Saturday, September 25, 2004

Robert Frost Outlaw Formalist

First let me say that I’m a big fan of Robert Frost’s poetry. Not just because of our common New England ties (I was born in Lawrence; he was raised there) or his ornery metaphysical take on things, but also his unique irregular voice. Much of it is in his way with meter. He’s for it. But, at least early in his career, he was more for the “sound of sense”, as he called it, the intonations in voice that almost by themselves reveal the content of the sentence spoken. This fascination indeed was controversial among the formalists of the day. Frost writes to John Cuornos in 1914:
My versification seems to bother people more than I should have expected—I suppose because I have been so long accustomed to thinking of it in my own private way. It is as simple as this: there are the very regular prestablished accent and measure of blank verse; and there are the very irregular accent and measure of speaking intonation. I am never more pleased than when I can get these into strained relation. I like to drag and break the intonation across the metre as waves first comb and then break stumbling on the shingle.
And that means everything to me right now. I have spent the past five years studying meter, and have tried to put that learning into practice until I feel that my writing in meter is now second nature to me. But I feel there’s something missing, and Frost of all American poets knew that. And that is writing meter in the American grain. That was his exploration, and in turn his great skill.

In some ways though Frost gets short shrift for this. The fact that the moderns turned to free verse is partially an explanation for it. But I also think the formalists became more doctrinaire in their versification and considered Frost’s ways just sloppy experiments with random anapests. He is appreciated by them despite this defect.

But it was not a defect but a central concept in his prosody. And so I am turning to his letters and essays this autumn to understand more clearly his theories. So be forewarned: I will be inviting Mr. Frost to guest blog over here from time to time. Like I did today.

And finally we come to the catalyst of this particular post. Gary Norris responded to today’s guest blogging by Frost in a most detailed fashion. But one in which veers in a different direction than my real concern. I think he reads much too much theory into the statement (and I won’t even touch upon the wrong-headed politics), and in doing so sets up some straw men, the most critical I suppose being that Frost asserted that “the sentence itself [is] as an empty structure… prior to the sounding of the sentence.”

Quite the opposite I believe. Frost thought the sound came first, and the structure only later (probably by English teachers with too much time on their hands). In fact I believe this was central to his argument. He disagreed with those who saw the sentence merely as some pre-existing structure to string on words. He heard sentence as sound, and more importantly as meaning. As he would suggest, just listen to what is said behind closed doors.


Unknown said...

As far as writing in the American grain, I do believe that W C Williams was leaps and bounds beyond Frost.

But I appreciate this post to help understand your perspective on Frost's sound of sense.

And I am not trying to strain your patience, but I happen to believe that in letters and literary arts, we do not have private concerns. The concerns belong to us. THIS is what so irks me about Frost. His claim to know is based on a private sense of sound that he wished to apply to all sentences with sound.

Either makes him a godlike genius--the keeper of sound--or a grade A grump.

grump mcgrump is my assessment. But his ideas about the sound of sense are worthwhile and fascinating.


Gary Norris said...

Addition to my last:

I want to insist that I understand Frost claims sound came before the sentence...but for it not to be a daft claim...i.e., "I'm hearing things again, honey, get me my journal, a poem's coming on."...then something is there prior to the sound, even if it is the sound itself, which it seems to me is what Frost uses to define his sentence. Circular.

Please come to Dagzine and see my quotes from Thoreau to hear where I am coming from.