- Frost/Stevens: Whose Era Was It Anyway?
IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, literary historians sometimes liked to name periods after male authors, as seen in John Dennis’ The Age of Pope (1899), Algernon Charles Swinburne’s The Age of Shakespeare (1908), and A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller’s The Age of Dryden (1912). Although the formula remains alive, it has declined in our present era, which emphasizes systems, structures, and fields rather than ascribing complex phenomena to a single autonomous genius. The study of modernism, however, arose under the old regime.
Modernist poetry studies were initially dominated by the example of T. S. Eliot, as elucidated by such brilliant studies as F. O. Matthiessen’s The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (1935) and Helen Gardner’s The Art of T. S. Eliot (1949). Those analyses swept away memories of Sidney Cox’s pamphlet Robert Frost: Original “Ordinary Man” (1929), which had staked an early claim for Frost. Assertions of “art” and “achievement” easily supplanted veneration of the “ordinary.” Nevertheless, writing in his influential introduction to The Oxford Book of American Verse (1950), Matthiessen generously permitted Frost to share honors with Eliot: “When the history of American poetry in our time comes to be written, its central figures will probably be Frost and Eliot.” According to Matthiessen, Frost stood for “the older America” whereas Eliot evoked “metropolitan” modernity (xxx). Although he praised both poets, he assigned the preferable, cutting-edge position to Eliot. I think it’s fair to say that his prediction of the era’s central pair, like most predictions, proved flawed.
Indeed, at that very moment Hugh Kenner was already campaigning to purloin modernism on behalf of Ezra Pound, or at least to view the era through a Poundian lens. Being human, Kenner had a partial vision, and his partiality was for Pound. His advocacy of Pound reached an initial apex in The Poetry of Ezra Pound (1951) and then culminated with the publication of his masterwork with the grandiose and perhaps already slightly facetious title of The Pound Era (1971). Kenner opted for grandiosity in his opening sentences, announcing, “this book was planned as an X-ray moving picture of how our epoch was extricated from the fin de siècle” (xi). Eliot, still important, was reconfigured as a supporting player—“last comer to the Vortex” (274). Frost and Stevens were nonspeaking extras, objects of mild teasing, which, however, was nothing compared to the derision [End Page 4] aimed at Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, and especially Amy Lowell (all, perhaps coincidentally, gay writers). In Kenner’s narrative, Pound, unquestionably, was the central figure.
Even as Kenner was publishing his beautiful, idiosyncratic, and limited work, other voices were attempting to redefine modernism in yet another way, not through the lens of Eliot or Pound, nor as a tension between Eliot’s new ways and Frost’s old ways, but with Wallace Stevens as the “major man” (CPP 334) or organizing principle of the era. Such books as Frank Kermode’s Wallace Stevens (1960), J. Hillis Miller’s Poets of Reality (1965) and its revisionary successor The Linguistic Moment (1985), Joseph Riddel’s The Clairvoyant Eye (1965), Helen Vendler’s On Extended Wings (1969), Harold Bloom’s Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (1977), and, later, James Longenbach’s Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (1991) and Alan Filreis’ Modernism from Right to Left (1994) all placed Stevens at or near the center of the modernist enterprise. None went quite so far as to subsume modernity under his name, but several came close: Bloom called Stevens’ work “The Poems of Our Climate” and Albert Gelpi subtitled his edited book on Stevens The Poetics of Modernism (1985). Marjorie Perloff posed the possibility of a “Stevens Era” as a question in her rightly famous essay “Pound/Stevens: Whose Era?” (1982). But she answered the question by reaffirming that it was the Pound era after all, because it was the “Pound tradition”—not the Stevens one and certainly not the Frost one—that mattered most.
The transformation of Robert Frost from a genial cracker-barrel poet to an existential philosopher with extraordinary poetic powers began with...