New Leaf

Shulman and Kerr

New Leaf

Shulman and Kerr

New Leaf
New books dissected over email.
April 1 1999 1:30 PM

Shulman and Kerr

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Dear Sarah,

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Oh, dear. Did I really suggest that Frost's personal neediness had nothing to do with his poems? I guess I did. What a silly idea. I think what I wanted to say was that a less needy Frost would still have written great poems--but maybe not the same ones. I would have loved those hypothetical, well-adjusted poems because I'm such a sucker for lyrical sweetness, but you might not have. I get the feeling your standards for content are higher than mine. Basically, if a poem sings I follow it around like a puppy (or one of Odysseus' shipmates diving after the sirens?). This makes me prefer some unpopular poets, such as Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, and Walter Raleigh, to their possibly profounder contemporaries: Robert Browning, Philip Sidney. I'd pick Keats over Shelley any time.

It's true that Frost used his lyrical gift to drag himself up from the depths, then ponder the sea-creatures clinging to him. He crafts wisdom from depression better than any poet I can think of, except perhaps Emily Dickinson. It's very helpful for those of us who have been there--and given what a vale of tears this place is, that includes everybody, sooner or later.

By the way, thank you for saying you like Stevens better than you like Frost (I know that's not quite what you said, but approximately), instead of saying Stevens was better. It's such a relief to have a discussion with someone who recognizes the difference between opinion and fact.

One last try at that question of whether another profession might have served Frost better today: I still say no. Because he wasn't only after an audience--he also needed privacy and solitude that can't be found in professions like theater, film, and music. Those are all collaborative arts, but Frost needed to be a one-man show. And much as he loved to perform, his real work got done alone, at night, in a Morris chair with a board across the arms. He would take on jobs at colleges, then show up for only a few lectures because he felt the social responsibilities of teaching interfered with his writing. Today's closest form of self-expression to his might be hacking--it's private, it's obsessive, it potentially affects a whole lot of people. (I'm not speaking from personal experience here.) Maybe he'd be at home in a few decades, when computers have grown powerful enough for a programmer to build a movie's landscape, its music, and even its cast, out of bits, single-handed. But then, wouldn't Frost need the intimacy of live performance? And isn't his talent really based in language, not visuals or movement or music?

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Well, let's cheat and suggest that our modern Frost would invent a word-based, performative, individual art form so unlike anything we know today that you and I can't imagine it. Get me tickets, please.

Now I want to talk about trees. What do you think Frost's trees are all about? They show up again and again: tall, talkative, people-shaped. They're almost characters, but they're not quite human, like bodiless spirits or spiritless bodies. There's "A Young Birch," "The only native tree that dares to lean,/ Relying on its beauty, to the air./ (Less brave perhaps than trusting are the fair.)" There are the other bendy fellows of the same species, more masculine this time, in "Birches," a poem about climbing flexible saplings and riding them down when they stoop to the ground. There's the "Tree at My Window," whose "head" is "so much concerned with outer,/ Mine with inner, weather." There's the girl in "Maple," who's named after a tree but never figures out why; she's strangely embarrassed when she meets a naked maple with its fall foliage lying at its feet. There are the noisy neighbors in "The Sound of Trees":

I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

And groves of others. What do you think about them? Or give me your thoughts about brooks or pools or roads or birds, if you prefer.

Polly

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Polly Shulman is a senior editor at Discover magazine. Sarah Kerr is a regular contributor to Slate. This week they discuss Robert Frost: A Life, by Jay Parini (click here to buy the book).