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He only made it look easy

The Notebooks of Robert Frost Edited by Robert Faggen Belknap Press / Harvard University Press: 848 pp.,$39.95

March 04, 2007|Meghan O'Rourke | Meghan O'Rourke is the literary editor of Slate and a poetry editor at the Paris Review. Her first book of poems, "Halflife," will be published this spring.

ROBERT FROST liked to compose his poems in an overstuffed blue chair that had no arms because, he told the Paris Review in 1960, it left him "the room he needed." This sentiment may seem curious to those who know Frost best as an uptight alternative to the radical modern experimentations of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. While they were introducing the world to the innovations of free verse, the Yankee farmer-poet was composing rhyming, iambic poems about boys climbing trees; of free verse, he sniffed that he would "as soon play tennis with the net down." Frost was a man whose work relied largely on what one critic called "self-restriction" and whose poems could appear, at first glance, to deliver up predigested bits of folksy wisdom, as in "The Road Not Taken": "I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference."

But the need for "room" hints at what was always lurking behind the popular Frost -- a more complex artist with a darker view than his presence on high school syllabi might lead you to expect. This Frost, whose early champion was the poet and critic Randall Jarrell, writes tragic philosophical poems (like "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep" and "Out, Out -- "). His best work relies on reticence and canny evasions: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." The two Frosts -- the wholesome sage and the recalcitrant skeptic -- are usually discussed as if they were different people, or as if the latter Frost were the real Frost and the first merely the crude misreading of a sentimental American public. But the reality is more complicated, as "The Notebooks of Robert Frost," expertly edited by Robert Faggen, drives home.

Featuring some 800 pages of musings, drafts, detritus, epigrams and ruminations, "The Notebooks of Robert Frost" underscores how entwined the two Frosts truly were. The author was a set of inconsistencies: a Romantic bent on critiquing Romanticism; a pragmatist and quasi-Social Darwinist who wasn't quite convinced of his own views. As Faggen points out in an insightful introduction, Frost returns again and again to the feeling that life "can consist of the inconsistent." Like Thomas Hardy before him, he was skeptical of the tidy categories and labels society tended to supply. He describes the public as "hasty judges." He spoke of wishing to be viewed as "the exception I like to think I am in everything."

This resistance to categorization may derive in part from his biography. It wasn't until he was 38 that he published his first book of poems. Before then, he lived in obscurity with his high school sweetheart, Elinor, raising chickens and teaching in schools outside of Boston. He had seen his father die young from drink; two of his own children died when they were young. (Another son later killed himself, and a daughter was institutionalized.) His rural life was far from bucolic, in part because he persisted in writing poems rather than taking farming seriously.

What, then, can be gleaned from Frost's notebooks? Will the "real" man be found, as he cannot be in his poems? The notebooks were written over more than six decades, and Faggen has published them essentially unchanged. As a result, the book can be hard going, since it includes what amount to grocery lists ("Milk ... Butter ... Potatoes") and private jottings ("Rubbering in Oaxaca"). But patient readers will discover plenty of the pith of which Frost was capable. Cumulatively, the fragments are almost poignant; they underscore the privacy of the human mind and remind us of the labor that goes into the apparent transparency of Frost's poetry. And while we don't learn much about his actual mode of composition -- there are few drafts here -- the notebooks do supply a great deal of what Faggen calls "insight into the ... ideas that became poems." Two preoccupations stand out. First, there is the poet's obsession with epigram and aphorism, which at its most condensed brings to mind Pascal's "Pensees." "Politics is an honest effort to misunderstand one another," Frost writes. "Progress is like walking on a rolling barrel." And: "To be quite free one must be free to refuse."

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