(Re)discovering an American Icon

I’ve been loitering somewhere in the middle of The Road Not Taken: A Selection of Robert Frost’s Poems for a solid chunk of time now. Part of that creeping pace rests upon the fact that I want to give every poem its due, instead of just devouring page after page in an effort to be finished with the thing– but I’ll also admit that I’m often not in the mood for interaction with scenes and attitudes that might only still exist in a few living memories. That second explanation, on its own, really shouldn’t make any sense, especially given the fact that so much of what I love reading encapsulates times, places, and assumptions that are out of fashion, out of reach, and often, the product of an age so far gone that its practices almost seem inhuman.

But in this case, the foreignness is probably also combined with the feeling that I’m reading this volume more out of a duty to lessen my ignorance than anything else. Oh sure, I grew up hearing my mom randomly break into recitations of “The Pasture” and “The Road Not Taken,” and by now, the line from “Mending Wall,” “Good fences make good neighbors,” has found its way into at least a portion of the aphorism-quoting public. But I never really went any deeper than that, and any time I’d hear some MFA student blow off Frost with an eye-roll and a dismissive wave of the hand, I didn’t even know enough about his work to take up any sort of position vis-à-vis this posturing.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

And so, here I am, gradually reading vignettes of New England life from the last century, and finding that, yes, this is a world I can’t recognize– but also that the description of this world is sometimes striking in its insight, sometimes even deliciously eerie. And although the stereotyped gentle wife makes her appearance every now and then, there are also times when Frost gets couples’ hesitant discomfort with each other, that willingness to tiptoe around our own emotional needs to keep someone else happy, or a situation balanced– a ceremony the poet also knows eventually will be transformed or come crashing down when one person or the other lets out some sort of truth.

I’m finding that in general, then, it’s not the poems so much that are sentimental, but a habitual willingness to see them as such– in this instance, evidenced in Louis Untermeyer’s commentary, which, in spite of its apparent protestations to the contrary, seems all too ready to give three cheers for a mythologized New England stolidity and its good old characters we love to talk about but really treat, from the height of our literary sophistication, in a bemused and slightly patronizing fashion. (This particular commentary also seems to be a product of its time.) It may or may not make any sense for me to speculate that Untermeyer probabaly loved Sarah Orne Jewett’s stuff, but that’s a question for another time, and for someone who knows much more about the man and his work than I do.

At any rate, I’m involved enough to see this book through to the end, but don’t expect me to reach that point any time soon. And in case you’re wondering, the next time someone gives a quick dismissal of this poet, I’ll be willing to step in and offer a few rounds of “Yes, but…”

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