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  • The Complementarity of Frost and Stevens
  • Steven Gould Axelrod and Natalie Gerber

ONE OF THE well-worn ironies of epoch-fashioning in literature is its tendency to position literary oeuvres in ways that serve the need for distinction and contrast without attesting to the surprising overlaps and conjunctions that exist in the lives and careers of the era’s foremost practitioners. This, in a sentence, is the story of Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, two modernist American poets who have emerged—more so than most of their peers—at opposite ends of the modernist spectrum.

As we have come to believe, Frost’s ostensible simplicity and directness stand against Stevens’ avowed complexity and abstraction; Frost’s apparent quickness to assume political and ideological stances counterpoints Stevens’ gingerly response to politics and war; Frost’s adherence to inherited metrical forms (whose range is, in memory, reduced to intricately rhymed verse or to a conversational blank verse) casts in relief Stevens’ nonchalant experiments with blank verse and free verse; Frost’s actual places with their sparse human communities forge a literalist simulacrum as against Stevens’ whimsical cognitive structures and his versified geography beyond the human or at least beyond our lifetimes. Even the emphasis of much contemporary Frost scholarship on the annotation and contextualization of primary materials as opposed to the focus of current Stevens scholarship on theoretical analysis could be taken as indicative of an enduring divide between the two poets. With Frost, whose literal style inclines scholarship in one direction, we may assume a fundamental understanding that must be unsettled, whereas for Stevens, whose abstract style inclines scholarship in another, there are still theoretical and critical apparatuses that must be brought to bear to secure our understanding of the work.

Perhaps we are transfixed by Frost’s anecdote of their meeting, recounted here in essays by Barron, Kosc, and Hass. According to the story, Stevens remarked that the problem with Frost’s poetry was that it concerns “subjects” (or “things”), and Frost replied that the problem with Stevens’ poetry was that it concerns “bric-a-brac.”1 The message the story transmits is that although Frost’s poetry may err in being too direct, Stevens’ poetry [End Page 1] errs in being flashy or trivial. Frost thinks, whereas Stevens only muses. Frost is at the masculine pole of a gendered conception of discourse, whereas Stevens is at the effeminate pole (implicitly understood to be the less desirable one). Frost is the architect, Stevens the decorator. This binary, of course, mostly reflects Frost’s take on their relationship, and his anxieties about it. As memorable as it is, the story simplifies and distorts the quite complex relations between the two poets and their texts.

Under the spell of Frost’s story, we seem to have lost sight of the poets’ mutual fondness for a bevy of actual and symbolic subjects (e.g., birds and New England landscapes and weather) as well as their shared tendency to fashion variegated narratives that depart from the real to include language play, the dreamlike, and the nightmarish. Both poets innovated within the context of prior verse practice; both explored philosophical and psychological dilemmas with subtlety and wit. As much as some biographers, we have bought into their myths, turning a single legendary encounter into the basis of a creative and personal antipathy that may not, in fact, be supported by factual inquiry.

Beyond its divisive nature, the reception history of Frost and Stevens includes a unitary, if perhaps melancholy, implication: neither poet still plays a central role in debates about modernism. Frost, for his part, has seen his dissident modernist legacy dismantled, thus erasing our memory that he was, in fact, the first poet to be identified as modern. Stevens’ modernist credentials remain beyond reproach but also, perhaps, beyond widespread engagement: his status has seemed to diminish to a niche in recent years.

Returning, then, to explore the two poets’ complementarities via their works, influences, and legacies is an intriguing twenty-first-century exercise for testing narratives of American poetry. And it is important to note the role played by contemporary poets in these reassessments. Many of the recent talks and publications that take Stevens...


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