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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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.