“Allegiance and Parody”: An Interview with Robert Pinsky on Stevens and Frost
THE FOLLOWING CONVERSATION began in Boston in May 2016 while we were working on Robert’s Massive Open Online Course “The Art of Poetry.” We continued the interview over e-mail. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Robert Frost seems to have a very early presence in the lives of many Americans (and not only through memorization in high school—though people are sometimes surprised when they read “The Road Not Taken” later in life!). Do you remember the first time you read a Wallace Stevens poem? Did you have a first impression of him or of Frost?
The (then) anthologized poems of Stevens were a lot more attractive than the (then) anthologized poems of Frost. For Stevens it was “Domination of Black,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “The Snow Man,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” When I was eighteen or nineteen years old, those seemed more exciting than “The Road Not Taken,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “Birches,” and “Mending Wall.” And I guess they still do.
But in time I read “Directive,” “Provide, Provide,” “‘Out, Out—,’” “The Most of It,” and “Acquainted with the Night.” The volcanic energy of those poems made me look again at Robert Frost altogether.
For me, technical mastery was part of why and how I read both poets. I had read a bit of Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats—enough to appreciate the pentameters of, say, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm” and “An Old Man’s Winter Night.” Stevens’ blank verse and his poems in rhyme (and also those poems I later learned began in rhyme that Stevens revised out) seemed to illuminate the free verse of, say, “The Snow Man.” In Stevens’ free verse poems, the capital letters at the beginning of each line seemed to assert, this is verse, just as much as something written with end-rhyme. If anything, there’s a greater degree of difficulty in making such strong rhythms without iambic movement—far from Frost’s “playing tennis with the net down.” It’s something thrilling, difficult, supremely expressive. [End Page 65]
The sentences of “To Earthward” and the sentences of “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” in their play with and against the rhythms of the lines, fascinated me in a similar way. Or maybe in the exact same way?
Could you tell me a little more about that fascination with a Stevens or a Frost line? Are there certain musical impulses that are unique to each of them?
Every poet, every poem, has a distinct, unique music. But if you heard a few stanzas of “Sunday Morning” and “An Old Man’s Winter Night,” from behind a closed door, so you could make out the sentence-sounds but not the words, I think you might perceive two things about that verbal music. First, that these are two different composers, and second, that these might be very great composers.
I’ll risk going slightly further: in “Domination of Black” and “The Snow Man,” I hear a characteristically slow, measured, cello-like free verse. In “To Earthward” and “Provide, Provide,” I hear rapid, rippling, sometimes even pizzicato iambic verse.
Among the poems you recently collected in Singing School, you call Stevens’ poem “Madame La Fleurie” a lightning stroke, “the kind of imaginative stroke that cannot be forced or willed.” If you look at Frost’s revisions (I’m thinking of “Design,” for example), you can see a more incremental process. Where is the line between willing something and revising it? Or is this difference in process a reflection of each poet’s relationship to the formal music of their lines?
I was thinking of Stevens’ amazing conclusion, that vision of our mother Earth as “a bearded queen, wicked in her dead light.” That “bearded”! Frost’s imagination may never be that fortissimo. But dazzling in its own way: the word “embodiment” in “The Most of It,” and the swimming animal “Pushing the crumpled water up ahead.” Or, in a different way, the word order of “The petal of the rose / It was that stung,” parodying the exquisiteness while owning it.
I really like your phrase “parodying the exquisiteness while owning it.” How would you chart that complicated balance? In “To Earthward” or in general? I sense that Stevens’ playfulness may have a similar source . . .
In that stanza (“I craved strong sweets, but those / Seemed strong when I was young; / The petal of the rose / It was that stung”), I hear Frost finding in himself his adolescent love for the aesthetes of the preceding three generations. That nineteenth-century feeling of Wilde or Ruskin inheres not only in the image itself, the stinging petal, but in the enjambment, [End Page 66] the inverted word order, the very beauty of the prosody. That mixture of allegiance and parody, that moment, may represent the greatest overlap between Frost and Stevens. That laughter and wistfulness about pure, aesthetic sensibility. For example, “The Man Whose Pharynx Was Bad”: the jaded dandy of “Mildew of summer and the deepening snow / Are both alike in the routine I know.” (They are? he almost dares us to say.) I hear this note, too, in “Invective Against Swans,” “O, Florida, Venereal Soil,” and many others.
What do you make of the famous distaste Stevens and Frost had for each other’s work? What can poets and poetry scholars take from it now? Are there contemporary divides that follow from this schism?
I wonder if it’s akin to the division between T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams—rooted in each poet’s ways of being both American and cosmopolitan?
It’s a complicated matter; maybe someday a brilliant scholar will elucidate it. Williams went to school partly in Europe and said that his father was “European.” He clearly approached the question in an immigration-based, culturally fluid, syncretic, or pluralistic way, whereas Eliot could be described as an adherent of Purity with a capital P, as in his odious, suppressed After Strange Gods.
Frost was living in England when he published his first book, with an English publisher. He studied (and I think also taught) Latin. So Amy Lowell’s favorable but condescending review of A Boy’s Will underestimates Frost’s cultural range, as though he were a mere bumpkin-regionalist—as Williams is sometimes underestimated as a mere describer of wheelbar-rows. I think of Stevens saying that French and English constitute a single language. And I think of H. D., refreshing the American idiom with actual, Mediterranean classicism.
It needs deeper study—I’m touching on well-known lore about these poets in my attempt to understand the different ways they negotiate creating an American poetry that has a wide-gazing, rather than provincial, spirit. Maybe Stevens thought Frost was, however expertly, cleaving too close to Longfellow’s model in that effort? All of them were formed by nineteenth-century poetry and nineteenth-century taste. (Williams said he had Palgrave’s Golden Treasury by heart.) And all of them rebelled against it, in their different ways.
I can imagine Stevens being annoyed at how good Frost was at what he did, and Frost feeling the same about Stevens. They must each have been aware of the sheer athletic prowess, the verse-making gift, of the other. Could Stevens have been a conscious target of Frost’s playing-with-thenet-down remark, exactly because Stevens could write so well in meter? [End Page 67]
(That scholar I wish existed could also tell us about the tragic combination of American provincialism and European aspiration in Ezra Pound. The inadequate term “cultural appropriation” . . . these modernists and their greatness, failings, and quarrels make me think that all culture is appropriation—by its nature, at its best, impure and shifting. Somewhere in there, possibly, is your excellent, difficult question about “contemporary divides.”)
And what about the past? Stevens was repulsed by “the rhetorical once” and avoided the subject of memory (though in my view, he couldn’t completely reject it) while Frost was more of a preservationist, a collector of local history. How do you see these ideas play out in the poems themselves? Do you see contemporary poetry leaning one way or the other?
Laura, by pointing to this matter of memory, I think you have identified a great central difference between Stevens and Frost. Maybe the difference. The men of Haddam with their glass coach sound antique, mythological—in a way are mythological, but they are on a train in Connecticut and in the quotidian present. Utterly contrary to the present as it is perceived in the haunted, belilaced cellar holes of “Directive.”
It’s the modernist confidence in language, the range and scale, of both those poems (and both of these poets) that is so inspiring. A model. If one regarded the contemporary in a sour mood (as I will not), one could find that aspiring confidence dwindled to something insipid, at both extremes: the dismissive chuckle of the middlebrow and the ready-made doubt of meaning in the avant-garde: two forms of deprecation that often share the same, slack prosody. (That, of course, is not my view.)
In thinking about that modernist confidence, I’m wondering about the sense of surprise both these poets are capable of creating—not shock value but genuine surprise. To read something surprising is a kind of relief. Is that an undervalued quality in poetry class?
Well, yes and no—undervalued, yes. But also maybe overvalued? We who study art and teach it should take care that surprise is respected as an element. Also that it is not elevated as a goal.
In the end, are these two poets really so far apart? I’m thinking of what Stevens writes in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” in particular this line, which has always haunted me: “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” Does that require some kind of subject—historical or otherwise? Or are Stevens and Frost on completely different planes of reality? [End Page 68]
They are great poets. For me, great poetry is based on music and reality. I might even dare to say on music and truth. The truth of “Madame La Fleurie” and “Sunday Morning” is distinct from the truth of “The Most of It” and “Design” but deeply related to it . . . both, maybe, are descended from the truth of “Ode to a Nightingale.” And each has different, unique elements of emotion, perception, and music. [End Page 69]