- “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...