Friday, October 18, 2013

"Who will come to the old man's rescue?"

Robert Frost before he became "the old man."
Have you seen this article by Ron Charles, giving glimpses of a story? Joyce Carol Oates is stirring up attention, attacking Robert Frost (and his poems) by the means of the cudgel of a story in the November Harper's. I have a few thoughts about this sort of enterprise, even before I see the full story, only partially available to non-subscribers.

Disclaimer: I have read many books by the writer, both poetry and fiction, and I have nothing against her as a person--never met her and am not suffering from any negative feelings toward her. In fact, I am the sort of person who rarely gets angry at people in real life, so I'm not too likely to have bad feelings about people I don't even know.
  • For me, it is wrong to take selective bits of a living or once-living person's life and write a story about them in order for the author to grind an axe. This portrayal feels too personal and too governed by the desire to mock and to debase for the author's own purposes. (Here I should admit that I have written one fictional piece based on--based on, not professing to be the truth--events associated with a once-living person. I wrote it because I was fascinated and intrigued and felt sympathy for how the man's nature clashed with his time and place. I did not use his name. It is forthcoming. I also used the Puritan figure of Edward Taylor as a minor figure in one of my novels and in a story, though only a tiny number of readers recognized him. I believe no axes were ground in any of those tales.) 
  • I happen to believe that it is always a mistake to write a story from a stance of lovelessness. It is probably a mistake to write anything or even say anything from that stance. "Love one another" is pretty good advice for human beings and hey, even for writers. What's the point of a character you despise and upon whom you visit no mercy?
  • Desire to transgress with the unwitting help of the dead seems to me . . . necrophiliac.
  • If you have no sympathy with Robert Frost's instinctual grasp of structure, sound, and metrical variation, fine. (In that case, I probably won't be thinking all that highly of your understanding of poetry, even if you have published a good deal of poetry, but you in turn won't be thinking highly of mine, so we come out even.)
  • Side note: Robert Frost has been out of fashion for a good long time--not that I give one little whit or hoot about fashion. Attacking him is both ostensibly transgressive (he's sexist! he's racist! etcetera) and yet weirdly easy. Let's topple somebody who's out of fashion! It's about like cow-tipping. Now Poe was brave when he attacked W. W. Lord, a poetry power in the realm at that time (and, oddly enough, once rector here at Christ Church in Cooperstown.) But attacking Frost is about like attacking Longfellow these days. (Both deserve not to be forgotten.) Here I note that Frost's attacker is given a Longfellow name, Evangeline. Longfellow's poem of the same name was enormously popular.
  • The fact is that Modernism stripped away many of the elements of poetry, not just sound and form, and that the richness and sentiment and color and abundance of a poet like Frost now look fairly strange to many of those who came after. That's okay. The thing we are now--post-post-post-Modernism or what have you--will also pass away (if it hasn't already) and look strange in its turn. People will wonder how so much of our poetry became so thin and drab and pedestrian and unpleasing to the ear. People will not wonder why we lost our audience.
  • There is no progress in poetry. There is only alternation and flux and the occasional achievement of beauty and power. To think that there is progress gives a person the strange idea that one might just be a better person and poet than an accomplished writer who lived in an earlier time. This is a false way to think. Because he lived long ago, Andrew Marvell is not less than, say, Mary Oliver. As a writer, he might even be better. I don't care about whether he's better or not better in any other way. It's not my business or my interest.
  • People who lived in the past are not exactly the same as people who live now. It is a category error to think that people in the past were just like us and felt and believed exactly as we do. (That's why we have so many historical novels that sound like contemporary people are wearing fancy dress and pretending. And it's why we can sometimes feel so very self-righteous in scolding the great men and women of the past.)
  • I do not care about Robert Frost's failings as a human being, or about how he evinced any traces of his time and culture. Robert Frost is done with all earthly repentance and grief and attempts to be a better person. We the living are the ones who must struggle in that way now. 
  • What I care about in the case of Robert Frost is something very different. I care that he gave over much of his life to the making of wonderful little constructions of beauty and power out of words and "a mouthful of air," as Yeats said. I care about the costly-to-him, free-to-us gift that he left behind for me and anybody who wishes to pick it up. That is no little thing. 
Ron Charles asks who will defend him. Who will come to the old man's rescue? As I said earlier in the day, Frost, you have at least one woman who will heave-ho your dadgum statue back in place.

Close of the late poem, "Directive"--

 Weep for what little things could make them glad.
 Then for the house that is no more a house,
 But only a belilaced cellar hole,
 Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
 This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
 Your destination and your destiny's
 A brook that was the water of the house,
 Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
 Too lofty and original to rage.
 (We know the valley streams that when aroused
 Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
 I have kept hidden in the instep arch
 Of an old cedar at the waterside
 A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
 Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
 So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
 (I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.) 
 Here are your waters and your watering place.
 Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.


  1. Marly, I love Frost, and don't give a damn whether he is out of fashion or not. He has gotten me through many sleepless nights, one in particular, filled with enormous grief in which his words about grief and land and relationships were exactly what I needed to hear. In other words, that it is never easy. Thank you for what you said here; I agree with all of it. I mistrust it whenever a living writer decides to go after a "great" one in a negative way; it says far more to me about the writer's own insecurities and personality than it ever does about the person whose work is already standing on its own. You said it very well.

  2. I read only positive support for Robert Frost, and no direct attack on Joyce Carol Oates, unless by defending him you are by implication criticizing her criticism of him.

  3. I feel that Robert Frost needs no defense
    for he drives wagon down less traveled road
    and brings glowing light to dark ancient woods
    when he sings spells with voice of wolf and wind.

  4. Just as I don't need to know that Beethoven was pretty deaf to enjoy his music, I don't need to know about Frost as a person to enjoy his poetry.

    All I can say about the slaughter of a character in this manner is.... it doesn't affect his poetry in any way whatsoever; it's simply an unpleasant and unnecessary stab in the back to a man who is long gone. Are we supposed to dislike his work, or like it more for such imaginative 'revelations'? Would doing this perhaps 'explain' his work to us?
    Well... I would rather read a poet's work and have it explain itself to me, as poetry is supposed to do, than have a subtext overlay it by another.

    I really do not think that the history of an artist's life is a subtitle to any of their works. But mean-spirited commentaries on other artists' lives is absolutely a subtitle to the character of the authors of such things.


  5. Thanks to Beth and Surazeus Astarius and Paul--

    I, too, have found Frost in dark times. He was, after all, acquainted with the night.

    Interesting how these sorts of things turn back on us, as Beth and Paul point out. I think that the idea of not judging "lest you be judged" is deep in the Western character.

    Other made-immediately-after-posting comments can be found at Interesting to see what people have to say about cow-tipping, truth, and other important matters!

    I look forward to more thoughts, pro and con...

  6. Wait, Robert Frost was HUMAN? Joyce Carol Oates is HUMAN? What's to defend?

    From what little we see of the story neither the imagined Frost nor the writer are at his or her best.

    Yet, once again, Marly, you cut through what my grandfather used to call the "ca-ca" and get right to the truth of the matter.

  7. Ah, Jeremy, thank you!

    Much appreciated. Cutting through is good... And being invoked in the same breath as your impressive grandfather!

    * * *

    Getting heaps of facebook and twitter comments and re-postings, and so far they are positive except I did get a very interesting remark about the first point, and how it would have prevent Shakespeare from creating Richard III. Now I think there's a sharp difference there between the way the two figures are handled by each writer, but I want to think about it some more.

  8. And should add that I altered the first point slightly, though I am still thinking about it.

  9. Shakespeare's Richard III is clearly an imaginative interpretation of an historic figure/person.
    It is (and probably was) accepted as that.

    That is the difference.

  10. I mean....
    If Frost had been written into a play as a character with poor qualities, this would have been sad - but not quite as distasteful (?)

  11. Yes, that's significant. And you know, even though he's short and twisted and villainous, Richard has a largeness and a complexity about him. He's reflective and capable of charming others. He is endowed with attractive powers even though he is monstrous. And he has a lovely golden halo of language surrounding him--love that play!

    Interesting that out of the many comments on this post elsewhere, the only negative comment had to do with the first point. And I think it was right and that I hadn't refined the idea enough...

    Still thinking about the issue.

  12. Thanks, Dave Lull! Busy shoehorning child no. 3 out of the house for school but shall read later in the morning...

  13. Thanks, I hadn't seen that response. The part about his now-elderly grandchildren is so sad. Of course they would be disturbed. Must say I am glad they have spoken out.

    That panties line really was just mortifying and embarrassing! Cringe-making.

    The fact is that these things violate much that we know about Frost, and so intrude on and spoil the Oates story because we must take it as either ruined fiction--because these things jerk us out of any sense of story and fictional dream--or ill-hearted nonfiction.

  14. p. s. to Dave--

    That was good! “There can be no good excuse, under the guise of a quasi-gothic story with a chimerical narrator, for perpetuating (and compounding) unfounded, dubious charges against Frost of the kind trotted out for display here. Oates knows full well the history of ‘the monster myth,’ and how it has haunted the poet for forty years. Dabbling in it, by whatever gothic, dreamy indirection, becomes no one.”

    And thanks for introducing me to Mark Richardson's blog. too.

  15. You're welcome, Marly. I'm glad you enjoyed Mark's blog posting and I'm sure you'll find a lot to enjoy among his other postings. He's a wonderful close reader of poetry and a wonderful scholar, especially of RF. By the way, he's co-editing Harvard University Press's The Letters of Robert Frost, volume one of which is due out early in 2014:

  16. Dave,

    I read his piece directed toward students and lyric poetry and really liked it!

    Did you see the Micah Mattix piece on Oates? Attacks the story as story: Mattix on Oates.

  17. Hi Marly,

    A few years ago I printed out Mark's guide to reading lyric poetry and told him:

    "By the way, I wish I’d had your WHAT I WANT (AS A TEACHER OF LYRIC POETRY) . . . to guide my reading when I was an undergraduate; but reading it now is still timely because I’m still capable of learning a thing or two– and even changing a habit or two."

    I did see Micah Mattix's piece. But thanks for the tip.


  18. Yes, I think it would be helpful to a lot of readers. In grad school, I noticed that many students did not know how to read poetry, particularly 17th century poetry. Particularly Vaughan and Herbert...

    Many had never written any, either, so didn't have that assistance--or if they had done so, had only written a very prosaic, arbitrarily-broken sort of "poetry."



Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.