In my opinion, if any American poet might rightfully be called Robert Frost’s heir, it was Jane Kenyon.  Not only because so many of her poems were rooted in rural New England, where she lived with her husband (and Poet Laureate of the United States) Donald Hall, but because Kenyon was acquainted with the melancholy underlying the commonplace activities of life.  Just as Frost could tinge apple-picking with something darker, Kenyon found a gentle sadness in the seasons, in the turning of the year and in the changing of the weather.

Kenyon struggled openly for much of her life with depression.  She has often been compared to Sylvia Plath for that reason, which I find unfortunate.  Not because I dislike Plath, because I don’t, but because I believe Kenyon matured beyond the self-pitying narcissism that became Plath’s hallmark.  If Plath had been braver, she might have gone on to write like Kenyon.  And to all of the adolescent literary girls who read The Bell Jar  and pine, pine, pine over Lady Lazarus and Daddy, I say (1) I used to be one of you; (2) cheer up! (3) read them, enjoy them; and (4) when you are ready to grow up some, read this:

Let Evening Come
 
Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.
 
Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.
 
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
 
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.
 
 To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.
 
 Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.
 
Jane Kenyon, “Let Evening Come” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon.
 

 

 

There are currently at least two schools of thought on Robert Frost.  There is the camp that treats Frost as though he is the FOREMOST AMERICAN POET OF ALL TIME.  That point of view, which held sway through a good deal of the twentieth century, is giving way to the camp that despises him as a hypocrite,  a shyster, a huckster, and overrated.

 

I personally fall somewhere in between.  Emily Dickinson and T. S. Eliot (yes, technically a Missourian; he adopted his droll RP in mid-life) were better, more important poets.  Matthew Arnold and Hart Crane have probably been more influential.  And the Beats were certainly cooler.

But for getting poetry into the hearts and minds of  people who don’t generally read poetry, you can’t beat Robert Frost.

Frost was, if anything, a master propagandist.  He came to represent the quintessential New Englander:  reserved, witty, dripping with common sense and the sort of bootstrapping hardy Americanism also exploited by Norman Rockwell.   His poems generally rhymed and were tailor-made for school room recitations.  And he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory at Kennedy’s inauguration, even though the sun’s glare that day prevented him from reading the poem he had specially composed for the occasion.

But anyone so well-loved in this country will inevitably be deconstructed, and whole books have been devoted to undermining the image Frost so carefully cultivated.  Various biographers have portrayed him as a cruel philanderer, an uninvolved,  un-loving  father, and,  according to Jeffrey Myers, a “mean old bastard.”  The cult of hatred for Robert Frost is, in literary circles, about as popular as his cult of personality is outside them.

Frost wrote prolifically, and although a great deal of his work was published, not all of it  is worth reading.   Fame can work against a writer; some things should not be rushed to print.   But poems like “Home  Burial”  and “After Apple  Picking” are sublime.  In my humble opinion, anyway.

In any event, if there is a poet to associate with Christmas, and particularly a New England, Currier and Ives sort of Christmas, it’s Frost.  Read carefully, though, these poems are not as greeting-card cheery as they initially  appear.  Enough has been written about the dark, suicide-y side of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  For this Monday Morning Hearsay instead, a  poem about the deceptiveness of worth.

Christmas Trees

(A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”

 


“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

“You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north.

 

                                                 He said, “A thousand.”

“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

 

 

Robert Frost, “Christmas Trees,” from The Poetry of Robert Frost (Edward Connery Lathem,  ed.) Henry Holt & Co.  (1969)

People are always quoting well-known lines from literature without having any clue what those lines actually mean.  Take the reference to lawyers in Shakespeare’s Henry VI.   My personal most-hated example is Robert Frost’s “good fences make good neighbors” from “Mending Wall.”  Plug the line into Google and you’ll pull up all sorts of blogs, articles, and honest to God journalism using the line as a springboard for property disputes, neighbor hatred, psychology, blah blah blah.  It’s irony, you fools.  The poem is a dialogue between TWO PEOPLE, one of whom is muttering about the pointlessness of the exercise. 

And poor old Thomas Stearns Eliot.  He gets abused endlessly, with Cats representing only the tip of the iceberg.  So, here we go.  It is April.  Someone’s always dragging out the “April is the cruellest month” line from  “The Waste Land.”   Type that into Google and you’ll get all sorts of crap about spring showers, the end of basketball season and, for me at least, an article on Chinese medicine and acupuncture. 

Now there are a lot of people much smarter than I am who devote themselves to studying Eliot, and I won’t venture to speak for them.  It isn’t an easy poem, and Eliot was a master of the oblique allusion.  But the opening lines of the poem are pretty clearly about the contemplation of mortality.  Why is April cruel?  Because during the spring nature births itself anew (“breeding/ lilacs  out of the dead land”), while we, who grow only older, do not.  We can hide from this reality during the winter, which “kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow ….”  But April confronts us with the evidence that the Earth will go on without us. 

The cycle of youth, fecundity and death is a theme of many of the world’s religions both ancient and modern.  The Egyptians had Isis, Osiris, and Horus; the Norse the story of Baldur; the Indo-Europeans and Mediterraneans their Mithras.  It is no accident that several of the world’s great modern religions celebrate high holidays in the springtime. 

The narrator of “The Waste Land” is Prufrock-like, a man in rumpled overcoat with trousers rolled, perhaps now seated on a park bench rather than strolling through half-deserted streets.  There is a gentleness there.  But when women do the telling, the story is often more sharp-edged.  Perhaps we, who in Welsh mythology were formed from flowers, are more resentful of the fresher petals.

35/10

Brushing out our daughter’s brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

35/10, Sharon Olds, from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)