Tuesday, January 31, 2006

To Frost or not to Frost?

Great comment, Dallas! Frost is a really interesting case in the story of modern American poetry. He’s contemporaneous with most of the Modernists, or just a tiny bit older—born in 1874 (here in S.F.), Wallace Stevens is just five years younger—and published his first book, A Boy’s Will, the year before the First World War, a period when Imagism was at its height and the same year that the radical new art of Picasso, Duchamp, Matisse and many others had its first full-scale American exhibition at the landmark Armory Show of 1913

Pound championed Frost’s early work, admiring the way it eschewed the clichés of poetic diction in favor of a knotty Yankee vernacular. Frost met Pound, H.D., and other key figures in the transatlantic avant-garde in London on the eve of the First World War, and found himself increasingly linked with their circle.

But as his career unwound, Frost came to champion the values of metrical rhymed verse in a period when all poetic standards seemed to have exploded. He’s often used in literary debates today as an exemplar of a kind of counter-Modernism, proof positive that you don’t have to call all the poetic conventions into question to be a relevant modern poet.

I think what Kasey’s in a twist about is younger poets who want the glamour of experiment (Loy, Stein) while really adhering to a fairly traditional conception of the poem (Frost). I completely agree with you that where you draw the line in deciding what counts as modern, and who its true heirs are, is wide open to debate. It’s a debate that’s still very much alive, and I think it helps to explain the special divisions and energies in American poetry today. I hope we’ll join the fray in our discussions …


Dallas said...

My true colors as a Frost junkie will probably shine through here, but I just feel like he has to be considered one of the Modernists. Using iambic pentameter doesn't preclude him from being an experimenter. So many of his ideas are so simple, his images so strong, and his poems decidedly un-fluffy that I have trouble labelling him as just the last dying ember of Romanticism. Frost was still revered well into the 50's and 60's as almost a celebrity, a status that probably no contemporary poet can match.

I've read that Frost wrote a couple of poems mocking Pound's style, though they were friends. Anyone seen any of these poems? I haven't seen them in any anthologies but I think it would be interesting to see his take on what Pound was doing.

rodney k said...

O my gosh! I hope my post didn’t make you feel I was challenging your love of Frost—my apologies if it seemed that way. I’d never want to put any of you into a position like that. Mea culpa!

I was thinking more about the way Frost tends to get used in contemporary debates about poetry than about his poems themselves. You don’t find a lot of Bruce Andrews types citing Frost as an influence, for instance; it’s generally a more measured kind of poet who tends to champion his work. But I’m open to counterexamples!

Also, the pendulum’s always swinging; these poets aren’t fixed in eternity. There may come a generation of experimental rebels (you may be one of them, Dallas!) that claims Frost as a main inspiration.

BTW, a paper on the Frost/Pound relationship could be really intriguing. It was my understanding that Frost grew increasingly hostile to what Pound & co. were doing, and made efforts to distance himself from the poets considered most experimental in his day.

Your post also raised an interesting question for me: Does a poet need to be an experimenter in order to be considered modern? If so, why?

Two examples: Stephen Spielberg and Wynton Marsalis. Both well-known modern American artists, neither one especially driven to change the fundamental terms of the medium he’s working in. Are they any less important for that?

Hope others jump in, and I’ll jump out. Appreciate you posting your thoughts here!