Letter from America: Come in, to Robert Frost
By David Fedo
Several weeks ago, I was invited by my poet friend, Moira Ounjian, to read in a "Favorite Poem Project" Event (the project was founded by former US Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky), scheduled at a friendly and comfortable neighbouring bookstore north of Boston called Book Ends.
I sometimes avoid such gatherings people's choices in what they read can be repetitious and even a little boring but for some reason I turned to the work of a long-time favourite, Robert Frost, now 63 years after his death in 1963.
His works, especially the short lyrics, read well. Frost still remains the best-known American poet who ever lived (perhaps rivalled only by Walt Whitman). Among my favourites, I chose to read Frost's remarkable poem, 'Come In'.
I've always loved this poem, with its graceful melodic lines and its five carefully-crafted stanzas, and had even memorised it years ago. It was first published in A Witness Tree, a 1942 collection which won for Frost one of his four celebrated Pulitzer Prizes.
Here is the poem in its entirety:
In a number of ways, the poem is typical of Frost, who is regarded by many as the quintessential introspective poet of the New England woods, rolling hills and farms all things pastoral. But for anyone who has really read deeply of Frost's poems think 'Acquainted with the Night', 'Fire and Ice', 'Nothing Gold Can Stay', 'Mending Wall' and especially the famous 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' there is something chillier and darker in Frost's works than one might have expected from the allegedly genial observer of the Vermont and New Hampshire landscapes and hardy natives.
One online commentator, Andrew Hoellering, in commenting on 'Come In', rightfully suggests that "Frost's best poems carry their own inner music." That music is often driven by a brooding melancholy, or more. Joshua Rothman, writing in The New Yorker (January 29, 2013), agrees with the famed critic Lionel Trilling, who claims that Frost's best work is often "terrifying". He also agrees with the poet and critic Joseph Brodsky, asserting that 'Come In' "sounds like an affirming, resolute poem: walking in the woods [the poet] feels a shiver, then walks on. But don't believe these final lines, Joseph Brodsky tells us, with their 'jocular vehemence.'"
Rothman (with Brodsky's help) continues:
Is this analysis going too far? I think not, although the listeners at my reading, though sufficiently attentive, still might not have caught all of this.
Nevertheless, I admire the way 'Come In' sneaks up on you the darkness quickly overtaking the dusk, the unseen thrush singing for one last time, and the eeriness of the poet/walker feeling deterred from what? Is it man's mysterious (and now broken) link with the natural world, or is it something deeper, like loneliness, or even, as Brodsky suggests, death? Is this the poet's "lament"? The thrush cannot tell us; it will soon be asleep. The poet/walker, ostensibly out for stars and feeling rebuffed, is left standing alone in the night.
This brief poem has similarities to the tone of Frost's short 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening', his most famous poem (some American children in fancy schools may still be asked to memorise it). The last four dream-like lines of the fourth and final stanza of 'Stopping by Woods' are as follows:
Here the poet/rider, headed through wintry woods on the "darkest evening of the year", contemplates his journey but to where? Even his horse is confused when the rider stops for no apparent reason:
What's going on? Once asked this question, Frost answered, perhaps facetiously, that "it's all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home." Of course, he was notorious about not publicly attaching "meanings" to his verse, and thus Reginald Cook, in American Literature (March, 1956), argues against the poet's glib remark, claiming that "no true reader leaves the discussion there". Cook reminds us that Frost himself once said that "Everything is hinting." I'll leave it at that.
As it turned out, the Book Ends readings were a delight, with a variety of good poems, some famous and some not, ranging from Dante (first in the Italian, then in English), to Shelley, to Yeats and then Robert Burns, among others. I was the lone representative, among 16 readers and guests, of the Robert Frost canon. It was a good night.
Now a note that is far from poetry.
At the time of this writing (in mid-to-late April), Donald Trump, the surprising and leading Republican candidate for the US President, had just crushed rival Ted Cruz in the New York primary election. This victory almost makes Trump unassailable in his march toward the Party's nomination this summer in Cleveland, leaving many Americans like me asking: How can this be?
At the same time, Hillary Clinton, experienced and capable, seems almost certain to be the nominee for the Democrats, which could make the upcoming elections in November very, very interesting. Good for Hillary!
But what will the voters say in seven months? Stay tuned.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 2 Apr 2016