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This item is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.Inside Cover Portrait: Robert Frost (David C. Ward)
Clara Sipprell (1885–1975)
Gelatin silver print 22.9cm × 17.4cm (9" × 6⅞")
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian
Institution; bequest of Phyllis Fenner
Robert Frost 1874-1963
Over his long, calculated, and prize-winning career as America’s best loved poet, Robert Frost became the epitome of the New England Yankee: a weathered, craggy, flinty, and plainspoken countryman who turned ordinary life into poetry. Ironies abound. Frost was actually born in San Francisco and returned to New England just as its rural society was disappearing west or into the cities of the northeast. The quintessential regionalist, his work received a major boost from the rootless modernist, Ezra Pound. Long delaying his poetic debut for maximum public impact, Frost’s first books were germinated in England and first published there before they appeared in America. Seemingly artless – because about artless subjects – Frost’s verse was a complicated formalist response to modernism, and to democracy; his most famous saying was that ‘writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net’. Frost did the most difficult thing: he made the complex weave of his poems appear easy or natural, leading to their persistent under-estimation. Seemingly straightforward and reverential to the point of kitschiness, his poems are sly, subversive; there was no less travelled road in ‘The Road Not Taken’, both paths are equally unworn and the choice is false – or more terrifyingly, meaningless. Frost ruefully feared that his long gestated first volumes, A Boy’s Will and North of Boston, represented his best work. Not quite, but he did win prizes for books like New Hampshire in which the public persona of a rustic bard, with his hokey jokes and cracker-barrel wisdom, wins out over craft. As the years advanced, the persona won more often than not and he tapped into a complacent, conservative populism, one that was not as benign or as avuncular as his audience sometimes assumed. He kept his fires well-banked. Famously, at Kennedy’s inauguration he was blinded by snow glare and unable to read ‘Dedication’, his embarrassing celebration of the impending glories of the new Augustan age. Instead, he recited his neo-imperialist poem ‘The Gift Outright’ from memory. Too bad that he didn’t choose ‘Directive’, his last great poem (1947), which begins, ‘Back out of all this now too much for us./Back in a time made simple by the loss/of detail…’ How to recover that lost past’s detail was Frost’s original task, one that cropped like granite through his most powerful work. ‘Directive’ continues ‘Your destination and your destiny’s/A brook that was the water of the house,/Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,/Too lofty and original to rage.’ Lofty and original indeed. Frost sought greatness as much as any poet (Yeats alone, possibly excepted) and he achieved it, taking on to himself all the contradictions and misunderstandings that accompanied that victory.
DAVID C. WARD
This item is taken from PN Review 196, Volume 37 Number 2, November - December 2010.