Sunday, April 16, 2006

Sunday Poet: Robert Frost

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

[Audio file of this poem]

You knew it was coming. Sooner or later I had to do Robert Frost, especially during National Poetry Month. Frost is, without question, the most popular and celebrated US poet (Rod McKuen doesn't count as an actual poet). Having won four Pulitzer Prizes and been the most widely read poet of his lifetime, Frost is an American icon.

It might surprise you, then, to know that Frost is considered by many to be a regional poet of moderate stature. He is seldom ranked in the same class as William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Robinson Jeffers, Langston Hughes, and other major poets of that era. While he did tend to work with themes relevant to all people, he did so in what many have dismissed as an archaic metrical verse form. And he did so with regional imagery and scenes that often require some familiarity to understand their purpose.

This is not a universal sentiment, however. The Modern American Poetry page on Frost has critiques of many of his best-known poems by renowned critics such as Frank Lentricchia, Jay Parini (co-founder of The New England Review), Katherine Kearns, the poet Randall Jarrell, Joseph Brodsky, and Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott.

Here is the biography posted at the Academy of American Poets page:
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. He moved to New England at the age of eleven and became interested in reading and writing poetry during his high school years in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was enrolled at Dartmouth College in 1892, and later at Harvard, but never earned a formal degree. Frost drifted through a string of occupations after leaving school, working as a teacher, cobbler, and editor of the Lawrence Sentinel. His first professional poem, "My Butterfly," was published on November 8, 1894, in the New York newspaper The Independent.

In 1895, Frost married Elinor Miriam White, who became a major inspiration in his poetry until her death in 1938. The couple moved to England in 1912, after their New Hampshire farm failed, and it was abroad that Frost met and was influenced by such contemporary British poets as Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, and Robert
. While in England, Frost also established a friendship with the poet Ezra Pound, who helped to promote and publish his work. By the time Frost returned to the United States in 1915, he had published two full-length collections, A Boy's Will and North of Boston, and his reputation was established. By the nineteen-twenties, he was the most celebrated poet in America, and with each new book—including New Hampshire (1923), A Further Range (1936), Steeple Bush (1947), and In the Clearing (1962)—his fame and honors (including four Pulitzer Prizes) increased.

Though his work is principally associated with the life and landscape of New England, and though he was a poet of traditional verse forms and metrics who remained steadfastly aloof from the poetic movements and fashions of his time, Frost is anything but a merely regional or minor poet. The author of searching and often dark meditations on universal themes, he is a quintessentially modern poet in his adherence to language as it is actually spoken, in the psychological complexity of his portraits, and in the degree to which his work is infused with layers of ambiguity and irony. Robert Frost lived and taught for many years in Massachusetts and Vermont, and died on January 29, 1963, in Boston.

I have never been a Frost fan in general, though I do see the appeal of some of his poems. To me, he is at his best when he does not force the rhyme and the metrics of his verse. I have always been a fan of free verse -- and even more so of experimental verse that pushes the ability of language to carry meaning -- so Frost's provincialism in this area has not been appealing to me.

Anyway, a couple more poems seems to be in order.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep

The people along the sand

All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be--
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

Rather than post any more poems here, I will recommend that anyone who is interested seek out the longer poems. These are more complex and more rewarding works than the ones we all know.

Modern American Poetry: main page, a few poems (these are good).
Academy of American Poets: some good links.
PoemHunter: more than 100 poems (also see Frost, Robert Lee for nealry 150 poems, manof which are duplicates, but many are not.)

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