I am not much of a poetry person, to my chagrin–I’ve made stabs at Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck, but somehow I end up feeling impatient and grumpy rather than transported and enlightened. (Do not get me started on Sylvia Plath.) I do make a couple of exceptions, though: Seamus Heaney for one, and Virginia Adair for another, but most notably Robert Frost. I had a particular affection for Frost in college–at one point I had Frost poems taped up all over my dorm room walls where normal people had Monet and Van Gogh posters–and I’ve always believed to be more complex and accomplished and less, ah, cheesy than he is sometimes reputed to be. (I blame his popular reputation on “The Road Less Traveled.” Really, skip that one. I’m not even going to link to it lest I lead you into temptation. Read “Birches” or “The Death of the Hired Man” or “Mending Wall.”)
I bring this up because there is a new book and it sounds nifty and I want it. It is a mash-up of a greatest-hits album and a critical appraisal: a selection of sixty-five poems, each followed by a close reading and critical analysis. It’s called The Art of Robert Frost, it’s by Tim Kendall, and Kathryn Schulz’s review of it at Vulture is well worth your time even if you don’t think you want to read the whole book. Among other things, Schulz writes of Frost’s other really super-famous poem, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”:
We draw away from a man alone in the woods and see man, alone in the woods. As the scale expands, the world diminishes, becomes a snow globe, shaken. And right then, just as we are grasping the nature of our situation—we’re fine; we’re exhilarated; we’re terrified—Frost has the balls to vanish. But he brought us here in the first place! He said we were about to head home!—but no. We are stopping here. We are midway through our journey, no Virgil, no nothing, alone, and this place we are in (like this poem we are in) is lovely. And it is dark. And it is deep. Translation: We are lucky to be here; we are sane to be scared; we are not getting out anytime soon. In point of fact, we are not getting out at all. Not in this lifetime, anyway. We will never be out of these woods.
See? Not cheesy. At least I don’t think so. Although, really, you can skip that one, too, along with that Nothing Gold Can Stay poem that we all remember from junior high because Ponyboy read it in The Outsiders. If you’re going to read Frost, my advice is to stick to the less well-known ones that don’t have so much baggage attached.
(If you like Frost, you might also be interested in Jay Parini’s biography which reveals–to my great disappointment–that he was kind of an ass. Also noteworthy, if you’re on a Frost binge: Brian Hall’s lovely novel Fall of Frost, based on his life.)