Book Review: An Admirable Look at the Art of Robert Frost

THE ART OF ROBERT FROST helped me get closer to the poems and in doing so helped me get closer to the poet.

The Art of Robert Frost by Tim Kendall. Yale University Press, 408 pp., $35.

By Anthony Wallace

The Art of Robert Frost is a book-length study of sixty-five of Robert Frost’s most important poems, with considerable attention not only to the poems but also to how they fit together to form collections. This is especially true of Kendall’s coverage of North of Boston, in which every poem in the volume is reproduced and discussed. Kendall frequently focuses on Frost’s desire “to be a poet for all sorts and kinds,” and his “struggle to remain a favorite of both a broad reading public and of the university professors,” and his book attempts to speak to those two seemingly disparate audiences, and mostly succeeds. This is a book of literary criticism that synthesizes and responds to the major trends in Frost criticism, and so would be useful to a research scholar both inside and outside the college classroom; it is also a great nightstand book for the serious general reader, to be gone through slowly, at perhaps the rate of a poem a week, which would take a bit more than a year.

Tim Kendall has brought together a great many of Frost’s poems, and every aspect of his commentary makes the case for careful reading and re-reading. One of the admirable things about The Art of Robert Frost is that the author looks at most poems fairly thoroughly without exhausting them. Each poem is followed by two or three pages of commentary, so that within a concentrated space we get to hear what Kendall thinks, as well as where he thinks other critics have gone right or wrong on one or two key aspects of the poem. There is still plenty of room for us to read and respond, though, because the more we look at each poem, the more we’ll see how much Kendall hasn’t covered, and the more we’ll see other places to go.

Only a poet of Frost’s stature could stand up to an approach like this, but Frost’s poems do stand up, even the minor ones. Perhaps even more importantly, because Kendall focuses mainly on what he considers Frost’s three most important collections—North of Boston, Mountain Interval, and New Hampshire—a lot of what he and the critics he has entered into conversation with say about an individual poem becomes relevant to readings of subsequent poems, so that the book of criticism achieves a strong cumulative effect, exactly as a good poetry collection should. As we read on, our knowledge of how to read Frost in the abstract increases; there is a strong sense of movement and drama to what is revealed, and as the conversation continues to deepen, so that it doesn’t feel as if we are on a forced march through sixty-five poems with the goal of “mastering” them.

This is especially true of Frost’s masterpiece, North of Boston. We see the journey of the artist—even as journeys and departures is an important theme in this and other collections—and arrive someplace with both Frost and Kendall by the end. We arrive someplace dramatically, even as one of Kendall’s chief assertions is for the importance of Frost as dramatic artist. That said, Kendall’s book will be especially eye-opening to more casual readers of Frost—those who base their experience and perception of his work on the typical dozen or so poems we all know through the anthologies—since the majority of the poems in this volume are longer than “Stopping by Woods” or “The Road Not Taken,” and even more insistently dramatic.

Kendall makes an especially compelling case for a reading of Frost’s long, blank verse poems as dialogic, and one thing that struck me is the insight that even as the characters in Frost’s poems are speaking and arguing and moving back and forth between positions, Frost is asking his readers to do the same with him. This sounds more obvious than it is, at least for me, for Robert Frost has always seemed an important poet who was nevertheless a distant poet: I’ve enjoyed reading and rereading his poetry over the past three decades, but I’ve never felt any particular sense of intimacy with the author. To me Frost has always been that brilliant and irascible old man who is like a next-door neighbor who smiles, waves, but keeps his distance. Whitman whispered into my ear; Frost communicated with large gestures, and formal ones, at some distance, in inhospitable weather.

The Art of Robert Frost helped me get closer to the poems and in doing so helped me get closer to the poet. He did this through careful, balanced criticism and scholarship, but even more importantly through direct and frequent quotation of Frost himself, who, for a seemingly taciturn New Englander, seems always to have had something to say, even if what he said was subject to interpretation, and even if it has, over the years, created even more misunderstanding and misreading than the poems themselves. A word Kendall takes from Frost and keeps in play is “ulteriority,” a term that does a lot to describe the very center of Frost’s poetic strategy. Without belaboring the point, Kendall reminds us every now and then that the man so many readers have thought so serious, to say nothing of sagacious, was really very mischievous: a clever prankster filled with mystery, contradictions, uncertainty—and humor.

Kendall emphasizes the literal level of meaning as the foundation of a Frost poem and adds that “although Frost defined ulteriority as ‘saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another,’ it is better to think of it as a way of meaning two things at once, or of saying one thing in terms of another thing which is also said.” This gets at the heart of how to read Frost, since it says that one meaning or interpretation does not necessarily cancel out another one: both can exist simultaneously within the poem, both as different choices for different readers, and as multiples choices for the same reader. In presenting diverging paths or interpretations, Frost is not asking us to choose, even as a character in a dramatic poem is not righter or more “correct” than another character in the same poem. Kendall asserts this important principle, agrees with it, but then contradicts it here and there by coming down on the side of an interpretation that is a bit too definite.

His conclusions about “The Hill Wife,” for example, seem to indicate that Frost himself takes sides with the husband: “Amy rejects her husband’s therapy, rejecting at the same time what must be a founding principle of North of Boston. She must be at odds even with the poem which creates and depicts her.” Kendall makes a convincing case elsewhere in the book for Frost’s endings as beginnings, and for reading everything to the last word of a poem in two (or more) directions, yet he seems to need something a little more definite here, and he stops short of the more positive reading of the poem which information elsewhere in the book would suggest: Amy’s irrational behavior may create the kind of positive disruption and violence that will help both husband and wife make their way “back to life.” Kendall argues that “It is a testament to his genius that in hearing Amy, Frost portrays so sympathetically a character unsympathetic to everything he holds dear.” But I don’t agree that Amy is unsympathetic to everything Frost holds dear: I think she enlarges Frost’s sympathies, and ours, and that is her role as wife and mother, and that in opening the door of the house she will lead them both out of that burial pit of a home.

Kendall reminds us every now and then that the Frost so many readers have thought so serious, to say nothing of sagacious, was really very mischievous, very much a sly fox.

I give this as just one example of where Kendall has written four pages of commentary on a four page poem, and that while the commentary seems to be thorough and balanced, detailed and rigorous, there is still a lot more to say about the poem, a lot more to do with it, and this is simultaneously a strength and weakness of the book. In writing commentary for sixty-five poems in under four hundred pages, Kendall cannot possibly do them all justice, and he runs the risk of seeming to rush quickly from one poem to the next, as we might do on a tour of an art museum in which we want to make sure we see all the masterpieces before closing time. At the same time, we learn a lot from an interpretation of one poem about how to read another one, and the same is true with entire collections. We have in this book a firm foundation for reading and interpreting a large portion of Frost’s work, but in the end it’s up to us to do it by reading and re-reading, by going back, by seeing the essential incompleteness of the project as the greatness of the poetry.

Kendall writes early on that “Interpretations of poems as complex as Frost’s must necessarily remain incomplete, but I have tried to draw on whatever contexts the poems seem to require.” I agree with the first part of that sentence, but not the second. This book-length study gives us all kinds of context but largely evades the central question of how Frost became Frost. Through this book we are better able to read the poems, both in terms of the critical response and Frost’s own words on the subject, and further in terms of Frost the classicist and Frost the reader of poetry, but we do not see Frost in the context of other American poets and the tradition and evolution of American poetry that Robert Frost is an integral part of: we never see Frost as a star in a well-mapped constellation.

The book is much more concerned with Frost as an individual, and an Individualist. A sure, strong sense of a quirky and often misunderstood genius comes gradually to the surface, and it’s all the more fascinating because Frost worked at being misunderstood, worked within the interstices of misunderstandings between his characters and among his readers, and then at times became frustrated that some aspects of his poetry would be so misunderstood! To Kendall, and to me as well, that fact only strengthens the power of Frost at his best—a power based in mystery, uncertainty, subjectivity, doubt—even despair. That is to say, for all Frost’s adherence to traditional forms, and particularly his insistence on working out his own peculiar music through blank verse, Frost does emerge as distinctly and distinctively Modernist in the effect of his poems.

Oddly, Kendall does use the word “modern” here and there, but I don’t remember him using the word “Modernism” even once. On this point hinges my main criticism of the book. In focusing on three key collections with the early A Boy’s Will on one side and ten later poems on the other, Kendall has written a book that provides a specific kind of context while not really doing anything with Frost as his poetic genius took shape in a certain historical moment some of us know as early twentieth century Modernism. Pound and Yeats are mentioned early on as having been highly enthusiastic about A Boy’s Will, but other poetic contemporaries such as Eliot, Stevens, and W.C. Williams are not even mentioned (as far as I remember—there is no index, only a bibliography of the sources Kendall has consulted). The question of contemporary influence is never addressed.

On the other hand, Kendall does a commendable job of showing how Frost was responding to important poets and poems of the nineteenth century, especially the English Romantics, and especially Wordsworth. But the effect of approaching Frost in this way seems to suggest that Frost was influenced by, responded to, and turned upside down some of the English poets important to him in his own youth while never acknowledging that other important poets of the same period were doing different versions of the same thing. The relationship between Yeats and Wordsworth would be especially important here, but I do understand Kendall had specific goals for his book and was trying to work within a certain scope. Two things are likely to happen, though: the serious general reader might be misled, while the working scholar might need to do too much work to fill in the appropriate (and accurate) historical context.

My own sense is that the missing link, or the link that Kendall misses, is Walt Whitman. More vigorous scholarship to show the connection between Frost and Whitman would provide an American as well as a proto-modernist connection between Frost and the nineteenth century—would take us more gracefully back to Wordsworth while locating some of Frost’s most characteristic impulses not just in how he was directly responding to a handful of nineteenth century English poets but also in how an important predecessor had responded to them, with the goal of creating a distinctively American poetic sensibility. Instead, Kendall opts for the obvious contrasts in the two poets, and—even worse yet—he takes Frost’s word on it.

It is perhaps overall the weakest part of the book, and of Kendall’s approach, that when he wants Frost to be earnest, he interprets his remarks as such, and when he wants him to be mischievous, or ulterior, he interprets the poet’s remarks that way. Robert Frost can have it both ways, for he is a poet, and heavily steeped in what Keats called “negative capability,” but Kendall, the responsible critic, cannot. But back to Whitman. Kendall says early on that “concerns over metrical traditions and colloquiality become bound up for Frost, as for Whitman before him, with ideas of nation building and nationhood” but then goes on to say that “John Hollander has justly described Frost as ‘that most un-Whitmanian of major twentieth-century American poets,’ and Frost’s own references to Whitman are almost uniformly negative.” But we know that Frost can’t be trusted, and I’d argue that working in blank verse instead of free verse is a fairly superficial contrast. There are others, but there are also important similarities.

Frost himself said, “I am sure that the colloquial is at the root of every good poem as I am that the national is at the root of all thought and art.” It doesn’t get much more Whitmanian than that, and Kendall quotes this sentence but doesn’t do anything with it. Dismissing Whitman’s influence and what we might call the Whitmanian strain of American Modernism created holes in the book for this reader: holes the author might have filled in other ways, and which might have turned my own thinking upside down. Frost was not self-created in the same way that Whitman was, and that very few poets have ever been. One can almost always see the genealogy, and for all Kendall shows us, that is exactly what he does not show us, and that is so central—without writing a different kind of book—to the kind of close reading and deep understanding of Robert Frost that The Art of Robert Frost seeks to promote both among scholars and general readers.

Kendall has assembled a wide range of critical voices and interpretations and negotiates among them gracefully, but he also tends to lean on a few favorite (and important) critics in a way that becomes predictable and which makes the critical conversation seems smaller than it really is: Randall Jarrell, Jay Parini, Richard Poirier, John Hollander, and Frank Lentricchia appear much too regularly, while the provocative and difficult Harold Bloom, for example, scarcely makes an appearance. The book is tightly controlled, no doubt—a work of scholarly discipline that seeks to do some things well to the exclusion of other things, and to be a different kind of book than we’ve had on Frost until now—but some important ideas and questions get left out, or minimized, or swept under the rug.

The Art of Robert Frost examines the main themes and motifs most readers of Frost will recognize, and in terms of the usual binary that expresses them: the very large themes of death and love, reason and madness, freedom and confinement, nature and the human world, the individual both with respect to nature and society, the centrality of home as opposed to all those unfamiliar “desert places.” Essential to any correct reading of Frost’s poetry is the idea that we “can never hope to escape the self by means of the self’s immersion in the natural world.” Frost is certainly not the “nature poet” that some casual readers have taken him for. Kendall also takes time to develop the important idea of humor in Frost, and how that humor is working in various poems, and this is an aspect of Frost’s poetry that is still woefully underappreciated. “Stung by Amy Lowell’s claim that his poetry lacked a sense of humor, Frost argued that ‘seven out of fifteen of the poems of N. of Boston are almost humorous—four are almost jokes.” I’d add that it is the “almost” in this sentence that takes us to the heart of Robert Frost.

Critic and poet Tim Kendall — he examines the main themes and motifs most readers of Frost will recognize.

Kendall covers the movement of Frost’s development as a poet from his first collection into North of Boston and its emphasis on the dramatic poem in dialogue, to Mountain Interval with its more prominent exploration of the sonnet in its various forms, to New Hampshire—“Frost’s largest single volume of poetry”—with its “grace notes” or short lyrics such as “Fire and Ice” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” which “have since become staple anthology poems,” a section of the book in which he also gives more attention to Frost’s exploration of the problems of art and of the artist, poems that comment on poems, on the need for communication, on the extent to which “communication” is even possible. But this takes us back to North of Boston and Kendall’s concluding lines on that collection: “And so North of Boston, this magnificent book of people, ends in failure with the poet excluded from those about whom he writes.No matter how passionate his attempts at understanding, he must remain an outsider condemned only to enjoy brief and tantalizing glimpses of their lives.” By the time we get to the end of the last essay on the last poem, “Directive,” a poem that seems to be about direction and finding one’s way, Kendall, like Frost, has left us with more questions than answers:

“In the biblical tenor of the poem’s final lines, there is one more lurking allusion. Once detected, it prompts a reassessment of all that has gone before: not just the poem, but the corpus of Frost’s writings. The allusion is to Proverbs 9, in which women representing wisdom and foolishness compete to attract ‘passengers who go right on their ways.’ The decision made by those travelers determines the state of their soul. Those who choose wisely and ‘go in the way of understanding, will eat of the bread and drink of the wine which Wisdom has mingled; those who choose foolishly are attracted by the promise that ‘stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’ Which road has the traveler through Frosts’ work chosen? … Frost’s most devastating joke on his readers is that he leaves us with reason to be fearful over whether, by becoming his disciples, we have been saved or damned.”

To leave us with the kind of uncertainty that verges on terror, or even madness, is the right way to leave us, not just because Frost is the kind of Modernist trickster Kendall has made such a strong case for, but because the joke, if that is the right word, takes us back to ourselves, and our need to find our own “direction,” whether it be home or elsewhere. For all the intimacy this intelligent and readable book has afforded us, we are left back in the same place we started: we can see Frost at a distance, on the far side of the property, by a fence, waving and smiling, with a smile like a scowl. We have to make of him what we will, but The Art of Robert Frost should convince us, if we needed convincing, that we would not want anybody else to occupy the place that that old man occupies. His enduring presence in our literature is compass enough.

Anthony Wallace‘s collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was first reviewed by Roberta Silman in The Arts Fuse. The book went on to become a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. More on Anthony Wallace and his collection The Old Priest. He has work forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Southern Review.

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