Thursday, October 07, 2004

Robert Frost vs. Stephen Dobyns

In this month’s Poetry, Stephen Dobyns explains his antagonism towards Robert Frost: melodrama, sentimentality, and something about an eight-five year old Frost seeming to be all persona (as opposed to all deada I assume). But the problem he really has with the poet is Frost’s unconscious and his accompanying inability to understand its psychological implications, that all this fear and loathing was just a projection of his own paranoia and abusive nature.

But I believe Frost was well-acquainted with his own paranoia and nature. Moreover, he was well aware that a poet’s methods spoke to one's character, one's own psychology so to speak. In a 1924 letter to Louis Untermeyer, Frost wrote:
Since last I saw you I have come to the conclusion that style in prose or verse is that which indicates how the writer takes himself and what he is saying. (snip) Some fair to good writers have no style and so leave us ignorant of how they take themselves. But that is the one important thing to know: because on it depends our likes and dislikes. (snip) His style is the way he carries himself toward his ideas and deeds.

I saw Dobyns read in Harvard Square almost ten years ago. I very much enjoyed his poems. I even bought a copy of his book of selected poetry back then, and have his signature to boot. He had an easygoing manner and I took him for a quasi-satirist in his poetry.

There’s a wicked sense of dark humor that runs through his better work, as in Tomatoes, when he describes the murder of a woman: “Bang, she's dead,” and the son who couldn’t identify her body from nine others in the morgue because of the plastic surgery she had just before her murder so he takes all ten women, cremates them, and keeps the ashes in a garbage can.

But Frost spoke to such humor in poetry in that same letter.
I own any form of humor shows fear and inferiority. Irony is simply a kind of guardedness. So is a twinkle. It keeps the reader from criticism. (snip) At bottom the world isn't a joke. We only joke about it to avoid an issue with someone to let someone know that we know he's there with his questions: to disarm him by seeming to have heard and done justice to his side of the standing argument. Humor is the most engaging cowardice.

I don’t doubt at all there is something psychological going on here. I guess Frost would say that Dobyns is full of fear and that any such a man would be troubled reading him. I’m not sure if that’s the case (although I thought it appropriate to give Frost some say), but I do know that I can barely sit these early October nights and read Frost's words, knowing what darkness is soon to befall when "comes that other fall we name the fall."

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