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  • Subjects and Bric-a-Brac: Frost and Stevens, Snowmen and Woodchucks
  • Jonathan N. Barron

ACCORDING TO ROBERT FROST, Wallace Stevens complained, “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about—subjects.” In reply, Frost allegedly said, “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about—bric-a-brac” (qtd. in Thompson and Winnick 61).1 Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost had a famously fractious, if sometimes joking, relationship. Meeting in Key West in 1940, for example, they traded apparently teasing insults. For the most part, critics assume that Stevens’ remark about “subjects” was meant to belittle Frost for writing poetry that was too didactic, dull, and embedded in mundane human affairs. Stevens implies that poetry with “subjects” is poetry without genuine imagination, and so without delight and beauty. Frost’s rejoinder about “bric-a-brac” suggests that Frost saw Stevens’ poetry as aesthetically decadent—a beautiful poetry, to be sure, but with little purpose other than to decorate. Each intended to belittle the other—yet in so doing, each also spoke accurately about the other, revealing fundamental connections between them. By pressing the distinction between “subjects” and “bric-a-brac” a bit further, I argue that these poets wrote largely about the same fundamental issue—an issue that contemporary neuroscience, and its various literary students, have only recently begun to investigate and address—that the human imagination is itself a physical phenomenon.2

Frost and Stevens are typically viewed as serious intellectual artists operating on different sides of a philosophical divide. Frost is read today for his pragmatism, his poetry of things, while Stevens is read for his idealism, his poetry of ideas.3 Frost is the famous poet of actual New England landscapes, Stevens the poet of “fictive music.” Nevertheless, beneath these apparent differences, they have in common a poetics built on the premise that to be human is to be imaginative, and to be imaginative is to be embodied. For all his idealism and phenomenological philosophy, Stevens, I believe, is as much a poet of the actual physical body as is Frost. Stevens’ imagination is itself a physical fact; it is part and parcel of the body that feels and thinks rather than a transcendent ideal. Although Stevensians (such as J. Hillis Miller in Poets of Reality) have long known that, as Stevens said, “The greatest poverty is not to live / In a physical world” [End Page 38] (CPP 286), I come to this view belatedly and, oddly enough, only after years of reading Frost.4

Although Stevens likely did not mean the term “subject” to apply to human bodies in particular, that is precisely what he depicts in “Sunday Morning,” “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and, as I will explain, in “The Snow Man.” In those and other poems, Stevens depicts human subjects whose imaginative selves are as tangible as any hill wife, wall mender, birch swinger, or apple picker. Stevens’ poetry is chock-full of actual human bodies that include as part of their physicality the imagination itself. In short, the imagination is not a Platonic transcendent other beyond the physical but is rather, as contemporary neuroscience argues, part and parcel of the physical body, a manifestation of the brain. Read this way, Stevens’ poetry suddenly becomes densely peopled. In turn, having recognized Stevens’ physical imagination, one is better prepared to notice Stevensian moments of imagination in Frost’s earthy physicality. We can see this imaginative dimension, for instance, in the weird vision that concludes “The Black Cottage,” or in the descriptive language of “After Apple-Picking,” which I will focus on in this essay. Ultimately, this reading of the physicality of the imagination allows us to see that, when read together, Frost, no longer the bleak realist, and Stevens, no longer the joyous idealist, prove to be similarly against the clichés that so often frame how their work is read.5

For Frostians, the news that Stevens is neither a Platonist nor a decadent poet more interested in beauty than hard truths still needs to be accepted, as is indicated by the frequency with which the anecdote above gets cited. Stevensians, meanwhile, might be surprised...


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pp. 38-49
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