Jul 27, 2007

The New Criterion on Frost "Classics"

I have been studying the essay on Robert Frost's two most famous poems, so-called "classics," which was published in the most recent annual poetry issue of the New Criterion in April 2007 (this is a continuing series I highly applaud, by the way). The essay is reverential toward Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." (The photo is one of one of my own recent stops on a snowy evening, in a township park in Okemos, Michigan, where I live in winter.) FAR too reverential, in my opinion. These poems have a nice structure and offer a number of nice turns of phrase. But there's hardly anything significant about them. They give us no truly deep insight into any vitally important human experience nor offer any new or vital understanding of some aspect of human life. They're casually, folksily expressive, sweetly descriptive, and at times pithy. They have obvious stylistic virtues, as Winters acknowledged several times in his major essay on Frost in 1949, and are strongly metrical. But I would recommend many another modern poem as truly classic and truly important, starting with many of the splendid, searing, profoundly moving, densely intellectual works of J.V. Cunningham, Elizabeth Daryush, Edgar Bowers, Helen Pinkerton -- or Yvor Winters himself. These two poems are hardly even the best in Frost -- by far.

The essay is the effort of some critic named Dan Brown, whose previous work I do not know. Brown appears to have intended the piece simply to draw our attention back to these two poems for some unknown reason -- as if either poem needed any more attention than it already gets. Are these two poems somehow in danger of being forgotten? If anything, they more deserve to be lowered in status than raised yet higher again. In addition to speaking very highly of them, Brown briefly describes some aspects of their rhetorical structure. He is fascinated that neither poem contains a metaphor. But just what Brown makes of their lack of metaphor is unclear. He describes the fact, but then simply leaves the subject there. Does the lack of metaphor say something about the poems, about Frost's body of work in general, about American poetry in general, about the current state of affairs in our literary world, about anything at all? Brown has nothing to say about any of these matters. He's just simply fascinated -- and by implication appears to want us to be fascinated too. Well... I am not.

Brown finishes up in his final paragrah with a brief, rather abstract, high-falutin' comment about how these two poems illustrate what he believes to be an important aspect of modern poetry, the departure from norms. But how this aspect is related to the two poems' lack of metaphor is wholly obscure. Concerning "departure," I surmise that Brown is impressed that Frost wrote in metrical verse with a casual, "natural" style. Writing folksy verse is not as hard to do as so many critics seem to think. Like any craft, it's hard to do well, I suppose, but not something hard to do in itself. Yes, I agree, as did Winters, that Frost had a gift for writing casually in verse. But the much more important point is that Frost didn't accomplish much with his skill in these two supposedly classic poems. As with the making of any artistic literary statement, it is best made when made to acomplish something important with the statement. But Frost accomplishes next to nothing with these two poems. "The Road Not Taken" rehashes, simply, the ol' American thirst for independence, akin to Huck Finn's desire to light out for the country. "Stopping By" has very little to say other than to tell us to stop and smell the daisies (or enjoy a pretty patch of snow, as the case may be).

In conclusion, I don't think Brown's essay adds up to anything more than New Criterion's attempt to stamp these two poems as "classic," and to so stamp Frost's entire body of work as well. That's fine, I suppose (though I disagree that Frost's work deserves such a lofty status), but hardly a matter that deserves a leading essay on poetry in the only general-readership journal that has anything to do with formalist poetry these days. There is so much else that is so much more worth the while of serious poetry readers. The essays on Robert Bridges and Kingsley Amis in the same issue are two examples. I see little reason to expand discussion of these two modestly well-turned, yet conceptually thin and trifling, poems.

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