Prose from Poetry Magazine

I Demand to Speak with God

"Reading Frost's private notebooks is the opposite of pulling back the curtain on Oz. While the real Oz turns out to be a little man working a big speaker system, the real Frost turns out to be someone naturally-preternaturally-amplified even when nobody else is listening."
The Notebooks of Robert Frost. Ed. by Robert Faggen.
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. $39.95.

Reading Frost's private notebooks is the opposite of pulling back the curtain on Oz. While the real Oz turns out to be a little man working a big speaker system, the real Frost turns out to be someone naturally—preternaturally—amplified even when nobody else is listening. The Notebooks of Robert Frost is his collected scraps, none of it written for an audience; it is the not-poetry, not-letters, not-lectures; it is the teacher's book lists and lecturer's notes, private reminders, scotched ideas, trial balloons, epigram practice sheets, scraps of plays and drafts of verse, fulminations and less-than-fulminations—all exactly as they came, except no longer in Frost's blocky hand (though his ink colors are duly noted). Over the course of 688 pages, Frost has the answer for everything and the counter question—repeated to the Fth power. The voice that comes through even this fractured note-jotting is so supersaturated with authority that one winds up amazed that Frost was able to get down from his horse long enough to write the most beautiful American poems of the twentieth century.

If you're looking for Trilling's terrifying Frost of despair and desert places, you seldom find him here. This most private Frost turns out to be pretty much the Frost Frost promoted. In the notebooks we get the whole Yankee prop room—the idioms ("He opened his mouth a hundred dollars too soon on a lot of cows"), the good sense, the saltiness, the feisty independence, the belligerent pride in a new country that isn't all "run out" the way Europe is. (He'd like to "blow Shakespeare out of the English language" for the way he's overawed our writers.) Really, the Notebook Frost is surprisingly undark, unlost—un private.

Yes, sorry to say there is precious little gossip-worthy revelation, despite the periodic turbulence of Frost's life. No familial discord, no word of his son's suicide, no late-life fascination with Kay Morrison, no machinations to get his gay colleague fired or other dastardly plots we'd like to know more about. And more surprising, when you think about Frost's poetry, is the utter absence of nature notes—no birches, no birds, no weather, no interest in rock wall construction. And something else that's missing is chronology. The entries really are a frustrating scramble. It turns out that Frost packed around a satchel full of these undated notebooks (there are ultimately forty-eight, each here archivally described and transcribed) with him over the years and continued not only to thumb through them but to add to them, so that entries next to each other in a "Brown soft paper cover spiral bound flip pad, 4 1/8˝ x 6˝ Ruled pages" might have been written thirty years apart. You just don't know unless a pre-wwi reference happens to be followed by a New Deal reference. In his hyper-thorough and interesting notes (a pleasure in themselves), the editor, Robert Faggen, tips us off to such markers when he can.

There is a whole category of poets who are the "talking-back" poets, getting much of their energy from disagreeing or taking exception. Frost is at the top of the list. Frost always has to have this push-back he's writing against. He can argue harder; he can put all his force on one side; and he doesn't need to be fair. Plus, it's fun. We know he's talking about himself when he advises, "take an extreme position for the fun of battle." His natural rhetorical stance is dialogue, even when he's the only one talking, in which case he calls it "self-repartee" or "my part in a conversation in which the other part is more or less implied." Frost never doubts the generative potential of his own mind: "The best mind asks and answers his own questions not questions asked by others." Here's a typical bit of Frost fun:

I demand to speak with God

What is your business with God

I couldn't explain that to anybody but God

There is not God

So much the better perhaps. Because that rules out half my business. If there is no God there can be no future life. The present life is all I should have to worry about.

However, if there does happen to be a live enemy on the other side, he also relishes that: "something fierce . . . rises in my nature at the sight of someone else trying to get the better of me." Resistance is primary to everything about Frost: "Life catches on something to resist itself." Much of Frost's vitality comes from a desire to beat the other guy—and everybody's the other guy: "God too is out to win." He maintains in his Paris Review interview that "When [young people] want to know about inspiration, I tell them it's mostly animus."

The constant black hat can get to be a tiresome pose. It's as though the suspicious part of Frost saw every beautiful thing that he was capable of as a rock to throw. The reader must forever remember that whatever stance Frost takes, in the notebooks as elsewhere, virtuous or vile, you can be sure he'll sooner or later say it's a pose or a trick. Here, under the notebook heading "The Self-torturer," is an unsparing piece of what appears to be self-analysis (masked as "we") which undoes his entire claim to goodness and sense:

We have a reputation for good sense for kindness of heart. . . . Our good sense has been a gift for making phrase and . . . proverb (we have never known what we were doing.) Our kindness of heart has been only dramatic and in general (Our follies have entailed great suffering).

And you see him repeatedly brand his humor "the most engaging cowardice. With it myself I have been able to hold some of my enem[ies] in play far out of gunshot." There's something poisonous or at least reductive in his chronic insistence on this combative stance, and if we take it too seriously we're fooled into thinking Frost is smaller than he is.

Of course, in the beginning Frost had reasons to style himself a fighter, even if later it comes to feel like a bad habit. He wrote much of his greatest poetry (most of the first three books, he says) before he'd published or had a lick of recognition. All he looked like was a bad chicken farmer. I was moved by what must have been an early note in which he says he's been "accused of talking as if to an audience when I have none."

He was lonely, but he also felt that he needed to be alone: "Dont go near anyone till you are strong-selfed enough not to be too much influenced," he says. We see his struggle to justify himself to himself and answer the imagined criticisms: "Why is it any more sincere and less hypocritical to . . . give up and sink back into what we came out of than to strain forward to what we are going to become?" It could be argued that Frost prevailed as a poet precisely because he could hold out alone. And who among us knows how to quit a behavior after it's done its job? Then, too, maybe he never needed to be such a sharp operator in the first place; he considers this from the distance of the third person: "He [Frost] thought he was prevailing by . . . sheer worldly force and shrewdness, the traits that as a poet he wasn't supposed to have. . . . But all the time he was really a good poet and got . . . no inch further than his poetry made way for him." But the thing is, he liked being a sharp operator—mounting letter-writing campaigns to secure the good opinion of influential critics for his early books; undermining poets, including Robinson and Sandburg, whom he saw as serious rivals; and on one unequaled occasion going so far as to "accidentally" start a little fire on stage at Bread Loaf just as Archibald MacLeish was launching into his biggest crowd pleaser.

In the notebooks Frost displays a kind of mind that thinks in PowerPoint, generating stays against confusion almost before there was any confusion. He repeats to himself what he insisted on publicly: "Nothing more composing than composition," and in fact the phrase is the first line of Frost's final notebook. More tenderly he says, "To me any little form is velvet." Generally, however, the form is more Sharpie than velvet. His notebook thinking runs to arrows, vectors, circles, bull's-eyes, ascending trajectories, descending trajectories. "There is a . . . life trajectory from less to more," he says in one place, and makes a little chart of the subcategories of this general truth: "From little or no family to more family," and the same with money, fame, understanding, assurance, personality, and physique. Unremarkable aperçus like this become interesting exactly because they are so unremarkable; Frost really likes the sensation of drawing a grid over life. And it makes sense: if you're going to be losing your way—which is half of the definition of being a poet—isn't it good to have some cardinal points to come back to?

And the points are very cardinal. Frost likes to think about really big systems (democracy, socialism, utopianism, Darwinism) and argue with the great points of the great books. Philosophers are set up just well enough to be slapped—or slapped on the back. You must have systems to fight systems, and the bigger the system you take on, the bigger fellow you are when you knock it over. Actually, Frost sounds just like what he was—an autodidact, essentially, with the pugnacity of the self-taught-and-proud-of-it. He sees the independent mind as constantly under attack: "You have to make your mind up fresh every day just as [you] do your bed." The fact that he was a college dropout (because "I was in a trance with poetry that made it as distasteful to listen to [teachers] talk about poetry as it would have been to read Freud ... when I was in love") combined with his long career as the country's first poet in residence on various college campuses (which he respells—more correctly—as "Poet in resistance") predisposed him to note (and note and note) how little wisdom is got through specialization. He says in his Paris Review interview, "I'm not thorough. . . . I hate the idea that you have to read the whole of anybody." Frost is a big advocate of pace. It's not so important to think things out in all their detail as it is to keep going forward, jumping from peak to peak without looking down.

A counterforce to Frost's zeal for abstractions is his hair-trigger gift for concocting epigrams that make his big ideas instantly physical. Thinking very broadly about what makes America tick, as he loves to do (also what makes Russia tick and France and England tick as well as their major philosophers, writers, scientists, forms of government, and historical ages), he says, "This . . . country is a very broad pan to be only human nature deep . . . Try to move it and opinion rushes all to one side and slops over." Or take this bit of wisdom extracted from his teaching—not yet a polished epigram, but a striking image: a student "squeezed almost too tight in school" is like an apple pip that goes farther into the world "the tighter it has been pinched between the fingers." An analogy machine where the turnover time is next to nothing, Frost appears to have suffered very little un-self-mediated experience.

Frost's propensity to think in terms of opposites and pairs is so automatic that at its worst it feels formulaic ("Civilization is the opposite of Utopia," and the like.) Of course I'm not the first to complain; Frost says the same thing in his poem "To a Thinker," which spoofs his habit of mind. "You call this thinking, but it's walking./Not even that, it's only rocking," the poem accuses, and continues with a perfect menu of Frost's own hobbyhorsical favorites:

From force to matter and back to force,
From form to content and back to form,
From norm to crazy and back to norm,
From bound to free and back to bound,
From sound to sense and back to sound.

It isn't so much a poem as it is a lecture in couplets—with the exception of its famous line and a half: "It almost scares/A man the way things come in pairs." There it is: a sudden Frost-drop down through the floor of the poem and into the mind's weird pair-making propensity, with its mirrored hall of couplings, some of which we'd rather not know about. And, by the way, it is pleasant to observe how one deeply reverberating line-and-a-half can save a whole poem from oblivion. Frost felt a poem didn't have to be all great all the way through—momentum could make up for the bumps—but the ratio in "To a Thinker" is exceptionally encouraging for poets with bad spots.

The abstractions bounce back and forth from pole to pole with such regularity that sometimes I had to remind myself that the other Frost, the Frost who can say "There is [no] end so final [that it doesn't open] into further form," would soon be back. I suppose what we learn is that Frost is just like other people—only more so. His thinking is more intensely polar, but the poles are less intensely stable. He calls poetry as well as life the "union of opposites," wherein compromise is doom: don't "get stuck in the golden mean." The most exciting or vital condition for Frost is some exquisite standoff where he's always feeling for—not attaining, mind you—a kind of balance, "missed and compensated; . . . missed almost saved and missed again." It's a sensation almost more muscular than mental; the poem is "the tremor of the deadlock." He wants to press thoughts, run them out to the point where they either self-destruct or turn around and become their opposite. And he loves the end of the world, revisiting it frequently, imagining how socialism would crash it, or idealism. 
(It was clearly no great strain for him to imagine two perishings in "Fire and Ice.") Frost's a reasoner free to enjoy himself because he knows reason will break down. We're "framed up" to fail, and he counts on that.

I have said that the notebooks don't generally trade in darkness, but very occasionally there is a big, igneous rip: "I am not sorry but rather enlarged that through me life must stab someone," he says, a propos of nothing. And peppering the notebooks is the phrase "Dark Darker Darkest" standing alone, as though it were a code for something he kept working at in his mind. (The editor offers some context for it, but this doesn't explain away its perseverance.) On one occasion Frost does begin developing what he means—venturing well past the usual sparring tenor of the notebooks and touching the dangerously marshy places usually reserved for his best poems:

Here where we are life wells up as a strong . . . spring perpetually . . . piling water on water . . . with the dancing high lights upon it. But it flows away on all sides as into a marsh of its own making. It flows away into poverty into insanity into crime. . . . Dark as it is that there are these sorrows and darker still that we can do so little to get rid of them . . . the darkest is that perhaps we ought not to want to get rid of them. . . . What life . . . craves most is signs of life.

In Frost's poetry, of course, this flowing away and draining off of original strength is a deep, repeated thought (and fear). Think of how everything golden "goes down" in "Nothing Gold Can Stay," or even better think of Frost's dazzling and diabolical poem, "Spring Pools," where dark powers "blot out and drink up and sweep away" the freshets of life. Such a rare patch of deep probing in the notebooks, ending in a pronouncement ("What life . . . craves most is signs of life"), lets us see the greater genius of his poems. In the notebooks, Frost moves quickly to the abstract; in the poems, he steers clear of the abstract altogether and instead overloads nature until dark stuff drips out the bottom. Frost is riveting, prose or poetry, but in the poetry the rivets rust through. A poem by its nature operates beyond rational control, which is a great service to a mind as controlling as Frost's. A poem means you're in too deep. In "Spring Pools," for all its balanced, reflected imagery of pools and flowers and all its tidy buttoned-up rhyming, Frost has got himself just where he craves to be—in an elemental battle where he's not the boss. The best form can do is serve as a barricade, giving the illusion of containment to the forces he's unleashed.

Predictably, where we find the biggest quantity of the subtlest thinking in the notebooks is in Frost's writing about poetry. Regarding poetry, Frost speaks with profound and fascinating authority and cannot be tiresome. His double vision of metaphor alone—calling it the foundation of all understanding and at the same time counting on it to fail ("Every metaphor breaks down")—gives a nicely mystical crack to his poetical systems. He's always trying to catch the elusive cross-forces of sound and sense working within the poem, as here: "Sentences [in a poem] have a direction of their own back or forth across the penny under the paper. The idea comes out in lines almost at right angles to the lines of the sentences." Applied to poetry, you see the characteristic Frost-vectors ("back or forth," 
"at right angles") take on a strange metaphysical warp. Every equal sign has to get tilted funny.

In an intriguing example of how Frost's thinking circles around until one thing becomes another, in one notebook entry "meaning" loses its meaning and becomes instead something that applies pressure to tone. Writing about how a poem is made, he says:

The sound is everything. The best means of achieving it are vowels consonants . . . verbal accent meter but the best of all for variety . . . is meaning. Great thoughts are of value as they supply profound tones.

In other words, in this bit of thinking, meaning has no "meaning" value, but rather imparts to a poem a kind of useful basso quality. This is a savagely aesthetic point of view and a surprising one when you think of Frost's weakness for too much meaning in his lesser poems. Which may be why he needed to dethrone it from time to time. Certainly in other moods he esteemed the point of a poem very highly—and esteemed his own passion for point-making, arguing that it was necessary to develop this habit in speech and prose or "how can you expect them to occur to you in the emergency of . . . poems." And, of course, whether at any particular moment Frost is pro-sense or pro-sound is of much less interest to him than that he isn't in the gormless middle.

The question I kept considering in reading this giant mess of scraps was: what am I finding out that I couldn't learn elsewhere? Little I've mentioned so far does more than confirm what we already knew; it's all in his poems, introductions, and lectures—and there it's in complete sentences. Of course, in reading the notebooks some things are underscored. For example, so many of his notes are in dialogue that your appreciation deepens for how elemental dialogue really is to Frost's mind. And the many lists and lecture ideas underscore what a big part of his life teaching and lecturing were. And naturally you see lots of rewriting and can watch Frost giving his work its signature physical and idiomatic punch, even in such a small sample as this: "when they were absent behind their backs." But the main thing one discovers in the notebooks is Frost's great fidelity to himself. Over the long project of reading this lifetime of notes (nearly a lifetime itself) you see how long a poet can stay fascinated by an image or thought, how he gets hooked and can't get unhooked—whether he ever can make anything from the image or not; how he works his ideas over decades, how he favors them, how he develops a limp for them.
Originally Published: August 31st, 2007

Born in California in 1945 and acknowledged as one of the most original voices in the contemporary landscape, Kay Ryan is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010)...

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  1. April 17, 2008
     Ronald J. Sherno

    Kay Ryan writes amazing poetry which led me to this essay. My first impulse would be to e-mail Ms. Ryan and tell her how ingenious and cogent her work is. R. Sherno

  2. November 25, 2008
     talulah hoohaa

    you are not one, but seven, and there will not another chance, another time, to get to heaven...

  3. April 2, 2009

    Hi i love it keep it up email me plz with infomation wud be helpful

  4. December 13, 2010

    Was this about Frost or Kay? I thought it was supposed to be about Kay, but it sounds like it is about Frost with Kay on the coat tails. What affective domain is this supposed to reach?