Last week I finally started reading, or reading through-- no one intended that they be read at a sitting!-- the new 800-page edition of the Notebooks of Robert Frost, ably edited and appropriately annotated by Robert Faggen (more media attention here; David Orr's paean to Frost as a thinker here). If you haven't heard, these are the 48 notebooks in which Frost made lists, drafted poems, and recorded thoughts over the last several decades of his life (though some have entries from the 1890s); he preserved them carefully and seems to have expected a scholar or ten to publish them after his death. Since Faggen's edition removes the drafts of poems Frost completed, what we're left with is some false starts in verse, some stretches of work that seems intended to go into longer late poems, lists of titles for work not necessarily created, and lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, of thoughts, aphorisms, sentences meant to be memorable on their own, to contain some ironic twist on expected wisdom, or to react to the tenor of Frost's times. I expected something like the other books of aphorisms I've recently enjoyed-- James Richardson's new ones, or G. C. Lichtenberg's old ones-- along with some thoughts on the composition of poetry or the nature of art. What I've found so far is both less and more...

Frost did record, as one might hope, lots of witty remarks, and lots of thoughtful remarks, about kinds, schools, and aspects of art. Here's one I expect to use myself someday: "A regionalist is one who picked out a region (such as the abdomen fundament or elbow [)] and has a pain [in] it." As I should have expected, but didn't, Frost recorded (there's at least one notebook that seems to have been set aside for this purpose) many of his thoughts on education, on the right way and the wrong ways (there are many wrong ways) to help young people figure out what they can do and what they should believe. One such entry contrasts (Frost does not say they are incompatible, but I think he must have thought they were) three views of a young person's mind: "Our nature is like a bucket to be filled/ Our nature is like a seed to be watered and tended and unfolded/ Our nature is like a conflagration ready to run in any direction where it finds fuel."
As you might expect of so thoroughly Emersonian a writer, Frost often appeals to the individual-- in a school or, more often, out of it-- as the final basis for any belief:"Offhand judgment is the only kind in human affairs. You may be as conversant as you will with all knowledge in the world the final act of judgment is always a jump."
What surprises me most so far (and I'm not all the way through the book-- it's a very big book) grows in a rather depressing, and Depression-related, way from that strand of Frostian individualism: it's his antipathy to the New Deal, to any form of collective action or top-down intervention in human life, to anything in culture or society which tends to aggregrate human beings rather than distinguishing them from one another or asking them to try to distinguish themselves. There's an early entry (it sounds very much like reports of his conversation) in which he divides all human beings into "Sore Heads," "hungry radicals," "Sap Heads" who can "hardly bear it that others were not as well off as they," and "Hard Heads" such as Frost himself who believe "that we had a right to our luck and ability," which looks like a great slogan for free-market conservatives until you realize that Frost's categories can be redescribed as "angry people," "kind people" and "mean people." And there are many entries-- most of them, I suspect, from after 1932-- which associate any redistributionist or collectivizing impulse in society with entropy, the tendency (much noticed in Frost) for all things to run down and end in chaos or death: "By the law of diminishing returns civilization must some day arrive in socialism but why anticipate the day." And much more where that came from.
There's a kind of amorality in Frost, a hard cold insistence that we look at the real, rather than the hopefully supposed, springs of human action, an amorality I cherish, and which he has done as much as anyone to realize in verse. That's the common element between such great pieces of (supposed) light verse as "Provide, Provide" and such more obviously profound (and almost as powerful) poems as "Design." No American poet has known more about the flaws and flimsy threads in the promises we make to one another, or which we fondly imagine that we have made. Frost is a good enough writer that one wants to have read at least some of his notes to himself. But when those notes turn from matters of first and last things, of individual life in an uncaring cosmos or a difficult household, to matters of daily news, to how Frost wants or doesn't want society organized, his hardheadedness becomes stubbornness, and his attention to the ways in which we are all alone becomes an insistence that since he didn't get any help from institutions, nobody else should ever have any either. It's surprising, at least so far, in this big set of notebooks, how often his attention makes that depressing turn.
Speaking of institutions, and of the things that governments can do for us, someone should say something here about Veterans' Day: since I have no special knowledge about military life, may I simply link to a handful of more or less appropriate poets and poems?

Originally Published: November 12th, 2007

Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...

  1. November 12, 2007
     Don Share

    Harriet readers might also like to read Kay Ryan's essay on the Frost notebooks from the September issue of Poetry, as well as to hear her podcast on the same subject.

  2. November 12, 2007

    Indeed. As Ryan writes: "The suspicious part of Frost saw every beautiful thing that he was capable of as a rock to throw."

  3. November 12, 2007
     Henry Gould

    I'm not sure "amorality" is the right word to define the attitude you describe. Sounds more like pessimism to me. Like those religious thinkers who harp on the consequences of Original Sin and ignore those of Redemption.

  4. November 13, 2007
     Don Share

    The Collected Prose of Robert Frost will be published in January, and it'll be interesting to see what people think; some of the pieces are familiar, and can be found in the Library of America Frost volume, among other places. Mostly, these are speeches and solicted magazine articles (not counting his early "chicken stories" for such periodicals as The Eastern Poultryman), and so reiterate familiar themes. There's a poignant moment at the very end of the book: a statement written for the 53rd annual dinner of the PSA in 1963, dictated from his hospital bed. It is very brief, and concludes:
    "I may wobble when I'm sitting up but I never waver."
    He never did.