The Magazine

A Touch of the Poet

The random wisdom of Robert Frost.

Oct 9, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 04 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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The Notebooks of

Robert Frost

Edited by Robert Faggen

Harvard, 848 pp., $39.95

This is the first in a projected series of the works of Robert Frost that will include editions of his poems, essays, and letters, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University under the general editorship of Robert Faggen. Faggen, the author of a book about Frost and science (Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin), has undertaken the truly heroic task of presenting Frost's notebooks which, 43 years after the poet's death in 1963, have been used only sparingly by scholars.

Spanning six decades, from the 1890s to the early 1960s, they consist physically of the homeliest of materials: Dime-store spiral pads and school theme books that Frost, so Faggen tells us in a useful introduction, kept with him in his movings from place to place and his busy life of reading engagements to diverse audiences. The editorial challenge they present is due in part to their helter-skelter character. There is no clear chronological ordering: a single notebook may contain entries from widely different times in Frost's life; the layout of individual pages seems almost wilfully capricious with sentences going in various directions. Deciphering many of them is also a problem--the word illegible appears frequently in the editor's interpolations.

But the deepest challenge they present, even to a reader familiar with Frost's poetry, lies in the way they simultaneously invite us to colloquy while fending us off. A 1917 letter of Frost's suggests a principle behind these notebook entries: "You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulas or cite cases which fall easily under formulae. But all the fun is outside, saying things that suggest formulae but won't formulate--that almost but don't quite formulate."

In another letter, quoted by Faggen, Frost informs his correspondent, "I have written to keep the curious out of the secret places of my mind both in my verse and in my letters to such as you." The notebooks might be thought to reveal those secret places more than did his poems and letters; yet, in their combination of what the editor calls "candor and cryptic evasion," they offer no easy and direct road to what Frost the human being "really" believed about central matters.

One of the most charming and pertinent of the entries is this four-line ditty:

Nothing ever so sincere

That unless its out of sheer

Mischief and a little queer

It won't prove a bore to hear.

The enjambed "sheer/Mischief," with its accent on the first syllable of "Mischief" and the clever-surprising rhyme of "sheer" and "queer," puts sincerity in its place as something more simple, even crude, than the complicated play of a writer thoroughly committed to humor. "I am never more serious than when joking," was one of his repeated avowals.

The poem just quoted is an example of a Frostian "joke" that is serious as well. But in one of the many entries that address themselves to what a poem is, or is like, or should be like, we get the following:

The poem must have as good a point as an anecdote or a joke. It is the more effective if it has something analogous to the practical joke--an action--a "put up job" such as being carried out as a serenade or valentine or requiem or memorial address.

Notable here is the insistence on poetry as an action, something carried out with purpose in mind (elsewhere he refers to a poem as a "deed"), a practical joke, "sheer/Mischief and a little queer." The reader is engaged in an analogous activity, as when, in one of the many entries directed at teaching, students are advised: "Don't tell the poem in other and worse English of your own to show you understand it. But say something of your own based on the poem (not an opinion of it though)." To respond adequately to the "put-up job" of a poem, it is not enough to call it beautiful or say you don't like it; you need rather to do something to keep the ball in play.

Another word for this recommended activity, within the poem or in response to it, is one of Frost's favorites--performance. He addresses the matter directly with this admonition: "Performance in poetry and in life is recognition and admission of the fact that things are not to be too well understood."

"Are not to be," rather than "are not," underscores the insistence that nothing be closed down too confidently, too quickly. Faggen reminds us in his introduction of the poet's respect for, indeed fascination with, uncertainty and chaos. This is the "confusion" that, in his crucial essay "The Figure a Poem Makes," he said the poem provided a "momentary stay against." Only a momentary one, mind you.

Lest one get the impression that the notebooks are wall-to-wall nuggets of detachable Frostian wisdoms, it should be said that much of the material is relatively, sometimes wholly, impenetrable, even with the editor's best efforts at annotation. For example, the following entry:

Story of the Gaget Gimlet no Longer Manufactured.

" " Hiring the One-armed Teacher

" " The Woodpecker's Daughter.

Nothing Fatal but Death Stigma

Of an [?Albenes] Tatoo

Brat-Buster

Do you read [?Serviss]

The items that precede and follow this one shed no light on it, nor does Faggen venture to comment. It is one of the occasions in which an attempted look into the composer's mind reveals nothing--which is to say that any reader is going to skim a lot, looking for a moment when something shines through. Some items are repeated so often as to testify to how fond Frost was of them, such as "All men are created free and equally funny" or "I hate the poor don't you? Yes and I hate the rich. I hate them both as such." In one item he questions and answers this condition of hatred: "Why do I hate them. Because they bother me so. I have to think of them when there are so many other things I want to think of."

At moments we get memorable glimpses into Frost the bad boy who prided himself on "running away" from colleges (Dartmouth, Harvard) and, like Frank Sinatra, did things his way. He never missed the chance to bait Archibald MacLeish, especially after MacLeish's verse play J.B. was published. He takes MacLeish's much-anthologized poem "Ars Poetica"--whose final lines reverently intone "A poem should not mean / But be"--and corrects it, by moving the words around, to: "It should be mean."

"You have to be attractive enough to get people within striking distance," he noted, and the strike could be lethal. At other times the operative word is sly, as in this piece of timeless advice: "Keep on writing to her after marriage with a view to marrying her later in life when her husband dies or fails her." Then there are purely humorous entries that make us think of Mark Twain, as when Frost defines a "regionalist" as "one who picked out a region (such as the abdomen fundament or elbow) and has a pain in it."

The editor rightly points out the predominance of epigrammatic meditations in the notebooks, and Frost says in one of them that students "must be taught that the fun of being epigrammatic is the legitimate fun of literature." Although I haven't seen the comparison made, there are compelling similarities of temperament and serious wit between Frost and the great Renaissance poet Ben Jonson, whose first collection of poems was titled Epigrams. Jonson later published Timber, Or, Discoveries "made upon men and matter, as they have flowed out of his daily readings."

Perhaps the finest moments in Frost's notebooks are ones, always coming out of the blue, in which his discovery is such as to strike us as truly never said before. Sometimes they are about matters one wouldn't have expected him especially to reflect on, like the following two on alcoholic intake. In one of them he shrewdly imagines his way into the kind of person who is prey to drink: "Drink is a medicine for the too strict by nature. No one needs it who has ever lost himself without it." We are not allowed merely to feel superior to these overstrict people, nor are we invited to dismiss the following expansion of it: "Getting drunk is the glorification of waste--pouring libation {to the God of Waste} not onto the fire but into yourself. It is squandering with complete submissiveness to the nature of things your time your wealth your faculties."

Faggen comments on Frost's frequent preoccupation with "waste," including a resonant line from his poem "Pod of the Milkweed": "But waste was of the essence of the scheme." Perhaps there is something to be said even for squandering central human qualities--time, wealth, faculties--in the interests of a gesture as large-scaled as "complete submission to the nature of things." In such formulations as these, the clever epigrammatist moves into realms rather deeper and less to be taken in "fun."

"Life is a punishment. All we can contribute to it is gracefulness in taking the punishment." Nothing to ponder there; it has to be swallowed straight.

The editor cautions us to be wary of the "seductive finality" of some of the entries, and this is best done by trying to see the aphorisms and epigrams in the light of others that qualify or even contradict the one in question. Frost notes that "the tone of plain statement is one tone and not to be despised. All the same it has been my great object in poetry to avoid the use of it." These notebooks testify to how hard he worked at not being easily understood: "I should like to be so subtle at this game," he wrote in the letter quoted at the beginning of this review, "as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious."

For the game, which he played over 60 years, the following entry may stand as a motto: "I have made a life study out of what I can say."

William H. Pritchard is professor of English at Amherst.