The Titular, Circular, Cyclical and the Forlorn: Rescuing Robert Frost from Himself

Robert Frost won four Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry.  He was an earthy icon and, in some eyes, an American shame, for the man could love only himself and not his children or his wife. I’m not sure if that’s a crime against himself, or his promises, but there is no denying the man was an original and he knew how to write and he knew what he was.

Marred by the mistake of genius, Robert Frost cared only for his poetry, and his legacy, and that’s why the new fascination with protecting Frost’s legacy on the page is so intriguing.

In November of last year, Joyce Carol Oates gave the legend the one-two of a good old New England beating in print for old time’s sake:

Here was the first surprise: the great man was much heavier, his body much more solid, than I’d anticipated. You would not have called him fat, but his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were fleshy, like those of a middle-aged woman.

The sensitive-young-poet face of the photos (at least, the photos I’d affixed to my bedroom wall) had coarsened and thickened; deep lines now bracketed the eyes, as if the seventy-seven-year-old poet had too often scowled or squinted.

The snowy-white hair so often captured in photographs, like ectoplasm lifting from the poet’s head, was thinner than any photograph had suggested, and not so snowy white, in fact disheveled, as if the poet had only just risen, dazed, from sleep. The entire face was large — larger than you expect a poet’s face to be — and the thick jaws were covered in glittering little hairs, as if the poet hadn’t shaved for a day or two. The eyelids were drooping, nearly shut.

The story only goes downhill from there. More on that, later.

These lovings and hatings of the greatest amongst us is a titular, circular, cyclical event always blurring the cynical lines and loathings that perpetually conflate into this breadcrumb conundrum: Great Talent, Lousy Person.  I’m not sure if that’s still news or not, but the struggle to always find that realization appears to please scholars, over the years, to no end.

In an effort to prop up the personal life of Robert Frost, Harvard University Press is publishing four volumes of his private letters that, we presume, are intended to rectify a humiliating personal life ticked with depression and death and suicide:

One of the acknowledged giants of twentieth-century American literature, Robert Frost was a public figure much celebrated in his day. Although his poetry reached a wide audience, the private Frost—pensive, mercurial, and often very funny—remains less appreciated.

Following upon the publication of Frost’s notebooks and collected proseThe Letters of Robert Frost is the first major edition of the poet’s written correspondence. The hundreds of previously unpublished letters in these annotated volumes deepen our understanding and appreciation of this most complex and subtle of verbal artists.

I don’t think there’s any shame in Robert Frost’s failing as a father and husband and human being.  When you are born on the mountaintop, you have a longer flow to fall.

He may not have been terribly self-aware, but his genius is undeniable — and I think that’s what sticks in the craw of so many people, including Joyce Carol Oates, who obsessively chose to condemn Frost in her “story” with this flailing, finishing, bit of viciousness that I think actually salutes and honors Frost’s argument instead of diminishing the accomplishments of his life:

Jabbing at this adversary with his forefinger, the enraged poet charged: “You are nothing. People like you don’t exist. You’ve never been called the ‘greatest American poet of the twentieth century’ — you’ve never won a single Pulitzer Prize, let alone several Pulitzer Prizes — and you never will. You have never roused audiences to tears, to applause, to joy — you’ve never roused audiences to their feet in homage to your genius. You are barely qualified to kiss the hem of genius — or another part of the poet’s anatomy.

All you can do, people like you, contemptible little people, spiritual dwarves, is to scavenge in the detritus of the poet’s life without grasping the fact that the poet’s life is of no consequence to the poet. You snatch at the dried and outgrown skin of the snake — the husk of a skin the living snake will cast off as he moves with lightning speed out of your grasp. You fail to realize that only the poetry counts — the poetry that will prevail long after the poet has passed on and you and your ilk are gone and forgotten, as if you’d never existed.”

Well, isn’t the Robert Frost in that story right?  There are those who do and those who only pretend to do.

We now know internet conversation is dominated by non-genius Machiavellian Sadists — and I’m with Frost in his view that you cannot know genius, or understand genius, if you aren’t already one, and guessing and wondering and poking at genius isn’t enough of a test or accommodation into the skill that so few know from inside the skull.

We are our foibles and our fables and Robert Frost kindly entertained no fools.  He wrote to a master spec and he delivered.  He knew his craft and he knew the darkest of us because he lived in the damp.  He played both starlet on the bridge and the troll living beneath the wooden transom.

We cannot deny his temperament — or his genius — because, in the absolute end, the only thing that matters from the grave is the poetry.  His work survives.  The man does not. Frost knew people loved a good story, and so he did his best to weave one on the page and warp one in his life.

Is it better to be a failed father and a genius poet — you can’t be right in both and mean anything in any yaw or definition — because every brilliance demands an equal and opposite regurgitating darkness to keep the being in balance.

The Art of us requires eternal testing of the equilibrium of moral justice that modulates within us while decaying like a birch fence in the shadowy sun as the ink of us struggles to be heard from a bright page.

4 comments

  • Even geniuses are human and for all their brilliance the laws of balance often leave them lacking in other areas of life. There are so many examples of flawed genius – we have discussed them here many a time – Clapton, Justin, Robbie, to name just few – it is a recurring theme.

    Managing ourselves as humans on a personal level is incredibly challenging for even the most balanced of individuals let alone one saddled with being a genius – and of course those of us who are not are all to ready to try and knock down those who are.

    I would add that I was taught that making a personal attack ( ie body shape, taste in clothes, etc) was a sign that you had already conceded the argument, as you did not have the wits/weapons to have a debate at their level !

    • Yes, the line between genius and exasperation is gloomy.

      The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings us right back around full circle. He was an addict when he graduated from the NYU acting program, then was straight sober for 23 years, made 40 films, and then, over the past year, something inside him broke and the example became his own acknowledged victim. Friends would ask how he was doing, and he’d tell them he was dying…

      I’m with you on the nastiness of the Oates story. I expect so much more from her than continually making fun of his “Buddha Belly” and how old and ugly he was at 77 compared to his younger self. Huh? Low class and unnecessary. She’s heavy into Twitter. She lives on Tweets now.

      I, too, was taught not to make fun of genetic features that cannot be changed: eye color, noses, weight, height and such were all off-limits because they could not be helped. Choices in taste were fair market, though. SMILE!

      • I am sure it is just a wafer thin line between genius and madness/self destruction. I have long held this belief – I hope one day to see this scientifically proven !

        Grins at choices in taste being fair game – never ever going to let you near my wonderful idiosyncratic flamboyant wardrobe !

        • Taste is always fair game! SMILE! But that doesn’t mean you can’t be kind and respectful of choices.

          I’m sure we’ll figure out the whole genius thing — the hardest part will be creating a universal of what is genius and what is not.

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