- Resting Places
Marit J. MacArthur's The American Landscape in the Poetry of Frost, Bishop, and Ashbery: The House Abandoned offers an unabashedly biographical reading of three of the most important twentieth-century poets. Coming after several decades of a largely anti-subjective bias in poetry criticism, MacArthur's approach prompts questions. Does this book constitute an intervention to correct a critical view that assumes that language is not representative but constitutive of our reality? Is it biography as of yore, or is it biography the second time around, informed by what heretofore discredited it? That is, are we to retire what has been seen as indispensable in discussions of poetry and poetics—poetry's complex relation to "reality," and the constructedness of biography?
The tripartite organization of the book reflects its three purposes; as the jacket description explains, MacArthur "scrutinizes the popular notion of Frost as a deeply rooted New Englander, demonstrates that Frost had an underestimated influence on Bishop—whose obsession with travel is the obverse of his preoccupation with houses and dwelling—and questions dominant, anti-biographical readings of Ashbery as an urban-identified poet." The first of these three projects is familiar. Frost, a San [End Page 874] Francisco native who established his reputation first in England, was little rooted in New England, though, as MacArthur ably demonstrates, a few important years on a farm in Derry sustained him thematically and imagistically for a lifetime. The second point is less clear: Elizabeth Bishop's fascination was arguably more with the Other than with home, "wherever that may be" (as she wrote in "Questions of Travel"), and more with the surrealists and the modernists than with Frost and the Georgians. But it is the third section of the book that is the most counterintuitive, since Ashbery is seldom read literally, much less biographically. (Exceptions are David Lehman, David Herd, and John Shoptaw, who, in On the Outside Looking Out, makes a case for Ashbery's "homotextuality.")1 The biographical emphasis simply becomes less instructive—both less cogent and less persuasive—as we move from Frost to Ashbery.
But the payoff where Frost is concerned is substantial. One of MacArthur's key insights is that the image of the cellar hole is central not only to "Directive" (that "dent in dough" that rises back to erase all trace of human presence or, alternatively, to heal the wound made there) but to quite a few other poems—among them "Ghost House," "The Generations of Men," and "The Census-Taker"—and that the image derives from the abandoned farmhouse across the road from Frost's farm in Derry, where he and his family lived from 1900 to 1909, the longest residence of his life.
"Directive" may seem to stand apart from these other poems of failure and abandonment, since at its end it fulfills the Romantic promise: arrival at the source, the secret spring from which one can drink and "be whole again." But MacArthur reminds us that this occurs only in imagination, that the "grail" of the poem is just as inaccessible as Bishop's "crypto-dream-house" in "The End of March." Biography also informs the poem's first line, where "all this now too much for us" is conventionally read to [End Page 875] mean the modern condition but may also be read as referring to the deprivations of the Depression and World War II—and even more specifically to Frost's profound familial losses. By the time "Directive" was published, Frost's fifth child, Marjorie, and his wife, Elinor, had died, his son Carol had committed suicide, and Frost had had to have his daughter Irma institutionalized, as he had done with his sister Jeannie in 1920. Thus the guide's directive to "weep … for the house that is no more a house" makes the desolation sadder even than the abandoned homesteads of the other poems.
The recent publication of Frost's notebooks enhances MacArthur's approach considerably, even while Frost's entries sometimes lead her afield. In...