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  • The Economic Impulse in Robert Frost
  • Dan Diephouse

In his essay "Parables of Vocation: Frost and Pound in the Villages of (Gingrich's?) America," Mark Richardson sees in some of Robert Frost's poems a parable of his struggle with acceptance by an audience that Richardson, and probably Frost as well, designates as utilitarian, more concerned for practical "economic" issues than with the poetic ones that such an audience actively disparages. Contrasting Frost with Ezra Pound and his in-your-face-philistines! poetry, Richardson characterizes some of Frost's poetry as a negotiation between his solitary vocation as a poet and the values of "capitalist, patriarchal America": "He sought a way—in his poetry, his poetics, and his vocation—to balance and to symbolize two different tendencies: the tendency toward conformity on the one hand and toward extravagance and difference on the other."1

In Frank Lentricchia's larger, prior argument, from which Richardson derives his, Lentricchia wonders aloud at the extent to which Frost could have it both ways. He contrasts extensively Pound's handling of the issues concerning American society's reception of poetry at the beginning of the century with Frost's in a study of the complexity of Frost's place among the modernist poets. As he does so, he details the subject, motives, processes, and effects of Frost's cultivation of an audience saddled with an anti-poetry bias: "In 1913, Pound and his friends were imagining revolt against what another writer about thirty-five years later would call 1984. In 1913, Frost was imagining turning the social system Pound hated to economic and literary advantage."2 That Pound might have thought that Frost's negotiating with the culture in such a way was aesthetically dangerous is implicit in Pound's expatriating himself from that culture when it dawns on him "that aesthetic and economic production were insidiously related,"3 that American culture treats poems as commodities à la Palgrave's best-selling Golden Treasury. Frost's negotiation with the culture could put his poetry at risk, economics potentially co-opting aesthetics.

Richardson sees Frost conducting this negotiation in the recurring imagery of going out and coming back, the sally into the solitary imagination and the return to the community. I suggest that Frost has another way of negotiating this tension, both more literal and more symbolic. It is perhaps most explicit in his [End Page 477] poem "Two Tramps in Mud Time," where his narrator asserts his idealized—Lentricchia calls it utopian—desire to integrate his economic concerns and the imaginative/aesthetic concerns of his vocation.

But yield who will to their separation, My object in living is to unite My avocation and my vocation As my two eyes make one in sight.4

To the extent that "work" in the poem aligns itself with the economic considerations of Frost's life and his concerns for the "marketability" of his poetry, the issue in the poem can be seen as quite straightforward, the remaining tramp being the "readership" that questions (and forces him to question) his motives for chopping wood or for writing poetry. Frost wants to see his vocation and his avocation as being one, but if Richardson and biographer Jay Parini are right in seeing Frost lacking confidence in his calling as a poet because of his sensitivity to the reactions of the popular culture, in order to achieve a sense of integration Frost needs to have his audience see it that way as well.5 And the tramp does not see it that way at all. The poem does not tell us whether the narrator gave up his job of cutting wood to the tramp, but that he had to deal particularly with the issue inside the poem is evidence enough of Frost's wrestling with the issue more extensively outside of it. In the poem, he doesn't have to give in to those imposed "economic" forces, monetary or social, that he has to negotiate in his own life, a negotiation that may take a toll on his imagination or that may, more positively, sharpen it.

More symbolically, the exchange mentality or negotiation process inherent in economics could be metaphorically extended...


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