Throwback Thursday: This is the fourth book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.” Reviews of books in this series can be found at“Poets on Poetry.” This review was first posted here August 24, 2011.
Robert Frost is the most American of all American poets. He is American in subject, sound, and sensibility. It is his great strength and his greatest weakness. While Whitman’s propheticness transcended his American-ness, Frost can make no such claim to a transcendent universality. In the end he remains Poet Americanus.
That is what makes this volume of essays by three great, non-American poets, so interesting. For American poets, Frost resides in our very bones, like the sounds of rivers, and highways, and wind in trees, and the voices of American birds and American words spoken in coffee shops and local bars and across fences at harvest time.
Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott are three of the finest contemporary world poets. The essays that form Homage to Robert Frost have their root in a seminar that was done on Frost at College International de Philosophie in Paris. In Paris – the most self-consciously unAmerican of all cities – three non-American poets discussed Frost and his poetry. The result is wonderful.
While American readers and poets always approach Frost from the inside… Brodsky, Heaney, and Walcott, by necessity, come to Frost from without. This enables them to hear him in a way an American reader cannot. This, ultimately, is the greatest value of Homage to Robert Frost.
According to my usual note on the inside front cover of the book, I first read Homage to Robert Frost in late fall of 1996. In the fall of 1996, we were no longer living in our little house in St. Paul but would have just moved into suburban Bloomington. I would still have been freelancing as a writer and editor of training materials and bible studies. During the days I would have been doing the at-home dad thing, and on some evenings I would have been working at a telemarketing job. I would have been reading Homage to Robert Frost during toddler nap times and while sitting in a cube waiting for inbound-sales calls to come in. As I have said elsewhere, the words of Brodsky, Heany and Walcott – and the the lines of Robert Frost – would have been helping me to keep my sanity, as poetry has always done for me.
Opening now the book, I read some lines I underlined and highlighted 15 years ago.
“When a European conceives of confronting nature, he walks out of his cottage or a little inn, filled with either friends or family, and goes for an evening stroll. If he encounters a tree, it’s a tree made familiar by history, to which its’ been a witness. This or that king sat underneath it, lay down this or that law – something of that sort. A tree stands there rustling, as it were, with allusions. Pleased and somewhat pensive, our man, refreshed bu unchanged by that encounter, returns to his in or cottage, finds his friends and family absolutely intact, and proceeds to have a good, merry time. Wheras when an American walks out of his house and encounters a tree it is a meeting of equals. Man and tree face each other in their respective primal power, free of references: neither has a past, and as to whose future is greater, it is a toss-up…. Our man returns to his cabin in a state of bewilderment, to say the least, if not in actual shock.” (cf. Brodsky’s essay “On Grief and Reason” paraphrasing Auden’s essay on Frost)
“With few exceptions, American poetry is essentially Virgilian, which is to say contemplative.” (cf. Brodsky’s essay “On Grief and Reason”)
“Frost believed… that individual venture and vision arose as a creative defense against emptiness, and that it was therefore possible that a relapse into emptiness would be the ultimate destiny of consciousness.” (cf. Heaney’s essay “Above the Brim”)
“Why is the favorite figure of American patriotism not paternal but avuncular? Because uncles are wiser than fathers.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)
“Frost is an autocratic poet rather than a democratic poet.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)
“… Yeats told Pound that A Boy’s Will was “the best poetry written in America for a long time.’ The judgement seems right.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)
“For interior recitation, usually of complete poems, not only of lines or stanzas, Frost and Yeats, for their rhythms and design, are the most memorable poets of the century.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)
“The poem does not obey linear time; it is, by its beligerance or its surrender, the enemy of time; and it is, when it is true, time’s conqueror, not time’s servant.” (cf. Walcott’s essay “Road Taken”)
As so often happens, Frost’s stature in American literature has diminished over time. It is more a “taking for granted” I think than a re-assessment. It is easy to take Frost for granted in the same way that it is easy to take for granted Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington. Sometimes it takes outsiders to remind us of what is most essential and best about America. Homage to Robert Frost accomplishes this beautifully,
The Vernal Equinox has been rung. Juncos have returned to our feeders here in the North Country.
Yesterday biking past a nearby pond I thought I heard the call of a Red-Winged Blackbird. But I spotted nothing. On the open water, I saw Mallard Ducks and Canadian Geese. So it may have been wishful thinking.
At the house we lived in before this one, just a few blocks south of here, there were two huge oak trees in our backyard. Each spring and fall a huge flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds would gather in them. The noise they made was so great that you could hear them through closed windows and doors. When I would open the sliding door to the deck so we could step out to see them, the sound washed over us and like a great wave of change.
Sometimes I feel like a could measure the best times in my life by birds.
The cacophonous Crows that filled the trees at Drumcliffe Churchyard. The Juncos Morgan and I would watch– when she was little– at Richardson Nature Center. Bobolinks cussing us out in a Southwestern Minnesota prairie. Magpies sitting on fence posts in Montana. Great-Tailed Grackles watching Sue and I eat shrimp tacos in Padre Island, Texas.
For the most part I hesitate to call myself a bird-watcher. I am too poor at identifying them.
If I were to call myself anything, I would call myself one who has been blessed.
Here is Johnny doing Kris Kristofferson’s great tune, “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
The warmer than normal winter has turned into a cooler that normal early spring. But I have still gotten to bike a few times. In February I biked five times. In March so far… four.
I continue sending poems out to magazines, e-zines, and journals for publication. My goal is to make at least one submission a week. I have been averaging two.
This week I also submitted a chapbook manuscript of 25-ish pages to a contest. The first time I have done that. I will keep you posted here when (and if) something is accepted.
My week of Tuning Out has turned into two and a half. In the past couple of days, I have dipped in every now and then, but never for long. It has done wonders for my mood to ignore Trump and his ignorant army. It has let me think about other things. I would recommend it as a strategy to all who are unnerved or depressed by Trump’s relentless assault on Truth.
Yesterday Sue and I went to a wonderful production of Macbeth. It is a reminder that corruption is endemic with those who seek political power. It is also a reminder that the wages of such civic sin is, inevitably, death.
I continue working my way through Ulysses and The Road to Assisi. I have a couple of Westerns in the works that I will be reviewing here at some point.
Another winter is coming to an end, and I am still reading and writing.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Here are three (get it, a Trinitarian reference) photos for the occasion.
On Re-Reading Auden
Originally posted here on
For a couple of summers in my early 20s, I worked for the United States Forest Service. In the summer of 1983, I worked on a trail crew in the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness in southwestern Montana. At night, long after my fellow crew members were asleep, I would lie in my sleeping bag reading W.H. Auden’s Selected Poems by flashlight.
I still have the volume. It has browned with time and is as dog-eared as you would expect a volume to be that had been tied to a mule and hauled along the Continental Divide Trail.
Flipping through it now 27 years later (!), I read lines I underlined all those nights ago. Memories of the mountains and my youth mingle with Auden’s words.
Sometimes I will read a line I underlined or boldly starred and wonder, why did I think so much of that line? this other one is clearly the better?
That is the nature of art. Just as we can never step into the same river twice, we can never re-approach a work of art exactly the same. We are different each time we read a poem, stand in front of a painting, listen to a song. We are different because we have been changed by time, experience, and by the work of art itself, and all the other works of art we have encountered and been changed by.
I read Auden differently now because I have read Auden.
Book: Deadman Canyon, by Louis Trimble
Style: Cardboard Western (see below)
Plot: On the evening that Clay Belden returns to the town he grew up in to reclaim his land after five years away, a sniper tries to kill him. All signs point to Belden’s old enemy who has struck it rich and has surrounded himself with hired guns. Belden refuses to back down or leave town. Mayhem ensues.
CLAY BELDEN came over the pass into the Wildhorse Valley shortly after sunset. He dropped out of the saddle and led his stocky dun pony out of sight of anyone who might be riding this way. Then he climbed up a big, honeycombed rock and positioned himself where he could watch without being seen.
Louis Preston Trimble (2 March 1917 – 9 March 1988) was an American writer and academic. He wrote westerns, mysteries, and science fiction. He is best known for the latter.
According to Wikipedia, “after working as a logger and a housepainter, he became an instructor and professor in humanities and social studies at the University of Washington.” Trimble’s work in applied linguistics examined the use of English in science and technology contexts.
Though Trimble lived in the west (Seattle, at least), landscape does not play a prominent role in this story. Westerns where landscape is not one of the main characters, if not the central character, are seldom satisfying.
The best Westerns are those with real western landscapes and real western people. This is Larry McMurtry and Elmer Kelton. I call that kind of Western a True Western.
Midwestern-bound, Noir-Western writers like H.A. De Rosso (my favorite of all Western writers) and Elmore Leonard get around their unfamiliarity with landscape by creating a “mythic West” and peopling it with archetypal characters. They do it so well that in the end, they are able create works of art. This is a Noir Western.
Louis L’Amour who was very familiar with the west, created real western landscapes peopled by cardboard characters, a L’Amour Western.
Trimble, the scientific linguist, in Deadman Canyon creates a cardboard landscape peopled by cardboard characters. The inevitable result is predictably flat. Cardboard Western.
[Note: I like these categories so much I am going to use them on all future Westerns reviewed here. For more information about Westerns reviewed at ClimbingSky, click here.]
Sample Lines from Deadman Canyon
The last of the evening light was fading to blackness over the Bitterroot Mountains to the west, and the stars were turning bright and hard and cold in the Montana sky. It was time to go.
* * * * *
“She should know me better than that!” Clay exclaimed. “How much does anybody really know anybody else?” Roddy retorted. “And anyway, most people don’t think with their heads. Most of the time they think with their feelings.
What better way to begin a week than with some great music.
It is a bad video but Red Garland is, of course, great.