unique and almost isolated position in American letters.

“Though his career fully spans the modern period and though it is impossible to speak of him as anything other than a modern poet,” writes James M. Cox, “it is difficult to place him in the main tradition of modern poetry.” In a sense, Frost stands at the crossroads of 19th-century American poetry and modernism, for in his verse may be found the culmination of many 19th-century tendencies and traditions as well as parallels to the works of his 20th-century contemporaries. Taking his symbols from the public domain, Frost developed, as many critics note, an original, modern idiom and a sense of directness and economy that reflect the imagism of Ezra Pound and Amy Lowell. On the other hand, as Leonard Unger and William Van O’Connor point out in Poems for Study, “Frost’s poetry, unlike that of such contemporaries as Eliot, Stevens, and the later Yeats, shows no marked departure from the poetic practices of the nineteenth century.” Although he avoids traditional verse forms and only uses rhyme erratically, Frost is not an innovator and his technique is never experimental. Frost’s theory of poetic composition ties him to both centuries. Like the 19th-century Romantic poets, he maintained that a poem is “never a put-up job. … It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.” Yet, “working out his own version of the ‘impersonal’ view of art,” as Hyatt H. Waggoner observed, Frost also upheld T.S. Eliot’s idea that the man who suffers and the artist who creates are totally separate. In a 1932 letter to Sydney Cox, Frost explained his conception of poetry: “The objective idea is all I ever cared about. Most of my ideas occur in verse. … To be too subjective with what an artist has managed to make objective is to come on him presumptuously and render ungraceful what he in pain of his life had faith he had made graceful.”

Untitled, With Rosy Inflection
By Elena Minor

I would have come.
When you called. But.
I had the most beautiful pale pink rose.
Its healthy stem was clenched between my teeth. And.
Its thorns bit sharply into my tender wet flesh. So.

I couldn’t answer you. Still.
My lips moved at you silently.
They offered words you never heard.
They screamed inside my crazed brain. Only.
It could do nothing for you.

In time the petals wilted.
They blew away. And.
They became compost in someone else’s garden.
The tough, fibrous stem withered.
I bit down hard to snap its grip on me. Then.

My teeth fell out.
Its thorns had burrowed into my cheeks.
They had implanted themselves permanently.
They were suckling on my softest tissues. And.
Not long after they sprouted tiny shoots.

They coiled their way down.
I still held the memory of your call. And.
The long stemmed beauty lodged next to it.
They cleaved unto the long roots curling down my neck.
My body held tight and listened. Hard.
Elena Minor
Elena minor’s work is provoked by a basic curiosity about the mystery, paradox and possibilities of spaces, symbols and juxtapositions in language. Her work has appeared in more than two dozen print and online journals, including RHINO, Mandorla, Hot Metal Bridge, OCHO, 26, Puerto del Sol, Diner, Poetry Midwest, Quercus Review, and Segue. She is a recipient of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize and is founding editor ofPALABRA A Magazine of Chicano & Latino Literary Art.

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