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  • My Robert Frost
  • Maureen N. McLane

HE SEEMS ALWAYS to have been there, shapely, dark and deep, New Englandy, stanzaic and sententious, demotic and not.

Frost in Upstate New York: in tenth grade, we’re introduced to a clutch of anthologized poems—“Design,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (taught under the unfortunate rubric of “The Gold Unit”—ah, the curricular innovation of the 1980s); some e. e. cummings—“anyone lived in a pretty how town”; perhaps a poem by Stephen Crane.

What was a heal-all? a snow-drop? I didn’t know.

But what could not but thrill—the excruciated syntax and aphoristic force of the final couplet.

What but design of darkness to appall?— If design govern in a thing so small.

(CPPP 275)

Frost in Massachusetts: in college, in the Norton Anthology, read and illuminated by Professor Helen Vendler: “Design” again; “The Gift Outright”; “Birches”; “After Apple-Picking”; most likely, “The Death of the Hired Man.” Undone and redone in the light of Vendler’s powerfully generative intelligence, Frost lodges further in the mind, a darkly glinting shard that only appears companionable.

You can see from my freshman marginalia (fig. 1 and fig. 2) the dutiful impulse to annotate; the banal, botched notes I made (“frivolous vs. morbid”; “appearance vs. reality”); the attempts to gloss, to interpret. And “The Gift Outright”: an almost unsalvageably vexed poem. I unconsciously embraced its (white) national claims—viz. my marginalia, “England’s claim on us.” “Us”? “The land was ours before we were the land’s” (CPPP 316). What’s this we, white man? And yet— [End Page 105]

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[End Page 106]

“America Is Hard to See.” Some months ago, in early June 2016, I opened my partner’s copy of Frost’s last book, In the Clearing (1962). I recognize this poem’s title—the name of the exhibit inaugurating the new Whitney Museum (May 1–September 27, 2015). It seems right. Robert Frost, like Robert Lowell, strove to take the measure of this “America.” I prefer (perhaps predictably) “America Is Hard to See” to “The Gift Outright.” I prefer this later vision of historical irony and colonial consciousness. I prefer my Frost as a form of negative theology, not salvific teleological testament. I’d rather have occasionally bumptious rhymes and an uncertain tone than a knottily magisterial progress.

But “The Gift Outright,” as the poem the aged Frost famously recited from memory at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, is now indelibly a part, a small part, of national literary history. You don’t always get to choose your inheritances. This Frost also knew.

Frost in New Hampshire: I had not read Robert Frost since college, when in the summer of 2010 I found myself living for several weeks in Peter-borough, New Hampshire, at the MacDowell Colony, his complete works in the library. How wonderful to encounter the long weird funny poem “New Hampshire” in New Hampshire! Living a bit north of Boston, near carefully built rock walls, some persisting farms, small towns, birches, thrushes, and spider webs glinting in sunpatches in the woods, I thought it seemed the time and the place to re-read Frost.

For my Robert Frost has become a particular site in the mind and ear, one seeded and re-seeded by a limited yet powerful range of poems. While at MacDowell I read The Poetry of Robert Frost, the 1969 edition I think—a fascinating, exhilarating, at times dispiriting experience. Is it heresy to say that there is a lot of weak Frost, especially in the final books? Well, there is. There is also a boatload of weak Wordsworth. This does and does not matter.

Whatever I might have thought about Frost, if I ever had occasion to think about Frost, there he was, insinuating himself. For Frost had been reading me for decades, scraps and orts and fragments of his lines engraved in my mind, surfacing and recalling me to him, albeit anonymously, for years. Inner and outer weather. What but design of darkness to appall. Fire and ice. What to make of a diminished thing. Given my heart...


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pp. 105-112
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