All things come to the reader who waits.—Old proverb
For a man who spends a lot of time reading, I also specialize in avoiding the task. Too many moments seem impropitious to the concentration a good book requires. One of the better times, I find, is the very early morning. Would that I made it more of a habit, but there are seasons of the year when I find myself reading with the dawn. So it was one morning toward the beginning of a semester that I found myself up early, wrapped in my bathrobe, sitting in my favorite chair, with light from a lamp falling over my shoulder. Every mother’s child, at least when the mother is a reader and hopes for her child to be, knows that a good lamp should shine from over one shoulder, especially at 5:30 a.m. Within that warm memory, I chose, from the bookcase beside me, “The Poetry of Robert Frost.”
So I sat in my study in a circle of light reading the later poems of Robert Frost. I had heard the claim that nothing after “West-Running Brook,” maybe after “New Hampshire,” adds to Frost’s reputation, and I toyed with that hypothesis. I’d never before paid much attention to the far end of Frost’s book, some parts of which taste of doggerel. But soon I was smiling with the king who would but could not give up his crown and who recognizes a second king, whose slave he has become, as only, in truth, a cook’s son. “All you thought of giving me was food,” explains the real king, the one who cannot escape his crown, commenting on rewards he has received for special service. He speaks colloquially, in clipped iambic pentameter. I also admired Pike, a garrulous field worker who, rather than working back and forth along the rows, insists, at the river side of the field, on strolling back to the other end. Pike works his rows one way only, “reading” them—as his bemused, younger co-worker Dick observes—then “extricating” himself from his reading roughly half the time, as Pike himself puts it, knowing that as he returns he also mulls over what he has just read. Pike may even know he is caught up in a text, as I was becoming.
Paging back a little, I found “The Draft Horse”:
With a lantern that wouldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark, limitless grove.
And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.
The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.
The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,
We assumed the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.
“The Draft Horse” is from Frost’s last volume of poems, “In the Clearing,” published in 1962, a year before his death. My problem was that I took this poem seriously and worried about doing so at this end of our century. I suspect that were the poem to come to my desk now, in an envelope with four or five other unsolicited poems, I would return it with some vapid, preprinted, “sorry-we-cannot-use-it” remark.
“Cannot use it?” On the whole, I prefer to take responsibility for my decisions, use the active voice, and say, “Right or wrong, I have chosen against it,” but in this case the sense of only vaguely attributable obligation, to some outside agency, something I too “had to obey,” seems accurate. If rhyme were not reason enough for disqualification, only one, “obey” and “way,” is of the slightest visual interest. Four of the five stanzas end with a full stop, each a plodding increment of a story that seems fated. Within the stanzas, each line is a syntactic unit; never once does Frost resort to a sudden enjambment so that we may admire his artful use of the line break. The poem as a whole could report on a nightmare, but a perfunctory nightmare; a horse, a buggy, an encounter with fate, personified, in a forest, or “grove”—who can take any of that seriously? Does Frost take it seriously? Isn’t there a sense, especially in the deadpan understatements that conclude the second and fifth stanzas, that Frost believes he tells a joke? Only the hint of gallows humor saves it from being an embarrassment.
I trust you will have gathered that I adore the poem. Surprise holds a dialogue with obviousness in it. “No surprise for the writer, none for the reader,” Frost himself had said, thereby phrasing one version of what has become a creative writing truism. That man in the woods. Who is he; where did he come from? And Frost, or his persona, his surrogate, strides away, leaving all sorts of stuff in the road. He leaves a little something additional, something perversely left over that provokes our imagination precisely by its being abandoned. A supplement, some would call it. What are we to make of that?
There is nothing mysterious about what the knife does to the horse, nor about how the pair must grope through the dark. But neither is there an explanation. “Invidious” is a choice word, carrying a motive for terror in its root. And what are we to make of Frost’s tone? Laughter as well as meanness haunts those woods. But whose laughter, and how directed? What is it that Frost is taking lightly?
Humor lurks in the anapests. These lines vary from six to nine syllables each. Each line carries three stresses, none four, as the octosyllabic norm would imply. Hence an anapest awaits us every time, even in the six-syllable “Wanted us to get down”—”loose iambic,” Frost called it—and the anapest, with its small skip, is often a sign of light verse. That lightness of tone, an outrage against the darker subject, comes through best in that final couplet, with its astonishing understatement.
These features indicate more sophistication than the poem at first suggests. Its stark imagery of woods, horse, buggy, lantern and threatening stranger hint of an archetypal tale. If Frost is going to tell something as simple, some would say as unimaginative as that, he has got to make it good. Otherwise he runs the risk of summary dismissal as soon as we feel that we will understand. Frost, though, has written under the sign of a window freshly washed. Humor remains, proving as ambivalent as glass that always reveals a second side, even if it doesn’t exactly show. None of this did I rationalize at first. It would be fairer to say I was arrested by the poem, for I did not turn the page. I read and re-read the poem and knew, when the desire for coffee took over, that I would commit it to memory.
It had become a pet notion of mine that, more surely than identifiable action of words on the page, the lodging of a poem in one’s mind, so that the reader could not shake free of it, may be the surest sign of distinction. Here was another candidate. Frost himself had given his ambition as placing a few such poems in the collective mind, or heart, of his culture, and had succeeded. “Stopping by Woods,” “The Road Not Taken” and “Mending Wall” come close to being the common property of our people, within the variety of which an impressive number can easily bring to mind fragments of twice as many more. Could Wordsworth have said more? Could Catullus?
Re-reading this poem, I remembered another pet notion, that poetry retains as sayable much that has become dated. Not without strain. “To be or not to be” preserves a serious idea but is a touch self-regarding and showy. “I fall upon the thorns of life.” I find that completely impossible. “I loaf and invite my soul.” Better. “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?” Oh, the slight wince from rhetoric’s lash. Beside such lines, “Wanted us to get down / And walk the rest of the way” sound exquisitely tempered, modulated to a sayable key and contemporary.
The truth is, I believe, that we desire to mean these lines, to hold them in some part of our minds, to express with them some fragment of our being; and we cling to that desire best through the distance forced upon us by quotation. For there is nothing like quotation to enlarge the arena of “what will,” as another poet put it, “suffice.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit it, but I remember times I have managed to stand at sunset and say, and believe, and thus take momentary responsibility for, “While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue.” How is it that I can usually find a fragment of myself that will feel those lines as true—truer than my bank statement, truer than the rafters of a well-built house, truer than “the social construction of the self”—even though I could never take responsibility for writing anything so aureate, not to mention iambic? At one point on video, Frost says that Keats was “sort of his poet.” I savor that “sort of.”
In another year and season, I rose from bed in the early morning, pulled on boots, sweater and jeans, and walked outside before dawn. To the east was an old fence row framing a line of palmettos, live oaks and pine. Beyond the tree line, a marsh. East Marsh, I called it, with a bay close on the north side, the marsh swinging at least a mile to the east, then southward two or three times farther than that. Another tree line marked the eastern, south-running boundary, beyond which the Atlantic surged. In the early morning, the horizon above the low-lying trees remained blue-gray and shadowy. Along the edge of the trees on my side of the marsh, an uprooted cedar lay horizontal to the ground. Rootball and branches held the trunk up to the level of my chest. A hurricane had pushed it over a few months before, but the cedar lived on, green and vibrant. I hoisted myself up on what I called Cedar Bench. For weeks I had spent hours each day at this point of vantage, with elevation enough to extend my sight, cover enough to remain unobtrusive. And I spent more hours later each day walking alone on the marsh, learning to distribute my weight evenly, to keep moving, to skate across its muck. I learned not to sink in; still, I had seldom been so absorbed. Maybe as a boy, among my first books, those I never wished to end, especially the one that, after the first time through, rather than finishing, I stopped short and started over and over. Before me the horizon reddened with the sun’s first blush.
For weeks, I had been puzzled at the pleasure I took in seeing things on the marsh: How fritillaries, those phosphorous-backed butterflies, throb into the distance. How tree swallows cluster, then vanish, as if a schoolmaster had seized an old cloth and wiped off a chalkboard. How the heron, once noticed, lifts and settles farther off. How his landing along a slight darkening means a rill within the grasses. How the marshhawk coasts close over the marsh, while the vulture, with the same dihedral set of the wings, soars high overhead. How I heard rails, but never saw them. How that vulture, so graceful soaring, becomes a bumbler trying to land. How the chubby, perching sparrowhawk lengthens to a Lancelot in flight. How of all the creatures I had seen near Cedar Bench, the careful mink was once only. Each seemed a page from an old primer. How Gemini, rising, slants away from Orion and the Pleiades.
Years before, I had found a similar elevation and extension of view behind the wheel of a tractor. The tractor was a John Deere G—a Popping Johnny, we called it—and it moved down rows of a 100-acre field. I cultivated corn. The rows extended for half a mile, with a tree line defining the east end, a dirt road the west. Three fields lay to the north, two more and a 30-acre patch of timber to the south. Each field was a rough rectangle of similar length but differing widths. I cultivated the Middle Field. A farm laid out much like my fathers lay across the road to the west. Beyond that curved another line of cottonwoods, willow and box elder, and beyond that, the river.
The land was level in all directions. I worked a portion of the flood plain of the Missouri River. These bottoms had flooded only a few years before, in 1951, and again in 1952, since the levees had not been rebuilt, as they flooded in 1993, and will again one summer. At the height of those floods, my tractor and I would have been completely under water, with the river rising a foot or two above the stacks, and equally above my head as I stood at the wheel. Water would crest to that height for miles in all directions, with clumps of trees breaking through like whispers of islands.
But that summer was not flood-filled. Small, green corn glimmered down all the rows. Cultivating, I worked eight rows at a time, with “shoes,” small spear-shaped blades, breaking up the dirt between each pair of rows. The tractor’s pair of small, front wheels jerked and pitched over whatever clods remained after plowing, disking, planting, and the earth then settling to a seedbed. If the tractor followed the sudden twist of those wheels, if, that is, I didn’t correct quickly for such jerks and pitches, I could suddenly be taking out rather than cleaning up eight rows of corn. Maybe that is how I prepared to become an editor.
The tractor moved at the pace of a brisk walk. East eight rows then west eight, skipping eight at each turn so as to make easier the pulling out of the shoes, the breaking and turning and lining up on the new rows, and dropping the shoes back in. Or perhaps I had become a prouder worker by now, more agile with the tractor, so that I could cut back on the throttle then trip the cultivator with my left hand, pulling quickly on one lever in front of me and one behind, disengage the clutch with my right, stop the large left wheel with the left foot break, spin the steering wheel hard left with my left hand while keeping the clutch, a long lever rising from the floor, almost engaged with my right, then sighting and lining up the very next eight rows by swinging the front wheels smoothly around and between the fourth and fifth of them, then tripping the cultivator, pushing back on that rear lever again, and throwing the throttle forward and fully engaging the clutch. I had yet to learn of Pike, though I had some sense of “extrication” as a value. But with the cultivator working the next eight rows, I could stand and see further. I could almost loaf and invite my soul.
I remember a time I lay on a couch deep into the night reading poem after poem by Robert Frost. I was in graduate school and spent much time reading other things, but I was also on vacation. My then-father-in-law collected Frost and had a long shelf of first editions. It pleased me to handle them, to turn their uncut pages, to feel their old bindings and read prices of a few shillings. Everyone else was early to bed, so I took down a “Collected” and read poem after poem, hardly pausing between them. The cadences of strict and loose iambic began to seem natural: The cadences of strict and loose iambic became a way of breathing. Blank verse rolled through my mind’s ear, sounding often as if it could be spoken, in conversation, not only on a country lane, but in an urban bar.
I knew Frost was a throwback. “The Faber Book of Modern Verse” had been designed, in part, to leave him out, to declare Frost and Hardy not modern without having to say it. Donald Hall, the editor of the revised edition, agreed not to second guess the intentions of the first editor, Michael Roberts. So Frost and Hardy stayed out. Hall added Williams, news of whom took longer to impress itself upon London and so was less available to Roberts, and perhaps less congenial to Eliot. Then, to bring the volume into the 60s, Hall added Philip Larkin, even though, as he remarks, he could see “no useful sense of the word [modern] in which he is.” But Hall found the anthology “unthinkable” without him. Ashbery failed to make it. Wilbur got in.
In 1936, when the first edition appeared, its coming out from Faber must be part of Frost’s story, since then it seemed to carry the blessing of Eliot. We might pause to consider how such decisions may have weighed upon Frost. “A Further Range” was also to appear in 1936 and win for him his third Pulitzer Prize. Frost was 62, Williams 53, Pound 51, Eliot 48. We know how Frost had gone to England, seeking a foothold and critical affirmation. We know how Pound abetted that, though not without condescension, in his noting Frost’s regional voice. How must Frost have suffered, year after year, while this younger generation seemed not to usurp him, for he had never been crowned, but to cast him, like Malvolio, into less regarded dark. Yet Frost insisted on being himself. Only more so. The lines become more iambic, not less. With shorter-lined poems, more often than not, the rhymes become more frequent and thus more insistent. The wonderful, flexible blank verse of “North of Boston” (1914) diminishes. Frost refuses a political stance either very far left or very far right. The drama of modernism swirls around him and leaves him out. At least one possible encounter with Eliot is avoided as too taxing emotionally. There were, or were at least perceived to be, mutual slights.
All of which prepares for a final, moving anecdote, told by Lawrance Thompson. Frost, who lusted like many after the Nobel Prize, had a late triumph in 1957 when he was awarded honorary degrees by Oxford and Cambridge. At a banquet in his honor, Eliot, a Nobel Laureate since 1948, served as host. Frost was seated down the table from him, and standing up early, Eliot tested whether the 83-year-old Frost could hear. Seeing that Frost could not, Eliot rearranged the seating and brought Frost to his side. Then he delivered a toast in which he denied any meaningful distinctions in poetry except good and bad and said that Frost was one of the good ones. As for being regional, yes, as Goethe was a poet of the Rhineland, or Dante of Florence or Shakespeare of Warwickshire. Frost then stood to say that there was no one in the world from whom he would rather hear those words.
A modern man but not a modernist, Frost carried English rhythms into North America. This is often seen as a failure on his part to be sufficiently American and sufficiently original. But who was it from whose influence he could not free himself? Yeats, Keats, Blake, Herbert, Herrick, Jonson? His allusions and quotations nod most frequently to Shakespeare:
Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.
Faith, if ‘a be not rotten before ‘a die … ‘a will last you some eight year or nine year. A tanner will last you nine year.
Frost sounds as natural in his own voice as any of his predecessors. Although rhymed and metered poems cannot be confused with an American idiom—whatever that is—his poems always approach our speech, coming phrase by phrase, about halfway. Frost’s lines always stand at the edge of our speech. He places a contemporary idiom in counterpoint with that English past.
And a man came out of the woods,
And took our horse by the head,
And reaching back to his ribs. …
Not a word is unnatural or unidiomatic as a dictional choice or in its syntactic placement. Any phrase or clause could drop into our speech. It seems that with the arrival of Frost—but not before that, not with Poe or Longfellow or Robinson—the tradition could no longer be pushed aside as English; it had become an American possibility. More than imitator, Frost was inheritor, its purest embodiment of his generation, of his century, so far, at least on this side of the Atlantic. If I were to steer a young American poet to one writer from whom he or she could learn the received tradition of verse-making in English, I would point to Frost rather than to Yeats or Keats or Herbert or Jonson. Blank verse, rhymed dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, quatrains, sonnets, a student could infer all of that matter from Frost. He or she could also discover the idea of freedom within it, of room for invented forms such as the extended terza rima stanza of “Stopping by Woods.” That would be reason enough for Donald Justice to remark, as he once did when asked which American poets he read most and after listing Williams, Stevens, Eliot, Robinson and Dickinson—”And I shouldn’t forget Frost, for years my favorite.”
Frost’s taking over that tradition is active. His work becomes the form perfected and brought closer to our usage than any other poet has done. Rarely is there a strained rhyme, save for comic effect. No “rains” and “agains,” no poetic contractions of “o’er” or “e’en.” No archaic phrasing like “barks of yore.” Not after the first couple of volumes. Very few multisyllabic words are placed so as to force us to lift, awkwardly, a late syllable to secondary stress. And the word order, allowing for a few inversions—”In too frail a buggy we drove”—is mostly straightforward. Rhyme and meter deflect Frost’s lines from the wholly natural, but syntax does not, nor do any few phrases in sequence.
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And changed some part
Of a day I had rued.
With two slight exceptions, one of every four words rhymes; one of every two carries a stress. Not a single comma is needed to help us negotiate those lines, and except for “rued,” the poem is a plausible, contemporary, North American sentence, over 70 years after Frost wrote it. It is almost as much an utterance snatched from conversation as “This Is Just To Say” and a more likely one than “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
There are 345 poems in Lathems “Collected.” Three hundred forty-five poems and two masques. That’s a lot to choose from on any early morning. But over a working life of 70 years—Frost was rhyming before 1890—that’s fewer than five poems a year. What would a rigorous “Selected” include? Forty, 60, let us be generous and say 100 poems. The best 100 poems of Frost’s would include “The Draft Horse.” “It’s in the best 33,” declares that same Mr. Hall, by way of correspondence. Frost’s 100 would stand up well beside most 100s we could take from our shelves. One hundred means only one or two a year, which may be the cost, in both senses, of becoming the tradition.
Putting down my book, I remembered plowing. Again it was the Middle Field. A bright day in March, the kind when, later in college, Frisbees would break out. Again I stood at the wheel of the G. The east end of the field gleamed in winter wheat, brilliant as a June lawn. I plowed the corn stubble that abutted it. My tractor pulled a simple, two-bottom plow. Two coulters cut down into the ground, then two shares followed, knifing more deeply, peeling back, and rolling the earth over, earth as black as the underside of coal in a bin in the basement. The tractor and plow moved slowly, and I spent a good deal of time turned around in my seat watching the staggered peels of earth roll over. I imagined the plowshares as extensions of my hand, sliding under the earth and curving to turn it. I wondered why it was so compelling to watch the dirt lift, turn over, break up, and resettle. There was a rhythm to it, not quite iambic, but a rhythm. Sometimes when I looked overhead, I’d see a redtailed hawk watching my work, hoping my plow would disturb a mouse and make it run into exposure.
When I stood at the wheel of my tractor looking over bottomland, I was reminded of the marshland I would know later. That is the way I would like to put it. Let us say, instead, the bottoms minded me for the marshes, for how I could watch them, walk on them, and learn to read them.
I was minded also for a question that preoccupies my editorial life, making choices among thousands of items freely offered. Again and again I find, not just in myself but in the most sophisticated readers, that the hook that catches, that draws one in, is familiarity with something recognized. It can be quite incidental, the mere mention of a place or thing, the Green Mountains, a woodpile. Accuracy of natural fact counts for a lot. Nature’s first green is gold. Note the willows along the river next spring. The trees most “reluctant” to let go of their leaves are oaks, which serve as an apt image for that attitude. Twigs can snag the ax you wield in the woods and deflect your stroke dangerously, though in my case the tree was more likely box elder than alder.
Then there is the truth of psychological experience. More than once, I have outwalked the farthest city lights and returned upon the same street darkened, with the tense exhilaration of a darkened mood. Hurrying across a city street late at night, I, too, have felt apologetic toward and hope not to have alarmed a woman whose path I have crossed. Among women, I have heard, in remarkably similar words, the anger of the wife in “Home Burial” whose husband could not imagine, much less share her grief. More than once, also, I have known that husband’s desire to stop her at the door, and his hiding, or if you are more generous toward him, his signaling his own trouble by taking up some small labor. I have dug enough ditches to have seen fresh dirt crumble and roll back into a hole. One reader after another with whom I have worked will enter, or refuse to enter, a story or poem through details such as these, recognized, then clung to as personal. Make it new, but not unrecognizable. And when the virtually unrecognizable appears to mystify and refresh us, its first acceptance is nearly always due to a prior recognition and acceptance that is personal, between the writer and an early reader.
Right then, however, I was mesmerized by the widening strip of black earth that rolled against the lime-green of wheat in early spring. I looked east, across the black to the green, each color glowing like a stripe on a silk tie. Later, when my first wife was pregnant with our first child, I would have a dream of lying in one of the furrows I made that day, close to the pair of lindens I passed, and giving birth myself. I couldn’t understand how it happened. The push against constipation was the nearest I could come to imagining labor, but in my dream I lay barebottomed on my side in the furrow, my face against fresh earth, the green wheat within sight, the sun slanting across it turning the wheat chartreuse, and pushed a child out onto the land. I lay in the mottled shade of those lindens, or as we call them, basswoods. Never before had I thought of chartreuse as a natural color.
I could cite Thoreau early in his “Week on the Concord and Merrimack,” but I prefer a passage from a chorus in “Antigone”:
terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man—… [who] holds his steady course and the oldest of the gods he wears away—the Earth, the immortal, the inexhaustible—as his plows go back and forth, year in year out with the breed of stallions turning up the furrows.(trans., Robert Fagles)
Sophocles looks back to an antiquity as remote from him, yet as articulate, as he is from us. As long as there is farming, the rules of whatever avant garde will always include turning over again those old furrows.
Pierre Menard, “the author of ‘Don Quijote,’” was, as you may remember, a French symbolist invented by Jorge Luis Borges. His early bibliography dates from the turn of the century and is, more often than not, identified with Nimes. Borges dates this story, his first “Borgeian story” as John Sturrock, the introducer of the new Everyman “Ficciones” says, Nimes, 1939. The project for which Menard is remembered was to write several pages of el Quijote. Not another Quixote, that would be easy, but el Quijote, and not a mechanical transcription of the original text, but the independent repetition of several of the same pages, stroke for stroke, word for word, line for line.
Menard’s first approach to the problem he set for himself was, as Borges observes, “relatively simple.” He needed to master Spanish, recover his Catholicism, war against the Moors and the Turks, and forget the history of Europe between 1602 and 1918. He needed “to be Cervantes.” Ser, which indicates complete identification rather than temporary condition, is the verb Borges uses. For some time, Menard undertook this approach. For example, he is said to have “achieved a faithful mastery of 17th-century Spanish.” But Menard discarded this method. “To be, by some manner, Cervantes and to arrive at Quijote seemed to him less arduous—consequently less interesting—than to continue being Pierre Menard and arrive at Quijote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.”
Here is a sweet conundrum. It would seem project enough, not to mention achievement, to succeed in becoming an authentic anachronism. But Borges and Menard are surely correct in discarding the procedure as both impossible and too easy. Too easy to think of, impossible to enact. However one looks backwards, one cannot yet recede in time. We may sympathize with the convenient reasoning of “The Faber Book of Modern Verse,” as if coherence were a principle of modernism, but it is closer to the truth to admit that Frost, like Hardy, must complicate any serious definition of the modern. That is why Menard’s second project of arriving at Quixote while continuing to be himself, and so by means of his own experience, though it may seem the more difficult, is not impossible, not at least in theory. Borges must have lain awake nights savoring the nuances of that.
The biographical tale is that Borges lay abed with fevers, from an infection brought on by a scalp wound. It was “septicemia,” a form of blood poisoning. Borges lay thinking that if he didn’t lose his life he might lose his mind, and he invented the story to see whether he was impaired. Let’s say he was pleased with the results.
As I suspect Frost would have been, too, though I doubt Frost ever heard of the story, perhaps not even of Borges. The first American translations of “Ficciones” appeared in 1962, the year of “In the Clearing,” a year before Frost’s death. Nevertheless, if Frost chose to become the American embodiment of English poetic tradition—our Herbert or Herrick, though arrived at through the experience and learning of Frost—was he not treading closely upon the same project?
Borges offers his story as a reductio ad absurdum, and we laugh. Sturrock calls it “a radical exercise in what we would nowadays want to call literary theory.” “Pierre Menard” has come to be Borges’s signature story, the one most often alluded to or quoted. It seems to have become an epitome of mischievous modernist thinking and to have placed Borges among the heralds of the postmodern. Let us imagine Frost, meanwhile, not as a reductio ad absurdum, but as, say, an expansio ad splendorem, almost in step with Menard, and arriving earlier. “Stopping by Woods” is from 1922-23, as is “Dust of Snow” and “To Earthward.”
Thus, as Borges would say, it is a revelation to compare the poetry of Robert Frost with that of an earlier English lyricist. Imagine Her rick, for example, having written:
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air …
Come upon in “Hesperides,” or in Palgrave, these lines are but the simple evocation of a country parson’s daydream involving one of several vivacious yet delicately compliant ladies—an Althea, Corinna, Julia or, perhaps in this case, Electra. Frost, on the other hand, writes:
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air …
Love! Too much to bear! Frost, an entire generation after William James and John Dewey, Frost, who went to Harvard hoping to attend the lectures of the former and who lived to read Allen Ginsberg, defines a tongueless kiss as too much to bear and air as that which a lover might live upon. The thought is astounding! We can only read these lines as perversely comic.
In time, as Borges says of Menard, you may become so acclimated to Frost that while turning the pages of a Renaissance anthology you feel you recognize his style, “and, as it were, his voice in an exceptional passage”:
Out, out, brief candle!
… and so,
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard.
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep they fall tonight …
Day as “the bridal of the earth and sky,” in this century, in which all manner of devastation has become routine, and innocence everywhere turns its back upon the ceremonies through which it might be reborn? Frost’s voice, ironic to the core, fills even the dullest lines with awe and brings “Jane [to] lie down with others soon / Naked to the naked moon,” as Justice, who learned from Frost, later put it.
But let us edge back toward “The Draft Horse.” Our speaker walks off and leaves a lot of stuff on the road, with neither an explanation nor a backward glance. Surely the horse, a “ponderous beast,” was too heavy by far, and is now impossible to drag along. The buggy was already too frail. There’s no use lugging a busted lantern down a dark and limitless road. Could those abandoned belongings be emblems of the tradition to which Frost was so attached? Could the man who comes out of the woods be the gatekeeping guardian of American worthiness, saying that through these woods, the vast new American landscape, you must find a new idiom and proceed on your own? None of that baggage will serve you now. That reading has a certain promise. Frost has seen the American light and takes courage to confront it.
Or it could be just the opposite. The lantern that wouldn’t burn, call it the flicker of mere originality. Making it new doesn’t make it better. The buggy too frail is the kind of craft you fashion given such weak light. It cannot be expected to survive the road. The critical enterprise of declaring our freedom from the past proves heavy of foot and ponderous. Someone emerges from the woods to free Frost from all that, perhaps the shadowy, malevolent side of Frost’s self. Whoever he is, he forces Frost to walk again, which can be seen as getting back to dependable habits. Maybe Frost picks up a limp from his fall and loosens his iambics.
One morning I am back with my brother, who now works the family farm. It is early summer. Pigweed and volunteer corn thrive in a front field of beans, and we can hoe it out in a day. It is only 23 acres, and we can each manage six or eight rows at a time. In a way, this is an exercise in nostalgia, since with the herbicides that have become routine since our youth, cultivators seem a buggy too frail, and there is rarely any need to hoe. Maybe this year my brother didn’t get this field sprayed on time, or perhaps rain diluted the spray.
It is a warm day, but not hot, and a pleasure, especially for me, to play at the work that was also once almost play for us. First, our father would sharpen the hoes, putting a bright edge on each with a file. Next, he would hand each of us a hoe which we would heft and test, watching its new glitter catch the sun. Then, we’d walk those half-mile rows, minding four or six at a time. The game would be to cut the weeds with the greatest economy of motion, to reach out fully with the hoe, then snap it back down through the wrist-thick base of ruffian stalks that toppled at a stroke without our breaking stride. That meant lining up the weeds ahead and moving in and out of the rows to get at them smoothly. Today we pick up that old rhythm.
Our eyes are mostly on the rows and weeds ahead, and our talk is mostly about the irony of encroachments by my brother’s new neighbors. The state Department of Conservation has bought up over 5,000 acres in the neighborhood, more than 10 times what my brother farms, and has become his neighbor on two sides. With the water courses they have carved into these bottoms to attract migrating waterfowl, they have raised the water table on all contiguous land and are performing a seizure by right of eminent domain while denying that intention and avoiding the legal process. We can foresee that the whole bottom we have identified with since our childhood will have gone, within about three generations, from wetland and timber to high-yield agriculture and back to wetlands, though this time managed and approximated rather than natural. What commonplaces Borges, Menard and Frost have become if even a bureaucracy can emulate them. In one sense we are thrilled with the idea, but not also without being threatened, since our farm is the single most affected at this time. Apparently, we must sue or accept facts. That gives us a good deal to talk about as we walk the rows of beans.
Nevertheless, old habits stick with us. We glimpse an indigo bunting along an unused levee at the edge of the field; as he pokes a small, blue hole in the woods, he flits past early wild plums, still green and hard, but formed and ripening. Several times we notice something an instant before it vanishes, snapping our heads around to make peripheral vision conscious. At the far end of the field, a coyote abandons his spot in the sun and disappears over the levee. Along the road, a couple of hundred yards ahead, a sparrowhawk hovers, hanging in place, beating his wings furiously “daylights dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon,” then gives up on whatever had been his quarry, and “off forth on swing” arcs back into the woods.
Another morning a couple of years ago, I watched sparrowhawks, the smallest falcons, around the cathedral spires in Palma de Mallorca. Too high to show cheek marks, much less the bright gray-blue and rufus of their backs, they were silhouettes against the sky. But watching them soar, I felt almost sure of what they were. For years I had studied them, comparing them mentally to the next larger sized falcon, the merlin. These seemed a touch larger than the sparrowhawks, otherwise known as kestrels, I knew on the marsh along the Atlantic and at home. The surer I became of their identification, the more I watched them and the less attention I paid the cathedral. A week later, I had the chance to review my findings with a wildlife biologist who told me I was right: The European kestrel is slightly larger than its American cousin. I felt my sabbatical had been justified by one sumptuous confirmation, research for which had been ongoing for almost as long as I could remember.
I number such sightings among my sustaining pleasures, not so different from finding and being absorbed by a poem like “The Draft Horse.” It is a poem about vulnerability, malevolence, endurance and the assessment of one’s condition. It is about the frailty of our gear, the enmity we may encounter in the woods and our forced adjustment to circumstance. It is a poem that people hard pressed anywhere might find a bit of themselves in.
One intriguing factor, though, is how little Frost renders his couple as victims. It is not at all clear whether all that stuff left in the road is a great loss to them or material they are well rid of. In Frost’s final couplet we hear a voice that accepts reduced circumstances and almost makes comedy of them. You might say that that man who comes out of the woods is Frost’s Muse, for he releases the speaker from much that could encumber him and gives him permission, as it were, to proceed in the way that Frost works best. One foot at a time. The dark route indicated will require patience and persistence, as would the labors of Menard. And so we return to Borges.
“Glory is an incomprehension,” he says, “and perhaps the worst.” The knowledge that every artful achievement, no matter how fine, reduces over time to a quotation or allusion, and so to a mere reference in the ongoing conversation of culture, and that as such it can be reinvigorated only by a fresh point of view, one discovered, perhaps, through the rigorous technique of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attribution—these were ideas for which a century still insecure in its modernism was unready. It is not that Frost hesitated to test the possibilities throughout his career. But his masterpiece, “The Draft Horse,” proved a special case. Thompson tells us that though it was written around 1920, even before “Stopping by Woods,” it remained unpublished for another four decades. Now we understand why. The century had to work through all its permutations of the modern and bring us to the very brink of postmodern consciousness before it would be ready for the palimpsest vision that Frost, simply by withholding its publication, had all the better prepared.
Some readers may worry about Frost’s silent partner. One would assume a woman, reduced to stifling otherness, scarcely seen, recognized only as bound in a couple. From the habits implied by “The most unquestioning pair… / And the least disposed to ascribe,” I assume that she is Frost’s life’s companion. You may find her story more fully told in “The Hill Wife,” “Death of the Hired Man” and “Home Burial.” Though all but absent here, Frost still acknowledges her presence and seems to attribute some light to her. There is not the slightest suggestion that the speaker would be divided from her willingly. She is not abandoned on the road, and she could be a stand-in for Frost’s reader.
At least I find it easy to associate this all but unseen her with a lantern that burns, however softly, with sunlight on a field or on the marsh, with pages to which a late reading will bring new light, and so with a lamp by my chair, and with a mother who often warned against my reading in the dark.
Quotations from Frost are from “Robert Frost, Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays” (Library of America, 1995) edited by Richard Poirier and Mark Richardson. Quotations from Borges are a blend of Anthony Bonners in the Everyman edition mentioned above and my own. Several passages in this essay are paraphrases and imitations of Borges. For Halls sense of his charge in revising “The Faber Book of Modern Verse,” I am indebted to his introduction to it and to our correspondence. The quotation from Frost on video is from the “Voices and Visions” series, a PBS-NEH program. Justice’s remark about Frost comes from an interview with him that Ed Folsom and I conducted for The Iowa Review, Spring-Summer, 1980.
Ed tells a Borgian story of the interview. The two of us sat with Justice on my front porch and spoke for close to two hours, taping it all, only to discover that I had failed to check the batteries and the tape hadn’t run. Justice was kind enough to sit with us again two weeks later as we tried to recreate our interview. Now the kind of faith Borges and Frost both inspire allows me to assure you that the interview we preserved was the better one, being more richly layered, even structurally ironic. The question, however, had been Ed’s. Originally, he had made a point of asking which poets Justice read, what was his inheritance. Justice’s answer was as we have it here, a list of Williams, Stevens, Eliot, Dickinson and Robinson, and then as an afterthought, “And how could I forget Frost, for years my favorite.” Ed found the afterthought noteworthy; so when we conducted our interview all over again, he was careful to re-ask his question; and he got the same answer, to the same afterthought, in the same rhythm.
Only it was better than that. After making a typescript of the interview, I gave it to Justice to correct. Justice inserted the “And how could I” sentence by pencil, on that typescript, and for that reason it entered the text. The typescript is in my files for some later archivist interested in the Menard in us all to discover.