Discoveries of unpublished poems by famous poets depress me. We already suffer from an enormous glut of poetry — even, perhaps especially, by famous poets — and of art of all sorts. A law that required artists to burn half of their finished product, the way Gogol burned the second half of Dead Souls, would vastly improve public taste. Poems are generally left unpublished when their author does not think they merit publication. There are exceptions, and accidents. A pretty good Philip Larkin poem escaped publication because of girl trouble. Wallace Stevens omitted one of his best poems, “The Course of a Particular,” from his collected verse, although he fortunately remembered to publish it elsewhere. But nearly always the poem is no good. Sometimes it’s not by the famous poet either.
Reading Robert Frost also depresses me. Frost is a popular poet, the closest thing to a poet laureate America ever had. He read at Kennedy’s inauguration, and he is said to have made a living from poetry. There are several reasons for this. Frost usually, and always at his best, writes short rhymed iambic poems; his readers feel assured that they’re reading honest-to-god poetry and not that sissy modern stuff. His themes are simple, his settings are rural, and his vocabulary is small. Frost looks the part, the very model of the crusty New England sage. His name doesn’t hurt either; it’s as good as Cary Grant’s, and he was born with it. Frost also has considerable talent (his best poems are probably here and here), but this is incidental.
I wrote in my last post about characteristic moments in the work of an artist. There is no need to search in Frost: his chief characteristic is a vacillating, go-with-the-flow pseudo-profundity that plays, and pays, especially well in America, and it is everywhere. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches, perhaps, but one could also do a great deal better. Frost is perfectly satisfied with himself, and resents any attempt at improvement:
Suppose someone comes near me who in rate
Of speech and thinking is so much my better
I am imposed on, silenced and discouraged.
Do I submit to being supplied by him
As the more economical producer,
More wonderful, more beautiful producer?
No. I unostentatiously move off
Far enough for my thought-flow to resume.
Frost hedges this passage a bit with “rate,” but its import is obvious. He is openly hostile to intellect:
So if you find you must repent
From side to side in argument,
At least don’t use your mind too hard,
But trust my instinct – I’m a bard.
(“To a Thinker”)
No thanks. But it is a very American attitude.
To be fair, “The Road Not Taken”, his most famous poem, is celebrated principally because it is misread. It is usually thought to counsel leaving the beaten path, which is pretty pallid moral advice but is not what Frost has in mind. Its title, often misremembered, significantly, as “The Road Less Traveled,” refers to the path that the narrator doesn’t take, not the one he does. The narrator, confronted with the fork in the road, is “sorry that he could not travel both and be one traveler.” Neither path is much less traveled at all: “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” The traveler’s difficulty is, having chosen one, he misses his chance to choose the other, because “way leads on to way.” The poem does not advocate the road less traveled; it is about the agony of having to choose at all. Had the traveler chosen the way more traveled by, that, too, would have made all the difference. There is something sneaky about his putting the narrator on the less-traveled road, when either road serves the logic of the poem. I suspect Frost of intentionally inviting the common misreading.
Last month’s discovery of an unpublished Frost poem, therefore, occasioned no joy in the GotM household. The complete poem, “War Thoughts at Home,” is available only to subscribers to the Virginia Quarterly Review, which leaves you and me out. But I can piece it together from scattered quotations; and since I am too puny, I trust, for the VQR to sue for copyright infringement, here it is:
On the backside of the house
Where it wears no paint to the weather
And so shows most its age,
Suddenly blue jays rage
And flash in blue feather.
It is late in an afternoon
More grey with snow to fall
Than white with fallen snow
When it is blue jay and crow
Or no bird at all.
So someone heeds from within
This flurry of bird war,
And rising from her chair
A little bent over with care
Not to scatter on the floor
The sewing in her lap
Comes to the window to see.
At sight of her dim face
The birds all cease for a space
And cling close in a tree.
And one says to the rest,
“We must just watch our chance
And escape one by one
Though the fight is no more done
Than the war is in France.”
Than the war is in France!
She thinks of a winter camp
Where soldiers for France are made.
She draws down the window shade
And it glows with an early lamp.
On that old side of the house
The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that have long lain
Dead on a side track.
Frost has one of the best ears among 20th-century poets, and it shows to advantage especially in the first and last stanzas. In the second stanza the grammar wanders. Frost’s preternaturally articulate animals make an egregious appearance (see “The Oven Bird,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and passim). Is it me, or is there something ridiculous about blue jays discussing the First World War? The central comparison, of fighting men with fighting birds, is trite. It is not among Frost’s best hundred poems, and if it had never been found no one would mourn its lack.
Its discoverer, Robert Stilling, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, likes it better than I do:
“War Thoughts at Home” dwells in that moment before darkness, doubting the necessity of the bravery that drives a soldier-poet like Thomas [Edward, a friend of Frost’s who was killed in the war] to enlist. Its doubt stands at odds with the poet’s own stoic convictions about war and violence. And the ending, dead on a side track? This is neither fire nor ice, but this is the closest Frost will come in verse to damning the war that took his friend. These stanzas’ troubling lack of conviction may well have given Frost enough reason to abandon the poem along with its disquieting conclusion.
Stilling is shilling for his discovery, and who can blame him? I made too much fuss about a couple of unpublished poems myself, and I’m not bucking for tenure. But my God, Frost made a career out of a “troubling lack of conviction.” If he had abandoned poems on that account there would be nothing left. What we have, in short, is the spectacle of an ambitious graduate student, who has not read Frost with much attention, making his career on the back of a poem that Frost regarded, correctly, as unworthy of inclusion in his permanent work. Which is most depressing of all.