Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Robert Frost

The other night a lone goose went over in the middle of the night.

There is nothing surprising in this. The geese have been gathering this week. But I sat and listened in bed as he went over calling and calling as he looked for other geese to respond so he could flock with them. Geese and ducks can and do fly in the dark but it still seems a daunting experience. It would be so easy to run into something hard. In any case, it seemed a sad, plaintive thing as it went over.

We have no idea whether geese can feel the sorts of emotions I projected onto this one that night. In any case, it got me thinking of Robert Frost and I pulled down his collected poems the next day, opened it in the middle and started reading.

I love Frost but haven't read him in a couple of years. I read a lot of him the year my mother died.

That's the thing about Frost, he writes about themes that are meaningful to most North Americans. He, William Carlos Williams and Edna St. Vincent Millay and were probably the last poets taken seriously in the academic world to do so. You could bring their poetry to Thanksgiving dinner and reasonably expect every one present from grandparent to grandchild to respond and have something interesting to say in response. Try that with Eliot, Pound or Wallace Stevens and you'll just get blank looks (except maybe for Eliot's cat poems).

For that reason, a lot of people are hesitant to call Frost Williams and Millay modern. Modern literature has tended to be an elitist project.

It also has tended to be urban and Frost writes about life in the countryside: picking blueberries, stacking firewood, noticing that one brook in a watershed runs west while all the others run east. These are the sorts of experiences a kid in the country or a kid who lives in a suburb that ends at the woods might have.

And yet he has to be modern if the word is to mean anything because he writes about these things in ways that modern people not only understand but appreciate.

What really endeared him to me this time was that I found a really bad poem. I was reading through the poems in the bathroom (making my revelation like Luther's), when I hit this real dud. It's called "the Peaceful Shepherd".

I don't mean that it is a poem that doesn't quite come off or that it's okay but not really up to Frost's standards. No, I mean the poem is an absolute piece of crap that Frost never should have published. It's a sophomoric bit of pseudo-profundity and poorly expressed at that. Even the beats, who specialized in this sort of garbage, would, while not having anything more profound to say, have managed to say it better.

It put me off for several days.

And then I started reading again. It hit me that it was stupid to think there would not be poems like this in any poet's œuvre, even the really good ones. It brought Frost closer, made him more human.

And then, just a page or two past the bad poem, I tripped over a hidden gem.

The thing about poems like "The Peaceful Shepherd" is that they get taught a lot because, trite as it may be, it gives professors an excuse to try to indoctrinate students with their own moral views. The hidden gem is a poem I've never seen anyone ever teach and it's called "The Lovely Shall Be Choosers".

Anyone who grew up in the Northeast last century will immediately spot the allusion in the title. My Grandmother used to say it all the time: beggars can't be choosers. The obvious point being that if you have to ask for something, you'll take what you are given and be happy with it. The deeper implication was always that no one can be a chooser because everyone is dependent on others. It's a warning against something like hubris but with a slight protestant Christian twist (and I think that is really important to this poem). But the lovely will think they can be choosers won't they?
 She would refuse love safe with wealth and honor!
The lovely shall be choosers, shall they?
Then let them choose!
Those words are spoken by "The Voice". And we think we know this story, she will get her comeuppance. From here on in it ought to be like one of those awful Booth Tarkington novels. But it isn't. The poem tells us she will gain wisdom and the poem talks about "seven joys" that will give her wisdom.

Wisdom, of course, is always a mixed blessing and, like all the really good Frost poems (and unlike "The Peaceful Shepherd") "The Lovely Shall be Choosers" does not permit simple moral conclusions.

But seven joys! What a fascinating thing for Frost to settle on. Even with his protestant upbringing, he has to have known what that would recall.

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