Saturday, October 04, 2014

`Moved from Its Old Place, Heightened, Made'

“We value the seeing eye already. Time we said something about the hearing ear—the ear that calls up vivid sentence forms.” 

That’s Robert Frost in December 1914, writing to Sidney Cox, the critic and long-time professor of English at Dartmouth, who published two books about Frost (The Letters of Robert Frost, Vol. I, 1886-1920, 2014). Earlier that year, Frost had published his second poetry collection, North of Boston, in England. Like a boy whistling in the dark, the poet is steeling himself. He wants very much to believe what he’s saying, and soon enough he will. He goes on: 

“We write of things we see and we write in accents we hear. Thus we gather both our material and our technique with the imagination from life: and our technique becomes as much material as material itself.” 

The late Peter Viereck wrote that Frost “seems easier than he really is.” He never sucks up to the avant-garde and its camp followers, but likewise eschews greeting-card sentimentality, though the former have often accused him of the latter. They become, Viereck says, “almost resentful when they can find no double-crostics to solve. Frost’s cheerfulness is often mistaken as smug, folksy, Rotarian.” As a master-craftsman, and more than almost any other twentieth-century poet, his sense is embedded seamlessly in his sound. He tells Cox: 

“You aren’t influenced by the Beauty is Truth claptrap. In poetry and under emotion every word used is `moved’ a little or much—moved from its old place, heightened, made, made new. See what Keats did to the word `alien’ in the ode. [See the seventh stanza, seventh line, of “Ode to a Nightingale.”] But as he made it special in that place he made it his—and his only in that place. He could never have used it again with just that turn.”     

Frost does something comparable in a poem he was writing around this time, “The Oven Bird”: “And comes that other fall we name the fall.” Never have familiar words, seemingly blanched of meaning, been so rehabilitated, and what poet would dare to do it again? The day I started reading Frost’s letters I also read Terry Teachout’s Confessions of an Aesthete” in Commentary:at other fall we name the fall.

“When making art or writing about it, the aesthete tries never to moralize. Nor will he look with favor upon artists who do so, no matter whether their particular brand of moralizing is religious or secular. But he can and must be fully, intensely alive to the moral force of art whose creators aspire merely to make the world around us more beautiful, and in so doing to pierce the veil of the visible and give us a glimpse of the permanently true. That is his job: to help make sense of the pandemonium amid which we live.”

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