Second is Frost's extensively developed theory about what he called "sentence-sounds." In his view, poetry was less the craft of images -- of vision -- than the craft of sentences. We know this from his letters and essays, but it's explored in fascinating fits and starts here. Although poets certainly talk a great deal about aural effects, Frost meant something more complicated: the quality of intonation in song. In one notebook, he writes, "The sentence ... almost seems the soul of a certain set of words." In another, he elaborates: "The essential sentence" is a "tone of voice" that "belongs" to man as songs belong to a bird. What Frost is trying to get at has to do with the way people talk. As he explains to an imaginary listener, you can say "no" in a variety of tones; how, then, does a poem convey the specific tone it means? Frost's answer has to do with the relation between syntax and phrasing and the poem's meter (which is a way of encouraging the ear to hear certain stresses).
This preoccupation with sentence-sounds reflects Frost's distaste for adornment and poetical language. Unlike many of the poets writing in popular magazines at the time, he eschewed pretty thoughts of transcendence for their own sake. He was trying to capture the American language as it was actually used -- "words that have been mouthed like a common tin cup" -- rather than lose himself in a romanticized vision of "aeries" and "widening gyres." Faggen calls Frost's notebooks a "laboratory" and so they seem. What they capture is a figure bent on examining above all how to say things he considers true. "I have made a life study of what I can say," Frost writes. For "all we have learned is clouded with a doubt." If his lodestars are pragmatism and reticence, his notebooks reveal how hard-won these qualities were -- how Frost struggled to combat his vanity and the scorn he sometimes felt for others. "Every human being must learn to carry his own craziness [and] confusion and not bother his friends about it. He will have clarifications but they will be momentary [flashes] like this -- little shapes like poems vortex smoke rings." In Frost's poems, there is an overwhelming sense of emotions and events held in check -- this is a poet who admires forms shaped by constraint. (Reading "The Notebooks," it is tempting to see this as Frost's clever way of restraining his own ego.) In his small poem "Pertinax," he writes, "Let chaos storm! / Let cloud shapes swarm! / I wait for form." Complicating this outlook is that he also hated prescriptive interpretations; he felt that need for "room." His most beloved poems rest on ambiguities that only look like conclusions, as in the end to "The Road Not Taken" or "For Once, Then, Something," about a man looking into a well:
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.
\f7"Something" is perceived -- but what? What is its nature? What is the outlook of the speaker? It is impossible to know, and it's in this rejection of the grand gesture that Frost's homely appeal lies. It is a distinctly American point of view, inherited from William James (and even from Emerson). And we detect in these notebooks how Frost wrestled profoundly with his pragmatism, holding ongoing conversations with himself.
The reader turning to "The Notebooks of Robert Frost" for clarifications and conclusiveness will not find them. In the end, Frost was never a systematic thinker. Even his epigrams and aphorisms are parts standing for a whole, not a whole built out of parts. One intuits the same fragmentary isolation in the poems, the unwillingness to reveal the poet's own stance. In this sense, he was always in search of "the room he needed." But perhaps he never knew, or wanted us to know, exactly what he needed it for. *