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  • Frost, Stevens, and Me
  • Rae Armantrout

AS IT HAPPENS, neither Wallace Stevens nor Robert Frost was important to me as a young poet. When I was growing up, my mother read me rhymed, metered poetry, which I loved, but by the time I was in high school, I had discovered the modernists and was remaking my ear inspired by the poems and precepts of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. I was fascinated by Emily Dickinson at that time but a bit put off by what I mistakenly thought of as her old-fashioned rhythms. I came to her later, in my late twenties. It took me even longer to begin to appreciate Stevens—but I did. Frost, I fear, will never be for me. Why? I seem to want something from poetry that Frost doesn’t wish to provide. I want poetry to shake up my world or at least the contents of my mind. (“Break on through to the other side” was the theme song of my young adulthood, for better or worse.) Frost appeals to a different impulse. When looking over a selection of his poems in order to begin this essay, I noticed a repeated theme—let’s call it the trope of not going in or not going far. “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” could be his theme song. In his poem by that title, it sounds as if he is looking down upon the shallow beachgoers who stare at the sea though “The land may vary more” and though “They cannot look out far. / They cannot look in deep. / But when was that ever a bar / To any watch they keep?” (CPPP 274). He appears to accuse the common holidaymaker of being hopelessly superficial. But it is he himself who thinks it best to stay out of the “lovely, dark and deep” woods (CPPP 207), not only in the famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” but also in the very similar “Come In,” in which the song of a thrush seemingly invites the poet to “come in / To the dark and lament. // But no, I was out for stars: / I would not come in” (CPPP 304). In both poems, Frost very definitely asserts that there will be no Keatsian swoons for him. He has business to attend to elsewhere. It’s a poetics of restraint, of getting-on-with-it, which lends itself (too?) easily to the status quo of the conformist midcentury. His easily recognized and understood forms are well suited to his themes.

I want to jump from Frost’s “Come In” to Stevens’ “Of Mere Being,” another poem “about” a bird and its song. In Stevens’ poem, there is no possible invitation from the bird and no possibility of going into the bird’s world, though we may end by feeling we have been taken there despite [End Page 100] the express impossibility of the journey. That is the paradox at the heart of the poem. Frost’s poem is about what he thinks it best not to do while Stevens’ is about what we humans can’t (or maybe covertly can) do. Thus it is more ambitious. (Though, of course, Frost is ambitious in a different way. He seems to propose his own decisions as an implicit template for the reader’s behavior.) As “Of Mere Being” begins, we are seeing what (logically) we should not be able to see: “The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought, rises / In the bronze decor. . . .” Since the palm is “Beyond the last thought,” our decision to approach it or not is moot. The “bronze decor” in which it rises may be either the sunset or (Byzantine) wrought metal, for all we know. We are being asked to imagine the world without ourselves in it. So this is another version of “The Snow Man,” one set in the tropics. It is in this impossible, all too possible tree that “A gold-feathered bird / Sings” a song “without human meaning” (CPP 476). This is somewhat reminiscent of Frost’s “Come In”—there too the bird sang a song that was finally not an invitation. In Frost’s...


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