- A Violence from Within and Without in the Poetry of Stevens and Frost
THE OSTENSIBLE ENMITY between Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost has occasioned much commentary. Divergent in diction and aesthetics, and possessed of temperaments ill-suited to personal or intellectual commerce, these two towering figures in modern American poetry, so the conventional story goes, cared little for each other and even less for each other’s poetry. Yet it is worth noting that the most frequently cited source of their purported animosity traces back to a single exchange between the two men in 1940. Sharing dinner one night in the Casa Marina Hotel in Key West, the two poets commenced a spirited flyting:
“The trouble with you, Robert, is that you’re too academic,” said Stevens. “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you’re too executive,” retorted Frost. “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about—subjects.” “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about— bric-a-brac.”(Thompson and Winnick 61)
Although this exchange has become legendary in the Stevens/Frost mythology, according to Lawrance Thompson, Frost’s official biographer who was then accompanying his subject on a winter vacation, the two poets were simply playfully extending a conversation that had begun in the Casa Marina Hotel five years earlier (665–66). Consorting with Stevens’ riotous, lascivious friend Judge Arthur Gray Powell, Frost and Stevens had spent an evening together and talked about poetry well into the small hours, with Stevens getting so drunk he couldn’t remember the next morning the substance of their conversation. Frost provided a few clues about its content when he wrote to Stevens on July 28, 1935. Apparently making amends for impugning in public Stevens’ boorish, “lecherous” behavior that evening, Frost also suggested that he recognized some clear affinities in their poetry: [End Page 74]
It relieves me to know that you haven’t minded my public levity about our great talk in Key West. I’m never so serious as when playful. I was in a better condition than you to appreciate that talk. I shall treasure the memory of it. Take it from me there was no conflict at all, but the prettiest kind of stand-off. You and I and the judge found we liked one another, I think. And you and I really like each other’s works. At least down underneath I suspect we do. We should. We must. If I’m somewhat academic (I’m more agricultural) and you are somewhat executive, so much the better: it is so we are saved from being literary and deployers of words derived from words.(qtd. in Parini 292)
Although Frost had earlier opined in a letter to Louis Untermeyer on November 11, 1915, that he didn’t appreciate Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier” because its tonal inconsistencies “purport[ed] to make [him] think” (Letters 386), Frost’s admission that he liked both Stevens and his poetry contradicts the standard accounts of mutual animosity. Frost’s recognition that Stevens was deeply original—a poet who refused to deploy “words derived from words”—suggests that Frost admired his contemporary whose vocation as an executive had insulated him from the sentimental poetic conventions of the recent past and thus enabled a non-“literary” language appropriate to the pressures of modernity. Despite Frost’s acknowledgement that each of them approached his subjects from divergent experiences—the “agricultural” and the “executive”—the discrepancies in their styles seems not to have troubled him. Their pretty “stand-off” aside, Frost ultimately did not find much conflict between them.
The more likely probability is that Frost, having read Stevens’ verse in little magazines and William Stanley Braithwaite’s anthologies, saw a great deal of similarity between Stevens’ poetry and his own from North of Boston forward. In light of the fact that both poets had shaped their aesthetic and epistemological perceptions in Harvard’s philosophy department, such artistic convergences would have been readily apparent to Frost. One of the most confounding problems modernity posed for them was how to preserve the ontological integrity of the imagination while simultaneously accepting the deterministic conditions of physical law and its...