Thursday, January 30, 2014

Like All of Us, Robert Frost is a Liar

I'm about to break some student hearts this week. We're beginning our study of Robert Frost, the one writer with whom they may already be familiar.  "The Road Not Taken" seems to be for students a "calendar poem" (to use Auden's term of distaste for this sort of thing), a hang-in-there-kitty-poster of encouragement they've got engraved on their spirits.  Maybe they know it from a high school class or saw the poem on a calendar somewhere and took it as their motto of difference and achievement. All of us can benefit from a tale that gives us hope and a sense that our differences and our choices contribute to our successes in life.

But "The Road Not Taken," which is so often thought of in this way, is about our need to pretend to have power in spite of what we know. This is tougher for the students. I won't have to bring tissues, but disappointment will reign in class.

Either way, we can blame Frost himself, who was a master of deception. The proposition that Frost was an aw-shucks type of farmer wrote pretty verse has been disposed of by now. Philip Gerber writes “perhaps even Frost himself at last came to believe in the simple farmer-poet who had one hand clamped on the spading fork while the other was busily autographing title pages to Complete Poems; he was, perhaps, playing the role which had been created for him and which he had helped to lodge in the public consciousness." There's little doubt that his rural New England character had a great deal to do with the populist success of his work. He was a craftsman of his public persona. He seemed aesthtically—almost agressively—pastoral. And he was, if we want to think of the pastoral as a genre in which the rural is not idealized but realized.

Frost's skill at pretense extends to his poetry, in which at times he writes what seem to be lovely soothing poems that instead eye dread and terror. Further, he understood the need for dissembling, of using a mask—to appear sincere while coming quite close to deceiving—and he could write in such a way that underlines that such a need is essential. When Frost writes in "The Figure a Poem Makes" that the last line of of a poem, which he takes as "a clarification of life," is a "momentary stay against confusion," he affirms that poetry removes us—momentarily—from what life really is: confusion.  Poetry as a still moment against the ongoing, confusing, natural world, in which we see the clarity of life.

For the speaker in "The Road Not Taken" such a "momentary stay" requires that we tell the story of our achievements gloriously, whether or not it's the truth. We hear the speaker recalling how he took a road "less traveled" and it "has made all the difference." The kicker is, the speaker is saying: I will be telling this story, but really, those two roads were pretty much the same. He studied both diligently: "looked down one as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth."  In the second stanza, he offers that the road he takes is one that had "the better claim" to him "[b]ecause it was grassy and wanted wear"; yet it was, he admits, "just as fair[.]" In fact, he lets slip, casually that:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
and that both roads that morning were covered "equally/ In leaves no step had trodden black." If these two roads are worn really about the same, why does he make so much of this less traveled business?
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
Oh that sigh. Of course he'll be telling his tale "with a sigh." It's part of his story, gestures to accompany this grand curation of his past. The poem's subject is less the road, or the choice of a less-traveled road, than how the speaker has put together this story. Like all of us narrating our origin myth, it's better to think we have had some firm input as to our destiny, that what we did, and our difficult choices, have made us what we are. To consider otherwise—to consider that life is a series of random events and that luck or the lack of it play a terribly great part—is not terrifically encouraging. Both roads were about the same, but when I look back on my past, I can't imagine that I had nothing to do with getting where I am. Am I some flotsam floating along with less control over events than I'd like to think? That's not a good story. Richard Poirier said of Frost that his poetry "can be said to include terror without itself being terrifying."

This is Frost, a modernist wolf in the sheepscloth of the sonnet. Lionel Trilling caused a stir at a celebration of Frost in 1985 by saying in his introduction: ''I regard Robert Frost as a terrifying poet." The audience at the Waldorf-Astoria made such a fuss that Trilling wrote an apology to Frost about having used the word terrifying.  But Frost was anything but bothered by Trilling's definition. And Trilling had read, closely, lovingly, Frost's most terrifying poem "Design."

But Frost is worth his terror, especially in what his poetry creates. Life is a random mess, and out of that mess, we make beauty.

No comments:

Post a Comment

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...