Every time I pull into a parking lot, regardless of the season, I notice people just sitting in their cars, probably texting, or surfing the net, or talking on cell phones, or listening to music, or just being alone for a quiet moment. This is on the way to admitting that I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon parked outside a strip mall near Woodbridge reading the poetry of Robert Frost, whose 120th birthday is today.
I was reading out loud. Aware that passers-by might think it odd, I tried to read invisibly, barely moving my lips, like someone practicing to be a ventriloquist. Maybe that’s what made me feel closer to the poetry than I ever have before, except Frost was the ventriloquist and I was the dummy. And who else but a dummy would sit for hours outside a place called Vintage Vinyl reading poetry while his vinyl-addict son wanders through the vastness of the largest secondhand record and CD outlet this side of the Princeton Record Exchange.
But it’s fine, being Frost’s dummy, staying under the radar, so that the words and thoughts you’re voicing become intimate, clandestine excursions to the far side of the everyday. Aware of the traffic sounds a stone’s throw behind me on Route One, I’m reciting an early poem called “The Demiurge’s Laugh” and getting carried away with lines like “I was running with joy on the Demon’s trail” and “It was just as the light was beginning to fail/That I suddenly heard — all I needed to hear.” And what laughter, sleepy but mocking, “As of one who utterly couldn’t care.” If only YouTube had a clip of Jim Cox reading Frost. Born in Independence, Virginia, where he died in 2012, Cox was the most exciting teacher I ever had. Intoning the lines in his compelling Virginia accent, he could make words like “fail” or “utterly” sound fated and final, a broadcast direct from the den of the demiurge. Simply to hear Cox recite the title would be worth the small fortune my son was spending in Vintage Vinyl.
A squad car just pulled into the lot. Oh-oh, is there a misdemeanor for reading aloud in a parked car? Will I be busted for possession of an uncontrolled literary substance?
When the Demon laughs, the lines start making coincidental sense: “I felt as a fool to have been so caught.” So while the cops cruise by, I pretend to be musing innocently on some sort of inspirational guidebook to inner peace. In the poem, the speaker pretends it was only “something in the leaves” he’s seeking before he gives up and cools his heels: “Thereafter I sat me against a tree.”
Taking the Plunge
I came to the “Demiurge” after a plunge at random into Robert Faggen’s edition of Frost’s Notebooks (Harvard 2006) in which, according to a recent article in the New York Times, Frost scholars found “thousands of transcription errors that turned the poet into a dyslexic and deranged speller.”
Since the same could be said of James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake or e.e. cummings, or George W. Bush, why not take a holiday from the prescribed formality of stanzas and iambics and flow free with Frost on a stream of consciousness, for instance, “Progress is escape civilization is sublimation emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from someone emerging in terrified flight from God.” Based on what I’ve been reading by and about Frost over the past few days, this delirious entry makes refreshing, fascinating sense. Better yet, it was Faggen’s footnote to thrice “terrified flight” that send me to “The Demiurge’s Laugh” in the first place.
All About Performance
Frost was 86 in April 1961 when Richard Poirier interviewed him for The Paris Review. Six years after the appearance of Poirier’s landmark study of literature and popular culture, The Performing Self (1971), he published Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (Oxford 1977), which he introduces with a seminal statement made by Frost during the interview: “The whole thing is performance and prowess and feats of association. Why don’t critics talk about these things?”
Frost had already used similar terms when speaking of the poet “as a man of prowess, just like an athlete. He’s a performer …. Every poem is like that, some sort of achievement in performance.” In the later exchange, Frost rephrases the thought: “Why don’t they talk about that? Scoring. You’ve got to score … in all the realms — theology, politics, astronomy, history, and the country life around you.” When asked how he approaches “a new poem” that might be sent to him, Frost rings the same bell while echoing another much-stressed word (“what a feat it is,” “what a feat it was”): “This thing of performance and prowess and feats of association — that’s where it all lies …. That is in the realm of performance, that’s the deadly test with me.”
Poirier continues to press the theme, using it to frame his last question, regarding Dylan Thomas, who “put all the rhymes down first and then backed into them. That’s clearly not what you mean by performance, is it?”
After vehemently dismissing the idea of backing into rhymes (“that’s very dreadful”), Frost says “It ought to be that you’re thinking forward, with the feeling of strength that you’re getting them good all the way …. You see somebody coming down the street that you’re accustomed to abuse, and you feel it rising in you, something to say as you pass each other …. It’s him coming toward you that gives you the animus, you know. When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it’s mostly animus.”
At this end-point in the interview, readers who think of Frost as a great stone face on the Mt. Rushmore of American verse may be wondering who they’ve been reading about over the years. In fact, Frost’s reference to those “who want to know about inspiration” is likely meant for the commentators who have popularized the poet of homey odes to plowing fields, chopping wood, and mending walls.
The Dark Side
The stress on abuse, animus, strength, prowess, feats of association, and the notion of performance as “the deadly test” would seem relevant to the dark side of Frost discussed in the aforementioned New York Times article about Volume One of the new Harvard edition of the Letters (“The Road Back: Frost’s Letters Could Soften a Battered Image”). The “cruel, jealous egomaniac” portrayed by Frost’s “handpicked” biographer Lawrance Thompson is an additional violation of the image of the beloved white-haired elderly American poet Poirier has been undermining, as when he refers to the dinner celebrating Frost’s 85th birthday, where, with the poet seated next to him, Lionel Trilling spoke of Frost’s “representation of the terrible actualities of life” in “a terrifying universe.” After admitting being taken by surprise (“I thought at first he was attacking me”), Frost puts his animus in gear: “He made the mistake himself. He was admitting he made it himself, wasn’t he? He was telling what trouble he’d had to get at me.” The poet then slyly wonders why Trilling “hadn’t seen it sooner: that there’s plenty to be dark about, you know. It’s full of darkness.”
Getting to Know Him
So here I sit faced with shelves teeming with the letters, notebooks, and marginalia of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, all too aware that I parted company with a single volume of Frost’s letters years ago. The only Frost I own at the moment is Poirier’s Work of Knowing and an edition of the Complete Poems with a woodcut on the cover showing a man plowing a field behind a team of horses, an image that binds Frost to the dull, workaday stereotype. What makes my situation all the more improbable is the fact that Dick Poirier, who died in 2009, was my best teacher in graduate school, and that Jim Cox, who has written brilliantly on Frost as well as editing a collection of critical essays about him, was my best undergraduate teacher.
Even with Cox and Poirier, however, you sense more admiration for the work than affection for the poet. Not that people who try to “get at” Frost or “get to know him” turn against him the way his biographer did. But imagine associating “animus” with Keats or demonizing Coleridge. And imagine even Frost’s most devoted follower saying of him what Elizabeth Bishop said of Coleridge after sitting up all night reading the letters “of that adorable man”: “His intestines are my intestines, his toothaches are my toothaches.”
So instead of rushing out to buy the first volume of the new edition of Frost’s correspondence, I go down the street to the library, only to discover that they, too, no longer have the earlier edition of the letters, the one edited by Lawrance Thompson. But they do have the Notebooks that led me to the “terrified” quote and they have Mark Richardson’s edition of The Collected Prose (Harvard 2007), where I found, searching at random, “Some Definitions by Robert Frost (1923).” After admitting that he sometimes has “doubts of words altogether,” the then-49-year-old poet says that words “are worse than nothing unless they do something: unless they amount to deeds, as in ultimatums or battle cries. They must be flat and final like the show-down in poker, from which there is no appeal.” This may not be a particularly appealing admission, but it’s perfectly consistent with a poet who has made so much of prowess and performance and feats of association.
But now consider the warmer, more human turn Frost takes in the last of the four short paragraphs: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a home-sickness or a love-sickness.” It might not be “adorable,” but it’s hard not to like and hard not to smile to see that the poem Frost equated to a show-down in poker has become “a reaching-out toward expression: an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”
And where the words found me was in that strip mall parking lot.