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.