Book Review: Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott

This is the fourth book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.” Reviews of books in this series can be found atPoets on Poetry.”

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 Frosthave 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 ofHomage 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,

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