Books: Pawky Poet

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On the Vermont hills about Ripton, the red fires of autumn smoldered on the swamp maples and sumac, crept inward from branch tips, inched downward into the valley where the river brawls through the gorge. From a slab-wood cabin with its back set firmly against the valley's shoulder, cooking his own meals and dependent on no man, 76-year-old Poet Robert Frost last week faced the world. It is the vantage point he likes best.

His Vermont neighbors take no special notice of the heavy-set man with the big head of unkempt white hair. Occasionally they meet him on a back-country road, trudging along with an oddly catlike grace, wearing an old blue denim jacket and blue sneakers. They recognize the heavy, big-knuckled hand shaped to axhelve and pitchfork, the heavy shoulders hunched to the swing of a scythe. Vermonters find nothing outlandish or alarming about Robert Frost.

Neither do U.S. readers, to most of whom the word "poet" still carries a faint suggestion of pale hands, purple passions and flowing ties. They understand what he writes—or understand enough of it to like what they understand. They find his dialogue poems as invigorating as a good argument, his lyrics as engaging, sometimes as magical, as Mother Goose. In a literary age so preoccupied with self-expression that it sometimes seems intent on making the reader feel stupid, Robert Frost has won him by treating him as an equal.

In short, Robert Frost is a popular poet. He has won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times, has been showered with degrees and honors. In the U.S. his books have sold about 375,000 copies in all editions. Does that mean that he must be damned as a second-rate one? Says Frost philosophically: "Who knows what will survive? The limit of my ambition is to lodge a few pebbles where they will be hard to get rid of."

Of living U.S. poets, none has lodged poems more surely where they will be hard to get rid of. At its best, Frost's crabapple-tart verse distills into the pure liquor of lyric poetry. Stopping by Woods is one of the loveliest poems ever written. Every U.S. schoolboy knows Birches. His lines carry the tone and temper of New England's dour and canny folk, often have the tren chancy and inevitability of folk sayings. Frost has made "good fences make good neighbors"* part of the language. Chores are "doing things over and over that just won't stay done"; home is "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

But Frost is a poet with few disciples. Today's bright young men look to the intricate, mannered, literary methods of T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden for their models. They grudgingly admire Frost as a kind of 19th Century relic, resent his commanding popularity, and smart under the reproach: "If Frost can make himself intelligible, why can't you?"

The Road Less Traveled By. Robert Frost, a rugged individual from New England, is used to the road less traveled by; it was the road he picked for himself. Scrubbing his white hair with a thick hand and glaring amiably from fierce blue eyes, he says: "I want people to stand me off and I want to stand them off."

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