POETRY September 2007

On the Long Island Rail Road train to Montauk, I read Kay Ryan's review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost, edited by Robert Faggen. The review was absorbing, so I did not pay much attention to the towns and villages flashing by.

In the notebooks Frost displays a kind of mind that thinks in PowerPoint, generating stays against confusion almost before there was any confusion. He repeats to himself what he insisted on publicly: "Nothing more composing than composition," and in fact the phrase is the first line of Frost's final notebook. More tenderly he says, "To me any little form is velvet." Generally, however, the form is more Sharpie than velvet. His notebook thinking runs to arrows, vectors, circles, bulls'eyes, ascending trajectories, descending trajectories. "There is a...life trajectory from less to more," he says in one place, and makes a little chart of the subcategories of this general truth: "From little or no family to more family," and the same with money, fame, understanding, assurance, personality, and physique. Unremarkable apercus like this become interesting exactly because they are so unremarkable; Frost really likes the senation of drawing a gird over life. And it makes sense: if you're going to be losing your way--which is half the definition of being a poet--isn't it good to have some cardinal points to come back to?

I find this fascinating stuff. The mind of a business executive applying and losing itself to poetry, and then finding itself by formulating a table of risk asssessment. The PowerPoint comparison is somewhat snide, but it reminds me of my tendency to think in bullet-pointed lists in writing letters and memos. When I was Vice Principal of a secondary school in Singapore, one of my chief pleasures was putting together a teachers' manual. I enjoyed listing, categorizing, and ordering the points of information, the sets of guidelines, and the clusters of topics into some kind of ideal and logical form. I had always thought of this tendency as antithetical to writing poetry, while Frost's Notebooks suggest otherwise, or, at least, a way to exploit it.


Kay Ryan:

A poem by its nature operates beyond rational control, which is a great service to a mind as controlling as Frost's. A poem means you're in too deep. In "Spring Pools," for all its balanced, reflected imagery of pools and flowers and all its tidy buttoned-up rhyming, Frost has got himself just where he craves to be--in an elemental battled where he's not the boss. The best form can do is serve as a barricade, giving the illusion of containment to the forces he's unleashed.

I like the matter-of-fact way Ryan puts it: a poem means you're in too deep. Form is a momentary stay against confusion. That is one of the truest insights about poetry. Here's the poem by Frost.

Spring Pools

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods---
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.


At the Harborside Resort Motel, Merle checked us in and explained where to find dinner. The room was clean and simply furnished, much bigger than the one I had at Grove Hotel on Fire Island. After putting down our things, we walked along Lake Montauk towards the harbor. None of the restaurants particularly caught our fancy. They were pricey too. We walked back to the motel, and went to the Clam and Chowder Restaurant and Bar in the West Lake Marina. The outdoor bar was lively but not too noisy to talk. We had a soft-shelled crab sandwich and an oven-roasted swordfish. The crab was delicious but the fish was overcooked.


A.H. said…
An interesting selection of ideas. Ah, but how like a Piscean to swim both ways, loving the fish tank/grid and the sea/open white paper. Oh...a poems means "your in too deep". That's apt! :-)
Anonymous said…
i haven't read Frost very carefully, but i like what i see - that steely darkness beneath the gruff country manners. (One of my fellow Englisher friends absolutely detests / despises his work for the same reason - what i see as brilliant cunning she sees as hypocrisy.) i also like the combination of discipline and flexibility in his use of form.
Jee Leong said…
Dear eshun,
this Pisces longs for the sea growing old in the cliff-chasm (Moore's "The Fish").
Jee Leong said…
Dear rui,
have you read Frost's "Home Burial"? Long narrative poem choked by unspoken, unspeakable, emotions.
Anonymous said…
Yes, 'Home Burial' is painful. Ironic that so much is unspoken in a poem that's mostly dialogue. i also like 'Out, out -' (partly cos i've taught it, and of course that forced me to know it inside out), 'To Earthward' (a different kind of choking there, but oh so beautiful), and of course that old misunderstood favourite, 'The Road Not Taken', which i used at the start of every school year, not just as an occasion to talk to my students about choice, but also to show them that they didn't know how to read properly (in the hope, of course, that the poem would teach them humility).
Jee Leong said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jee Leong said…
Hi rui,
I love "Out, out." When I taught S. E. Hinton's "The Outsiders" to my Sec. 2 years ago, we memorized "Nature's first green is gold."
Anonymous said…
Hi Jee Leong and Rui,

Thanks for the interesting discussion. I didn't know "Spring Pools," so I'm glad you quoted it in full, Jee Leong. This might seem an odd comparison, but Frost's emotions in form have always reminded me of Bach. And Rui, you put it very nicely about "the combination of discipline and flexibility in his use of form." "The Silken Tent" can be read as both a statement about and a beautiful example of a balance between freedom and discipline.
Jee Leong said…
Hi monkey,
I love the comparison of Frost to Bach. Your reading of "The Silken Tent" makes me see that poem differently.
Anonymous said…
ah you two Bach fans. i was just comparing Frost to Brahms meself. obviously Brahms' music is much more clearly 'emotional' than Bach's, but he *is* known as the Romantic who was probably the most obsessed with Classical form.
Jee Leong said…
Hi rui,
hmmm...yummy brahms.

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