Monday, July 6, 2009

Book Review: "Robert Frost" (a book by that title)

Given that Robert Frost is my favorite poet, and that I've been writing some articles on him at, I decided to do a little more research on him. So I got the book from the public library Robert Frost by Philip L. Gerber, 1982 G. H. Hall & Co. ISBN 0-8057-7348-7. This was originally published in 1966, and is part of the "Twayne's United States Authors Series."

At 171 pages, this is rather slim as Frost career-length reviews go. This is based on the bibliography in the book, which lists several multi-volume studies. As such, I suppose this could be called a Frost primer. That's perfect for me. It is divided into six chapters:
  1. Man Into Myth: Frost's Life
  2. Poet in a Landscape: Frost's Career
  3. The Appropriate Tools: Frost's Craftsmanship
  4. The Aim Was Song: Frost's Theories
  5. Roughly Zones: Frost's Themes
  6. Testing Greatness: Frost's Critical Reception
Each of these presented a pretty good discussion of the subject. Well, to my layman's mind it was a good discussion. I'm sure those more learned in Frost would laugh at the brevity of it. But again I suggest that this is exactly the type of book needed for someone who had never read a Frost criticism or biography. The chapter on his life did a good job of exploding the myth Frost worked so hard to create: that he was a New England farmer. He may have done some of that, but except perhaps for some very early years he never did it to make money. Possibly his living on a farm and resulting observations gave fodder for poems. If so, who cares exactly what his career was? Although he never earned a degree, he spent a lot of years on college campuses, either as poet-in-residence or professor. It would seem his main income came from these, supplemented by book sales. Or maybe the other way around.

My favorite chapters were on Frost's craftsmanship and on his theories of poetry. He alone among the major American poets bucked the trend to imagism and modernism (okay, maybe Edna St. Vincent Milay also). He was called old fashioned for writing in rhyme, meter, and form. Although his first couple of books were highly acclaimed, the "experts" said he would have no staying power. He proved them wrong, and I, in my semi-learned state, believe his staying power was because he wrote in form. People still like that, and are more likely to buy that than other things that pass as poetry.

I especially liked the things Gerber said about "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening." While I can't really continue to use this as an excuse, it was this poem, or rather it's treatment by a succession of English teachers in junior and senior high, that ruined poetry for me for thirty years. They said this was a suicide poem. I didn't see it. They said I had to see it. I said I didn't see it. They said I had to see it. I said I didn't. I decided I either wasn't cut out for poetry or it was something I wouldn't get, so from that point on I parted ways with it, building a New England stone wall between us. Here's what Gerber wrote about it:

Critics have from the start appreciated his skill in handling metaphor and symbol. Perhaps it is a part of his basis for protest that in their zeal the critics overdid it, as they have generally overdone so much in the twentieth century and as they have specifically overdone Frost's own "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."

To say that "Stopping by Woods" has been one of the most discussed poems of the twentieth century is an understatement. It has been analyzed, explicated, dissected--sometimes brilliantly--but altogether to the point of tedium. ...Proud as Frost was of this lyric, and only partly because it got into the anthologies more frequently than any other, he felt that readers made themselves too busy over "my heavy duty poem" and squeezed it for meanings not present...."

...Frost ordinarily gained amusement from the meanings people located in his work, meanings he claimed to have been totally unaware of. ...he became downright touchy about the "busymindedness" that inspired the ceaseless flow of questions, many of them asinine indeed, concerning the minutiae of "Stopping by Woods."

He was irritated by people who asked to know the name of the man who did the stopping. It appalled him to have someone write inquiring whether those woods really fill up with snow. ...Who would be going home that way so late at night? What did the woods mean? What did the snow stand for? Could a horse really ask questions?

Ah, so I was right and my teachers were wrong! And to think they cost me thirty years--no, can't blame them. But wait, what's that Gerber writes just a little further on?

Like other major poets, Robert Frost writes on multiple levels of meaning. ...Frost's symbols are hidden like children's Easter eggs--barely out of reach and easily found.

...His gift was for creating an artifice so vivid, moving, and significant on the initial level that any probing for further rewards can seem like meddlesome prying....

Well, I guess I'll have to give up and begin looking for those hidden meanings Frost hid like Easter eggs. At least I don't have to go digging holes to do so.

The section "How Poems Arise" is a good two page description of how Frost went about capturing ideas and setting them to verse. I won't go into details, but it's not too far from my own: a long gestation period before anything ever escapes the mind and finds paper.

I give this book an enthusiastic recommendation for all who want to explore Robert Frost and his world and his poetry. It's a shame it has to go back to the library in a few days. I could benefit from a second reading.

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