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The Art of The Art of Robert Frost
At the New Republic, Adam Plunkett reviews The Art of Robert Frost (Yale University Press 2012), by Tim Kendall. The book includes a selection of sixty-five poems from across Frost’s writing career, beginning in the 1890s and ending with “Directive” from the 1940s, as well as close readings of the poems and a critical study of Frost’s style over time. “Nearly all the major work on Frost is from sixty-year-old essays and talks … and out-of-print books,” remarks Plunkett.
Kendall is very observant and is careful enough, if not perfect; the book is both a fine introduction to Frost and a thoughtful work of criticism, bringing the corpus of Frost scholarship to bear on the poems’ minutiae and on their places in the whole of Frost’s work. This is what makes it such a good example of what we miss when we read Frost without sustained attention to the conflicts that he provokes in ourselves.
And how about that art?
The art of Robert Frost, according to The Art of Robert Frost, is that of meaning a number of things by what he said. No one would disagree, not even the middle-schoolers, which I suspect is why Kendall brings up the idea with an SAT word, “ulteriority,” and contorts himself trying to define it: “Although Frost defined ulteriority as ‘saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another,’ it is better to think of it as a way of meaning two things at once, or of saying one thing in terms of another thing which is also said.” If the main tension in Frost’s art is between the literal and the ulterior, the critic’s main task is to figure out which is which. “The issue central to any consideration of Frost’s achievement,” Kendall writes, is “how [we can] know when we should read for ulteriority.” What the method largely misses are the ways in which our projections are themselves central to our readings of the poems, the ways in which we read ulteriority into Frost’s words whether we’d like to or not.
Plunkett looks closely at many of the short poems Frost is known for. And yet: “The Art of Robert Frost is at its best not with the shorter lyric poems, which I have been discussing, but with the longer narrative poems, such as those that make up nearly all of Frost’s second book, North of Boston, the only collection that Kendall republishes in full.” Keep reading at the New Republic.