Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by John M. Ridland
Dear Editor,

"It almost scares / A man the way things come in pairs," Kay Ryan quotes Frost while reviewing the new Notebooks ("I Demand to Speak with God," September 2007), so painstakingly compiled and annotated by Robert Faggen. When you paired up one of our most thinking poets with the old master, who played with forms of the root think over and over, you did a brilliant job of matchmaking. The Notebooks are a compendium of Frost's thinks, his big ideas (skewered in the title) and his small ones, too. They're ripe for the sort of plucking Kay Ryan (and precious few other poets of today) could do. And she does it handsomely.

On one poem, though, she ignores an intention that Frost and his scholars have settled on. "To a Thinker" was first published in the Saturday Review of Literature on January 11, 1936, under the title, "To a Thinker in Office." Nobody supposed this could have been addressed to anyone other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, then entering the fourth year of his first term. The New York Times even editorialized about the poem (those were the days!) after a reporter for the Baltimore Sun apparently got Frost to concede that "Mr. Roosevelt is the addressee." Frost was up to his chin in politics by then, as in "Build Soil — A Political Pastoral," the long poem he placed just before "To a Thinker" in the collection he issued that year, A Further Range. In that book's dedication Frost specified that "further" meant he was ranging beyond his north-of-Boston hills "even into the realm of government and religion."

This makes some of "To a Thinker" sound more than slightly heavy-barreled:

Just now you're off democracy
(With a polite regret to be),
And leaning on dictatorship.


It seems very unlikely that he would have been aiming such an accusation to spoof his own habit of mind, as Ryan says. Frost realized that the unkindest cut in the poem, which makes no sense applied to the poet himself, was the image it gave of its "thinker" not "walking" but "rocking" from side to side, as Roosevelt did after losing the use of his legs to polio. Frost tried to distance himself from his target in a letter of March 15, 1936. Claiming "it was only by restriction of meaning that [the poem] was narrowed down to fit the President," he declared (to the disbelief of biographers and scholars):

As a matter of fact it was written three years ago and was aimed at the heads of our easy despairers of the republic and of parliamentary forms of government....I doubt if my native delicacy would have permitted me to use the figure of walking and rocking in connection with a person of the President's personal infirmities. But I am willing to let it go as aimed at him. He must deserve it or people wouldn't be so quick to see him in it.

Santa Barbara, California


Originally Published: November 15, 2007

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Biography

John Ridland has published a dozen books and chapbooks, including a verse translation of the Hungarian folk epic John the Valiant (Corvina Press, Budapest, 1999).

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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